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Do we need a ministry for religious minorities?

  • Published at 12:00 am December 20th, 2018

The constitution respects all religions equally. This is the first part of a two-part of op-ed

Bangladesh is a multi-religious country where the Muslim population is officially estimated at around 90.5%, Hindus 8.5%, followed by Buddhists at 0.6%, Christians 0.3%, and others 0.1%. The constitution protects the equal status of all religions, ensures equal rights of every citizen irrespective of their religious identity, affirms secularism to ensure non-discrimination on the basis of religion, and ensures freedom to practice any religion. 

The bitter experience under the disguise of religion during the partition of the subcontinent, the regime of Pakistan, and finally in the Liberation War of 1971, encouraged constitution makers and the people of Bangladesh to stay firm with principles of secularism and freedom of religion. 

Maulana Abdur Rashid Tarkabagish on October 30, 1972 gave his observations on secularism in the “Parishad Bitorko” and stated that under the name of Islam, the barbaric Pakistani soldiers mercilessly killed Bengalis on March 25, 1971.

He narrated that the Pakistani army propagated that they did all the atrocities to save Islam from the hands of Hindus and the Pakistani rulers misused Islam to fulfill their agenda.

He argued that no one can disregard the 1972 Constitution since it reflects the view of 90% of the population. Under the constitution, the way Muslims have the right to practice religion, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians shall have the right to practice their own religion, and other rights related to it shall not be compromised.

In the assembly debate, then Law Minister Kamal Hossain said that the constitution aims at abolishing all types of religious communalism, and he assured that there will be no religion-based political parties in Bangladesh.

After the brutal killing of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, to gain political and constitutional legitimacy, the military rulers amended the 1972 constitution -- including redefining the state principles, eliminating secularism, identifying the citizens as Bangladeshi as opposed to Bengali. 

To establish military-theocratic hegemony, the rulers motivated the citizens that their root is based on religious identity, as opposed to Bengali identity, which represents Bengali culture as the principal social marker. 

Article 38, of the first constitution, which prohibited the formation of religion-based political parties, was deleted and, consequently, political parties like Jamat-e-Islami Bangladesh revived in the polity. 

In 2005, the High Court of Bangladesh declared the 5th amendment of the constitution and the martial law regulations issued between 1975-1979 illegal. 

Finally, in 2011, during the regime of Awami League government, secularism and related principles were reintroduced through the 15th amendment of the constitution.

In many countries in the West, secularism means separation of religion from the state, however, secularism in the context of Bangladesh implies that all religions are to be treated equally.

The constitution recognizes all religions equally, does not designate minority status to any religious community (religious minorities are minorities on the basis of a number and not by religious status) while granting equality and freedom of religion to all citizens. 

Secularism (religious neutrality) in Bangladesh does not mean the banishment of religion from public life, rather an equal opportunity for all religions for state patronage and participation in public affairs. 

Article 2A of the constitution declares Islam as the state religion, though it adds that the state shall ensure equal respect and equal rights in the practice of Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and other religions. 

Which means states shall ensure equal respect and rights in the practice of religions like Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions. 

The ceremonial reference of Islam as the state religion is a mere constitutional courtesy and recognition of the majority religion.

The state does not practice religious hierarchy and Bangladesh is historically a society that does not place emphasis on distinctions, as evidenced by the caste system that dictates nearly every aspect of life for a Hindu in India. 

The concluding part of this article will be published tomorrow.

Farzana Mahmood is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.