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OP-ED: Secularism goes beyond what’s written in the constitution

  • Published at 07:39 pm June 12th, 2021

It comes down to what citizens feel and perceive

Secularism is one of the pillars of our constitution in Bangladesh. Around the world, its nature and perception may undergo modifications based on the popular views and policies pursued in a country over a period of time.

While in India in 2006, I noticed in Delhi that masjids were not allowed to disseminate the azan using mics, whereas mandirs in the same locality were spreading bhajans morning and evening.

There is a popular saying which many Indians cherish: “Sabi dharme somo bhabana” meaning equal consideration for all religions. When this dichotomy was pointed out to an Indian friend of mine, he was much embarrassed and opined that India as a state was secular beyond any shade of doubt. There were no restrictions from the government as such. The masjids could very well do it if they wanted to, but again there was the minority factor, because of which they might choose not to.

I talked to an imam of a masjid close to the iconic India Gate in the heart of Delhi, and came to learn that they were actually not permitted to propagate azan using mics.

In contrast, in Bangladesh we find a Buddhist temple propagating praises for the Lord Buddha using a mic just a short distance away from a masjid without any interference. 

An army officer from Bangladesh went to Turkey to attend a course back in the late 90s. As he was arranging his books and belongings, he was pointed out for having a copy of his Qur’an and was advised to hide it somewhere by his Turkish sponsor. The Bangladeshi officer’s wife was not allowed to enter a garrison with her scarf on.

The most disturbing was a recent decision in Sri Lanka where in view of death due to Covid-19, the bodies of Muslims were cremated. The families were not allowed to bury their dead, and were even compelled to bear the expenses of cremation. 

In a school in Bangladesh, the morning assembly starts with recitations from students’ holy books -- the Qur’an, Gita, and Bible. Will we consider this act secular? Or would we demand that no such recitations take place at all? 

There are good examples where the prime ministers of countries like Canada send out special messages for the Muslim community on the eve of Ramadan or Eid. Contrastingly, in India -- having the largest Muslim population outside Muslim majority countries in the world -- we don’t see similar reciprocation by their leaders.

Nobel Laureate Prof Amartya Sen said the idea of secularism that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman held is that people will have the freedom to practise religions, but its political use will be prevented -- which is quite different from the Western concept of secularism that speaks against religion.

In his epoch-making speech on March 7, 1971, Bangabandhu declared: “Since we have given blood, we will give more of it. But we will free the people of this land, In Shaa Allah!” He had defined secularism in clear terms and made sure that by secularism he didn’t mean anti-religiosity.

Bangabandhu’s articulation of words here is significant. He said “In Shaa Allah,” meaning Allah willing. He could have used a secular expression such as “If the almighty would so desire.” He uttered what he believed without any attempt to hide anything and without any effort to sound more secular than he was. He was unambiguous in declaring his undaunted desire, without compromising his faith, practice, intrinsic culture, and tradition.

But he knew for sure his dream was a nation where people would not be discriminated against based on their faith; rather, they would be at ease practising the faith they valued.

France has put a ban on wearing head scarves, as it manifests a particular religious symbol. Can we think of a country where wearing Sikh turbans, vermilion marks on the forehead signifying a married Hindu woman, saffron attire, or sandalwood paste on the forehead is to be banned? This definitely would amount to discrimination on faith-based practice.

The Indian Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 has antagonized millions of Muslims, as it clearly discriminates based on individual faith. Even people who were never bothered about their religious identity have been highly disturbed by it.

The famous film personality, Nasir Uddin Shah, very rightly expressed his disgust and anguish about this. In his 72 years of life, he never seriously thought of his Muslim identity, which hardly bothered him.

But in view of the CAA, he had now been bluntly reminded that he was a Muslim, and he was in dire need to prove that he was an Indian. His passport, tax payment papers, driving license, etc were not good enough; he needed a birth certificate, which he didn’t have, nor was it possible to procure one.

Hence, beyond whatever has been inscribed in the constitution of a country, it is more important how the citizens perceive things and how their government behaves, for the government to earn the actual credentials within a society -- secular or not so secular.

Brig Gen Qazi Abidus Samad, ndc, psc (Retd) is a freelance contributor. Email: [email protected]

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