Recently Bangladesh Itihas Sammilani (BIS), an organisation of history practitioners, held the first ever two-day international public lecture series and conference on “Religion and Politics: South Asia” on October 4-5 in Dhaka. BIS convener, Prof Muntassir Mamoon, chaired the event. Eminent historians from South Asian countries, including host Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, attended the conference. With Bangladesh going to polls next year, this issue is hotly debated in the country.
The conference found its basis in the concern regarding the increasing use of religion in electoral politics by political entities in South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, a phenomenon which generally peaks ahead of national elections. Religion-based politics is seen to challenge democratic institutions even as society gets polarised on communal lines and development issues take a back seat. Growing focus on religious identity was identified as one of the prime drivers of this trend.
Former Jamia Milia Islamia University vice chancellor, Prof Mushirul Hasan, presented a keynote paper at the event and remarked “Our constitution is secular, no doubt, but the society is not.” Tariq Rahman, dean of the School of Education, Beacon House, National University, Pakistan, reflected on the growing trend of Islamisation in Pakistan. Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, the chief guest at the event, hailed the role of Bangladesh in pioneering secularism as a state policy in South Asia.
“Bangladesh was the first South Asian country to introduce secularism, as one of the four founding pillars of its 1972 constitution….We must cherish the spirit of non-communalism to lead Bangladesh ahead,” she said.
As a nation, Bangladesh’s determination to uphold secularism since its independence, starting with the ban on religion-based political parties by the then provisional government, is a stellar example for other nations to take note. The ban was retained in the Bangladeshi Constitution that came into effect on December 1972. In a retrograde move in 1977, the Constitution was revised to assert “absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah [as] the basis of all actions” (same was ratified under the fifth amendment to the Constitution). Later, in June 1988, a further constitutional amendment made Islam the state religion. The Fifth Amendment to the Bangladesh Constitution was struck down in 2010. However, Islam practiced by about 90 percent of Bangladeshis, remains the state religion.
The rise of Islamism in the past 30 years in Bangladesh has influenced the political discourse and agenda, and, to a certain extent, social behaviour. In March this year internal disturbances saw hundreds of Hindu shrines and homes being burnt down. Hindus now accounts for less than 10 percent of the population, compared to 15 percent in 1975.
Bangladeshi Prime Minster Sheikh Hasina has attempted to rally her country’s moderate majority behind a secular vision of Bangladesh. This vision was showcased most vividly early this year during the ‘Shahbag movement’, a spontaneous gathering in Dhaka of thousands of students and ordinary people who rallied to demand the death penalty for a convicted Jamaat-e-Islami leader who had been let off with a life sentence by the court.
A discussion on religion-based politics, in most cases, including that of Bangladesh, would be incomplete without factoring in the aspect of religious extremism and the use of terror for political gains. Further, the issue of religion in politics is complex, as it is inextricably entwined within the functioning of the society and ultimately the mind of the electorate. A black-and-white treatment of the issue would not be inclusive as the dynamics of interaction between religious organisations and political parties can take various direct as well as indirect forms beyond the mere fielding of religion-based parties in electoral politics.
Post-poll alliances and formation of coalition governments between mainstream political parties and religion-based ones with secured mandate (seats) is a simple and direct interaction and has manifested in Bangladesh politics for few decades now. Jamaat-e-Islami, the main religion-based political party, entered electoral politics in the 1980s, taking advantage of the loophole in legislation provided by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Since then it has gone on to make tactical alliances with each major political actor in the country. It participated in the1986 parliamentary election with the Awami League (AL). In 1990, the Jamaat joined the AL, BNP and the leftists in an urban uprising that toppled the Ershad regime. In 1991, BNP formed a government with the Jamaat’s support but, by the mid-1990s, Jamaat had linked up with the AL to protest against the BNP government.
Jamaat-e-Islami reconciled with BNP ahead of the 2001 parliamentary election and the electoral alliance governed Bangladesh for next five years. In the BNP-led government, the Jamaat demanded the social welfare ministry which was responsible for the country’s massive NGO sector and socio-cultural organizations throughout the country
Another phenomenon associated with religion-based parties is the hiving off of the hard line elements to form a separate group by design or as an unintended outcome. Further the hardline entity may retain covert or covert association with the ‘mother’ party. The extremist group, Purba Banglar Communist Party (PBCP), was the breakaway group of the Bangladesh Communist Party, while many members of the Islamist terror groups, Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), were invariably found to be cadres of the Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Linkages with the Jamaat-e-Islami and the fact that it formed part of the BNP-led government helped JMB and JMJB not only to flourish unhindered but also brought relief from the intermittent action by the law enforcement agencies. The JMJB, in public space though, continued to be extremely critical of the Jamaat on account of latter’s participation in Bangladeshi politics.
The political waters can also be stirred by conflicts based on ideology or simply control of territory between breakaway factions. For example the JMJB, which favored the Taliban ideals, fought with left-wing extremist groups, primarily the PBCP, to rid the northwestern region of the country from their influence.
A religious group with no political ambitions may influence the political sphere in the short term when it finds common ground with a religion-based political party; as was the case between the Jaamat and Hefajat-e-Islam during the Shahbag movement. This resulted in an one-off attack on May 5, 2013, when Hefajat arranged a siege and rally at Dhaka in the demand of their 13-points. At least 4 people were killed during their violent protest. They attacked the Communist Party of Bangladesh’s office at Motijheel and burnt it. Though it was suspected that Jaamat may have instigated this attack, Hefajat has received support from the BNP and the Jatiyo Party for its rallies. Hefajat-e-Islam was formed in January 2010, in opposition to plans to give women the same rights of inheritance as men. It is led by Shah Ahmad Shafi who had been quoted as saying: “Above all, do not imagine we are interested in politics, our aims are noble and exclusively religious.”
There is a thought process with regards to Jaamat that Bangladesh would be much better off in having a “mildly Islamist” party engaged in electoral politics than banning it from politics, and Jaamat, in turn, ends up leading a consortium of militant groups. However the Shahbag movement has made any government overture to ‘moderate’ Jamaat leaders in this regard less likely, even though a revamped Jamaat would draw votes away from the BNP and benefit the AL.
India would be concerned with the issue on two counts: firstly in absence of any credible external threat, the bogey of Indian domination is raised by most religion-based parties in Bangladesh to justify their hawkish positions. Secondly, the popularity of Narendra Modi is being portrayed as an indication of rising Hindu nationalism in India and a threat to Bangladeshi interests in the near future.
(Monish Gulati is Senior Research Follow, Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at [email protected]
This article was published at the South Asia Monitor and reprinted with permission.