Democracy and Bangladesh

A. Rahman
Published : 20 Oct 2013, 06:30 AM
Updated : 20 Oct 2013, 06:30 AM

Bangladesh is now without doubt at a crossroad — all roads ahead are bumpy and the visibility is very low. Faced with such an uncertain future, the nation is understandably very apprehensive, almost on a tenterhook. This traumatic situation has arisen not out of any inherent flaw on the part of the people but because of abject failures of the political leaders whose singular interest is to have personal benefits by acquiring power or clinging on to power by hook or by crook. These leaders came to power, in the first place, not by their outstanding contributions to the well-being of the nation but at the back of public sympathy for some unfortunate incidences involving their immediate family members in the past. These leaders are now tightening their grip on the nation to such an extent that the nation is in mortal danger of being strangulated.

Bangladesh came into being as the 'People's Republic of Bangladesh' with the fundamental principles, as prescribed in the constitution, being nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularity. Democracy offered the political anchor and secularism gave the theological basis. For the first few years (until 1975) democracy somehow limped along under the stewardship of the 'father of the nation', Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, although it sustained grievous bodily harm. The mauling of democracy in those days was either ignored or tolerated by the well-meaning public due to overwhelming support and respect the 'father of the nation' commanded so soon after the independence of the country. Secularism was never given a fair chance to operate.

However, the support that Sheikh Mujib enjoyed at that time, or more appropriately the lack of any serious dissenting voice, had been misinterpreted as his invincibility which led him to flout the fundamental principles of democracy and ignore constitutional constraints. He decided to ditch multi-party democratic system in favour of one-party (BAKSHAL) autocratic system. It was claimed that he was forced into taking that unconstitutional step when he observed the country was bereft with corruption, cronyism and chaos and, above all, the country was in the grip of the severest famine since the one in 1940s. The twin curse of corruption and incompetence of the administration had made democracy a scapegoat! The traumatic situation (corruption, famine, breakdown of law and order etc.) in the country coupled with the blatant destruction of democratic rights culminated in the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Whatever vestiges of democracy Sheikh Mujib managed to uphold and then threatened to remove by setting up of the one-party system in the country had been brutally terminated by the events following his assassination. After a short period of political turbulence, General Ziaur Rahman, chief of the Army, took over the reign of the country after a military coup d'état. General Zia decided to amend Article 38 (which previously prohibited religion based politics and banned religious parties such as Jamaat-e-Islam and other parties) and allowed religion and politics to intermix. He removed the word 'secularism' from the constitution and incorporated 'to place full faith in Almighty Allah'. He also inserted a new clause in Article 25(2) under the heading 'Islamic Solidarity' which allowed fraternity with Muslim countries. All these amendments opened the floodgate for religious parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamaat ul Mujahidean of Bangladesh (JMB) and so forth to get into the mainstream national politics. Those people who opposed the national liberation and participated actively with Pakistanis in the massacre of Bangladeshis only a few years back then became mainstream politicians. General Zia utilised these newly emergent religious-political parties to consolidate and expand his political base and founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 1978. This is the beginning of Islamisation of politics, which deviated considerably from the secular democratic provision envisaged in the original constitution. After the brutal assassination of General Zia in 1981 by his political opponents, there was a short lull in the Islamisation process. But when General Ershad took over the realm of the country in a bloodless coup d'état in 1983, he carried out Islamisation further with enthusiasm. He made 'Islam as the state religion' by the eighth amendment of the constitution in June 1988 and thereby completing the total abrogation of 'secularism' from the constitution.

'Islamic Solidarity' provision allowed Muslim countries, particularly rich Muslim countries, to legally establish religious base within the country. The opportunity for Saudi Arabia to indoctrinate poor Bangladeshi people to Wahhabism was too good to miss. Money started flooding in from Middle East Muslim countries for mosques, madrassas, Ibn-Sina schools, Islamic Foundations, Ibn-Sina hospital, Ibn-Sina bank and so forth. Two types of madrassas – alia madrassa and quomi madrassa – had been set up mainly with foreign money. The logistic support for this Islamic infiltration and the political machination started to come from Pakistan. All those things were happening when the military rulers of the country were overtly sympathetic to Islamisation of the country and when they remained absorbed in personal financial gains and empire building.

Although democratic rule was established in the 1990s, the trend of Islamisation of the country continued unabated. The tentacles of Islamic policies through Jamaat and other parties became so widespread that even the previous 'secular' Awami League (AL) could not afford to ignore them. The 1996 election was won by the AL in coalition with Ershad's Nationalist Party and thereby giving Islam a stake in the running of the country. When in 2001 BNP came to power, again with Ershad's Nationalist Party as a coalition partner, Islamic root was firmly embedded. The fledgling madrassa system at that time then flourished into a giant educational system with 19,000 madrassas in operation with nearly 10 million attendees! These madrassa are now churning out millions of semi-literate students who know almost nothing other than recital of Quran (without understanding anything) and memorising verses from it. These students with the support of national and international donors started to organise political or political-religious parties. The end result was that secularism became a despised word, almost synonymous to atheism, in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. Thus secularism took leave from the national politics.

Thus politics and religion in Bangladesh have now become so much enmeshed that the so-called Political Islam has become an ubiquitous term in the vocabulary of the political pundits of the country. However, this contrived term does not carry a clear and succinct meaning defining whether politics has been Islamicised or Islam has been politicised or a bit of both. But one thing is quite clear that this entangled version of political serendipity is the outcome of creeping Islamisation of the country over a long period of time. There are 275,000 mosques in the country and as followers congregate 5 times a day, the Maulanas have nearly 1.4 million occasions to preach religion every day! Under the onslaught of this religious juggernaut and Islamic polity, non-religious democratic values had to be abandoned and democracy itself is now on the verge of irretrievably damaged.

Islam and democracy were never good bedfellows anywhere in the world. It was not for nothing that not in a single State of the 58 or so Islamic States (or Muslim majority States) in the world democracy had been found to have taken firm roots and flourished. The reason is quite simple. Islam requires total submission to Almighty God and unreserved adherence to Quranic teachings. Contrary to this, democracy requires primacy of the Parliament or national assembly or any other law making body (for a certain length of time) within the country. In all democratic countries, the democratic institutions and law makers are, within the framework of the constitution, paramount and they are allowed to function without any extraneous interference. If religious teachings do tend to interfere with the State functions, secular principles which require separation of religion from the State functions are adhered to.

In Islamic States such separation of State functions from the religion, which is fundamentally the major plank of secularism, is not institutionalised and thereby creating an opportunity for the clash of the two. To preserve the religious ideology, autocratic system is instituted in most of the Islamic States where democratic rights and privileges are removed. The Arab Spring is the outward expression and aspiration of the people to regain democratic rights and privileges from the autocratic regimes. However, in some Islamic States fundamentalists had been trying to steamroll into power under the guise of Arab Spring. So, not all attempts to remove autocratic Islamic regimes do end up in democratic establishment.

The common thread that runs in almost all Islamic states including Bangladesh is the utter disregard to honesty, decency and accountability – all of these qualities fall within the cover of democratic provisions. When the constitution was amended, not once but a number of times, after seizing power by the coup leaders in Bangladesh, they were not only outrageous but also undemocratic. When the constitution was amended unilaterally by the pseudo-democratic government, while the opposition party had no part to play, that was not acceptable. In all of these issues democracy was brazenly flouted either under military rules of the Islamicised polity or under the civilian governments.

In Bangladesh democracy was never allowed to take a firm root. Right at the beginning, during the early 1970s, the country was run autocratically almost on a medieval tribal style. After the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the military rulers had blatantly flouted all strands of democratic principles. Beyond the dictatorial rule which ended in 1990 till the present time, a sort of pseudo-democratic system was in operation. Democracy is not just conducting elections with total disregard to freedom of speech, freedom of choice etc. in free and fair way. All of these requirements are ostensibly absent in Bangladeshi politics. Democracy had been severely mauled by the combined curse of corruption, nepotism, cronyism, violation of human rights, lack of accountability and transparency. That democracy is still being talked about is a testament to people's ardent veneration to it.

A. Rahman is a Nuclear Safety Specialist.