The Bangladesh government’s education department has recently passed an order, making it mandatory for all schools, government and private, religious or run by foreign organisations, to get students to recite an oath during the morning assembly before classes.
This comes after another recent order asking all religious seminaries or madrasas to ensure singing of the national anthem at morning prayers and teaching the history of the Bangladesh liberation war in their curriculum which is largely religious.
The script of the oath, that schoolchildren have to take every morning , recalls how Bangladesh earned its freedom fighting “Pakistani exploitation and neglect in a bloody struggle” and then pledges to build a secular and prosperous Bangladesh on the basis of the ideology espoused by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of the nation.
Interestingly, the oath ends with “May our Sristhikorta (Creator) give us strength.” Usually in Bangladesh after 1987, when Islam was declared state religion, any pledge or prayer would invoke “Mahan Allah” (Allah the Almighty) – be it in initial announcements on flights of Bangladesh air carrier before the takeoff or when anchors commence programmes on TV or radio.
The use of the word Sristhikorta as a very Bengali expression to invoke the Almighty without religious connotations dates back to the 1972 Constitution that Bangladesh gave itself at birth under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who insisted on secularism and socialism to be the founding principles of the new republic.
After the 197 coup that killed Rahman with much of his family, the country’s two military rulers started a process of Islamistaion. General Ziaur Rahman undermined the country’s secular orientation by replacing the commitment to secularism in the Constitution’s preamble with the words “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah,” instead of the secular Bengali expression Sristhikorta.
General Hossain Mohammad Ershad (Ershad), Bangladesh’ second military dictator who was in power from 1982 until 1990, continued consolidating Bangladesh’s ties with Muslim countries like Zia had done and extended Ziaur’s project of embedding Islam in Bangladesh’s governance. Most importantly, Ershad declared Islam as Bangladesh’s state religion and he denervated the hated Jamaat-e-Islami, which has sided with the Pakistani army to perpetrate the horrible 1971 genocide, as a legitimate political actor. While Zia had fought in the Liberation War as a sector commander, Ershad remained loyal to Pakistan and his rise to power marked the return of the ‘Razakars’ (Pakistani collaborators) at top decision making levels in preference to the ‘Muktijoddhas’ (freedom fighters).
Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League won the 2008 general election with an absolute majority due in large measure to the widespread antipathy towards the BNP-Jamaat coalition government and the reign of Islamist terror it ushered. Hasina began to take steps to fulfil several electoral promises. One of her manifesto pledges was the prosecution of war criminals from the 1971 war. In 2009, her government revived a procedure in the 1973 constitution for prosecuting war criminals, which became known as the International Crimes Tribunal. Hasina has been accused of using the tribunal as an effective way to eliminate her political foes, but she has defended it as “fulfilment of a promise to the nation to end the culture of impunity” left behind by Pakistan and continued by the military regimes modelled on it.
In 2011, the supreme court ruled that General Zia’s controversial fifth amendment and General Ershad’s eighth amendment as unconstitutional and void, restoring the 1972 constitution’s four basic principles of democracy, nationalism, socialism, and secularism.
However, Hasina approved a bill that sought to retain “Islam as the State religion” and the phrase “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahimm,” over the objection of two ministers who opposed this move on the simple argument that retaining them was in violent opposition to the principle of secularism. Hasina defended her decision to retain these two provisions on the basis of “ground reality”.
Hasina’s succumbing to “ground realities ” was reflected when top minister Latif Siddique, brother of the legendary liberation war hero Kader Siddiqui , was forced to resign in 2014 when he questioned the practice of Hajj as “not beneficial to Bangladesh’s economy” . Later she was accused of hobnobbing with the arch radical Hifazat e Islam, which some say to counterbalance the Jamaat-e-Islami. This after she crushed Hifazat protests ahead of the 2014 Parliament polls by a tough crackdown.
But since her return to power a third successive time, Hasina seems to have realised the futility of pandering to the radical Islamist forces. So just after the communal disturbances during 2021 Durga Puja celebrations, she only contained the trouble by deploying heavily armed border guards in 22 districts but also threatened troublemakers with dire consequences. Scores of rioters were picked up and booked under serious criminal charges.
It is just after the Durga Puja disturbances that some members of Hasina cabinet started vociferously raising the demand for a return to the 1972 secular constitution. Leading the charge was Murad Hassan, the junior information minister who had been a president of the powerful Chatra League, the Awami student wing, which had been at the forefront of major agitations since the Bangla language agitation to the Liberation and the one that brought down military rule. Awami insiders suggest Murad would not have dared raised such a sensitive issue without a nod from Hasina. Murad’s language was unusually aggressive as he kept reminding how he had thrashed the “dariwallas” (bearded ones) and “tupiwallas” ( those wearing skull caps), suggesting that his party had the strength to take on the radical Islamists in street battles if that was needed for a return to the 1972 Constitution.
Murad was asked to resign by Hasina after she faced considerable embarrassment when Murad’s explicit and obscene sex chat with a top actress went viral and his obnoxious comments about Zaima Rahman, daughter of BNP leader Tarique Rahman (Zia’s son), upset public opinion. But Murad’s ouster from government does not seem to have dampened efforts to test the waters for the possible return to the 1972 Constitution. While the introduction of the Liberation War history in the madrassa curriculum is seen as a prelude to more radical changes in it, the oath with the word Sristhikorta at the end seems to suggest a silent but steady process of re-secularisation.
Party insiders say Hasina seems to have realised the futility of pandering to the Islamists who see such moves as weakness and only follow up with more troublemaking. In the last two years, the radical Islamist ecosystem has continued to hit the streets on one issue after another, beginning with opposition to installation of Mujib statues on his Centenary Year as unIslamic to violent protests against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh.
If she has to win the next parliament polls barely two years from now, she will have to depend on the three important segments of the voting population: the women, the minorities and the progressive Muslims. So celebrating the country’s amazing economic and human development progress on Bangladesh’s Golden Jubilee is not enough. A return to the founding principles of the Republic is seen as crucial another innings in government by the Awami league and its undisputed leader.
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