The Constitution of Bangladesh has been brought under the microscope for the 15th time since 1972. With the annulment of the fifth amendment of the Constitution through a judgment by the Supreme Court this year, the Constitution is to revert to some of the core values behind the formation of the original 1972 version, whose four main pillars were democracy, socialism, nationalism and secularism.
The latest judgment by the Supreme Court gives us a chance to look closely at the Constitution, which was adopted soon after the liberation war ended in 1971, in the aftermath of the emotions and ideology that led the nation in the struggle for identity and existence. While the 1972 document had an equal vie towards citizens of all religions, ethnic, cultural and linguistic pluralism were patently absent from the document. Thus, while the 1972 constitution was even-handed to all religions, it did not recognise the fifty or more indigenous peoples and their distinct identities, who still remain as second class citizens of Bangladesh.
When the draft of the Constitution of Bangladesh was presented to the Constituent Assembly in 1972, Manabendra Narayan Larma (founder general secretary of PCJSS) refused to endorse a Constitution that did not recognise the existence of people of other ethnic origins than Bangali . He had protested: "Under no definition or logic can a Chakma be a Bangali or a Bangali be a Chakma… As citizens of Bangladesh we are all Bangladeshis, but we also have a separate ethnic identity..."
Thirty-eight years after MN Larma's protest, the time has finally come to correct a basic flaw in our national constitutional framework. The formation of the current special parliamentary committee to review and recommend constitutional amendments is a welcome move by the government. Its recommendations must include remedies to a Constitution that is still ethnically communal in nature, putting people from non-Bangali groups outside our definition of nation.
The 1997 CHT Accord and the
2008 AL election manifesto
One of the objectives of the Constitution review and amendment committee is "implementation of ruling Awami League-led grand alliance's electoral pledges". One commitment that the Awami League government has so far not fulfilled is implementation of the CHT Accord. The 2008 election manifesto promised: "The 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord will be fully implemented. More efforts will be directed towards the development of underdeveloped areas, and special programs on priority basis will be taken to secure rights of the ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples and other communities, and to preserve their language, literature, culture, and unique lifestyles."
However, by the second year of the Awami League government, the Pahari people are still waiting for positive steps towards implementation of the Accord. In fact, instead of implementation, in April of this year the CHT Accord received a setback when a bench of the High Court Division of the Supreme Court declared the CHT Regional Council (RC), set up under the Accord, as unconstitutional. The RC was formed, among others, to coordinate and supervise the activities of the three Hill District Councils, and to oversee general administration, local council and NGO activities. The court decision is currently being appealed against by the government and the RC, pending which the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court has stayed the High Court Divisions' s judgment.
For the full version of this article please read this month's Forum, available free with The Daily Star on September 6.
Hana Shams Ahmed is a member of Drishtipat Writers' Collective and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.