Secularism, Bangabandhu, Bangladesh | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 15, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 15, 2015

Secularism, Bangabandhu, Bangladesh

It was none other than Professor Abdur Razzak who could read Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman correctly, and that is why he had considered him as “a symbol of Bangladesh”. In a seminal talk at the University of Dhaka in 1980 Razzak said “. . . in those dark days, in that testing time, among the millions who would constitute the nation, there was no misunderstanding and there was no ambiguity. Bangabandhu alone was the symbol.”

Professor Razzak was unafraid in those days to utter these words unambiguously. He further said, “But there have been other symbols in the long freedom struggle in the subcontinent. Between this one, the symbol in 1971, and others before him, there is a qualitative difference.”

What influenced Razzak to consider Sheikh Mujib the best among those who had led the struggle for freedom in an undivided India? I would say that it is for his contributions; firstly, to develop a linguistic nationalism which translated into Bengali Nationalism later, and secondly, for establishing a nation state with the unity of the different religious communities (Hindu-Muslim unity, in particular). I should say, this latter accomplishment puts Sheikh Mujib on the top, even above Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi, as he is credited for establishing a true secular state – Razzak perhaps meant that as well. 

This is interesting, as for Bangladesh 'nationalism' comes first; followed by 'territory'. The incidental integration of East Bengal with Pakistan, and the unimagined communal riots in 1947 perhaps brought about Islamic nationalism to rethink. It later influenced Sheikh Mujib to opt for a linguistic nationalism (based on language and culture mostly). It was not so easy for him, I would say, especially after the Islamic revival movements during the whole 18th century, and after the Pakistan movement in the early 19th century. In the end, he had won despite all the challenges. 

He understood the process of Islamisation (Eaton: 1992) in the eastern part of Bengal (presently Bangladesh) better than that of Gandhi and Jinnah. The latter's political blunder only contributed to divide the people of India which culminated in hatred, killing, and persecution. 

Coming from a Muslim middle class, Sheikh Mujib had united the people to establish a state where cultural identity (language and traditions mostly) of the people will rule over their religious identity. Consequently, common interests ruled out communal interests. The word 'Bangalee' which had been used by Bangabandhu frequently, was adopted in the Constitution to offer a 'non-religious' understanding of nationalism. In other words 'Bangalee' had been coined by him to mean anti-communalism.

Maidul Islam (2015:11-15) has, recently, suggested that Bangabandhu's idea of secularism was 'Eurocentric', which requires state not to act in terms of religious ascendancy/adherence in any form. I would argue that understanding Bangabandhu's secularism in this way is oversimplification. There is no doubt that he was in favour of segregation of religion from politics but his was opposite to anti-religious. His secularism was inclusive of all religious practices to ensure unity of the religious communities. (Recently Sugata Bose in his seminal talk at Asia Research Institute, NUS has argued that Gandhi was also in favour of this type of secularism since religion was never outside of politics in Indian history). Unlike Maidul Islam, I would argue that this indigenous idea (secular but sensitive to religious practice) of state offered him the hegemony over people, and which made him, in Razzak's tung, 'Bangabandhu'.

Maidul has (2015:15) again compared the secular nationalist model of Sheikh Mujib with that of the 'western influenced' model of Kemal Atartuk of Turkey. I would argue differently than this proposition. While Kemalism required non-active role of state on the matters of religion, Mujib's model was to more active role to protect (and to encourage in some cases) religious beliefs and practices. Though Islam was not accepted as state religion, freedom of religious performances had been guaranteed, and application of religious law (sharia) had been ensured though in a restricted way. (This restricted application of Sharia is almost common to all post-colonial states). Moreover, religious sensitivity had been protected in the public domain too with criminal punishment (protection of religious believes from defamation, punishment for fornication, prohibition of homo-sexuality are worthy to mention). Therefore, understanding Mujib's secularism in western sense (complete separation of religion and state) will be oversimplification. 

In independent Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujib had to face two forces. On the one hand the religious forces (religious clerics as well as political parties) inside the country who were continuously misleading the people by arguing that secularism means absence of religion; and academics who had been continuously criticizing adoption of 'secularism' as one of the state policies in the national and international academia on the other. The internal religious forces were mostly influenced by the Maududi's thought, which was in favour of a state where Islam and sharia will be in the driving seat, and which was in favour of greater Muslim Ummah (Qasim Zaman 2001). It is worthy of mentioning that Bangabandhu was keen to the Islamic values though he was determined not to establish a sharia-based legal system. We should remember that even in Pakistan the demands to accept sharia fundamental to legal system was not fruitful until Zia Ul Haq's military regime when a host of constitutional changes took place which culminated in Islamisation of the Pakistani legal system (Martin Lau 2006). 

Regarding academic debate Zillur R Khan, Emajuddin Ahmed, Nasreen Akter, Talukder Maniruzzaman's works may be mentioned. Their fundamental argument is that Bangabandhu's adoption of secularism was counterproductive since it did not correspond to the aspiration of the people. Muslims in this part, to them, voted for Pakistan in 1947 to establish a society on the basis of their own religious values.

There are at least two limitations of their understanding.  Except Khan, many did not take into account the transformation of the identity of the Bengali Muslims from religious community to a political community, and then linguistic-nation (Ahmed 1986). Their studies have not taken the Muslim renaissance after the emergence of East Bengal as an administrative unit in 1906, and the development of linguistic nationalism between 1950 and 1970 seriously. Their arguments correspond to the two-nation theory. Aysha Jalal (2015) has recently argued instead that it was failure to determine the share of power of the Muslims in the Hindu majority independent India which led to partition of India. 

However, these criticisms were so effective that nascent Bangladesh had been considered by the Muslim world as anti-Islamic. The successive governments after the brutal killing of Sheikh Mujib had used it successfully. Under their direct patronisation a new form of Islamisation took place in Bangladesh since late eighties and 'religion' came up again as an important force in the politics. 

I will conclude by saying that to understand Bangabandhu, one has to take these facts into account- what Professor Razzak did. That is why he found Bangladesh within Shaiekh Mujibur Rahman. Is there any but Razzak to be credited to evaluate Bangabandhu correctly?

The writer is a PhD Scholar in the National University of Singapore. He may be reached at: 

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