Thursday, March 17, 2011

Comparing Pakistan with Bangladesh: Is South Asia Moving Toward Secularism?

Bangladesh has recently upheld a decision to ensure the separation of politics from religion. Arshi Saleem Hashmi, member of SAVE Pakistan, compares the situation in Bangladesh with that of Pakistan in a new article published by the Institute of Regional Studies, arguing that Bangladesh is creating the secular state that Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, envisioned for his country.


The decision of the Bangladesh Supreme Court regarding the ban on religion-based politics must be seen in this historical perspective. It reflects the ideology of the country’s founding fathers and has restored the original Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh. Following the SC Appellate Division’s decision upholding the High Court's landmark verdict of 29 August 2005 that declared the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment (1979) illegal, the ban on formation of political organizations based on religion was restored. The verdict also paved the way for ensuring secularism as the “cornerstone” of the Constitution. The Supreme Court decision vacated the stay it had granted the then BNP-JI-led government the same day that the HC judgement was announced in August 2005. (The SC Appelate Division’s verdict, which was issued in January 2010, became trapped in an appeals process until 29 July 2010.) According to Bangladeshi Law Minister Shafique Ahmed, carrying out activities of any political party based on religion is a punishable offence under the Special Powers Act. Political parties and other organizations using religion as their guideline stand banned with the annulment of the Fifth Amendment.

In the wake of this verdict, the Election Commission of Bangladesh, on 26 January 2010, asked the three religion-based parties — Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh, Khelafat Andolan and Tarikat Federation — to amend their charters as they were in conflict with the supreme law of the land.

It is important to note that unlike Pakistan, in Bangladesh, the Awami League gave the nation its first constitution within one year of independence, based on the four cardinal principles — secularism, nationalism, socialism and democracy. Bangladesh became the third major Muslim country to officially embrace secularism after Turkey and Tunisia. This way a secular state that Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, had in mind when he spoke on 11 August 1948 about the basic characteristic of the newly independent nation-state Pakistan, Bangladesh in 1971 fulfilled his dream by separating the affairs of the state from religion.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah envisioned Pakistan not as a place for the ingathering of all Muslims from distant lands the way Israel sees itself regarding Jews, but as a place where Muslims of the subcontinent could feel safe economically and politically. It has very clear geographical limits, not really what today’s Islamists desire to make Pakistan as a political centre for the Muslims all over.

The most quoted and clear speech in terms of what Jinnah had in mind for Pakistan, is when on 11 August 1947 speaking in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, he stated:

There is no other solution. Now what shall we do? Now, if we want to make this great State of Pakistan happy and prosperous, we should wholly and solely concentrate on the well-being of the people, and especially of the masses and the poor. If you will work in co-operation, forgetting the past, burying the hatchet, you are bound to succeed. If you change your past and work together in a spirit that everyone of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges, and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make. I cannot emphasize it too much. We should begin to work in that spirit and in course of time all these angularities of the majority and minority communities, the Hindu community and the Muslim community, because even as regards Muslims you have Pathans, Punjabis, Shias, Sunnis and so on, and among the Hindus you have Brahmins, Vashnavas, Khatris, also Bengalis, Madrasis and so on, will vanish. Indeed if you ask me, this has been the biggest hindrance in the way of India to attain the freedom and independence and but for this we would have been free people long long ago. No power can hold another nation, and specially a nation of 400 million souls in subjection; nobody could have conquered you, and even if it had happened, nobody could have continued its hold on you for any length of time, but for this. Therefore, we must learn a lesson from this. You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State. As you know, history shows that in England, conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now there are some States in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class. Thank God, we are not starting in those days. We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State. The people of England in course of time had to face the realities of the situation and had to discharge the responsibilities and burdens placed upon them by the government of their country and they went through that fire step by step. Today, you might say with justice that Roman Catholics and Protestants do not exist; what exists now is that every man is a citizen, an equal citizen of Great Britain and they are all members of the Nation. Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.

Pakistan went on enforcing its religious identity where religion became everything, from domestic to foreign policy to culture to social issue to personal; becoming very much the business of the state. Bangladesh pursued, at least in the beginning what Jinnah had envisioned about the new Muslim State in the subcontinent.

To read the full article by Arshi Saleem Hashmi, follow this link.

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