SOUTH ASIA: BANGLADESH News Briefs
The instrumentalisation of Islam to secure political legitimacy began in Bangladesh after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975. The successor President and Chief Martial Law Administrator, General Zia-ur-Rahman, passed a Presidential decree in 1977, removing the principle of secularism from the Preamble of the Constitution and, instead, inserted the infamous Fifth Amendment declaring "absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah". Further, in 1988, Islam was given the status of 'State Religion' through the Eighth Amendment by the even more zealous military regime of H. M. Ershad - Rahman's successor.
The ongoing controversy regarding the status of Islam and its legality as the 'State Religion' came to the forefront after the General Elections that restored Hasina to power in January 2009. Her Government immediately focused attention on the challenge of tackling religious extremism and terrorism. At that time, the AL Government had made it clear that it would re-introduce the original 'Four State Principles' - democracy, nationalism, secularism and socialism.
Meanwhile, on January 3, 2010, Bangladesh's Supreme Court lifted a four year stay against a ban on 'the abuse of religion for political purposes'. By lifting the stay, the Supreme Court approved the August 29, 2005, judgment of a three judge Bench, led by Justice A. B. M. Khairul Haque, which declared the Fifth Amendment illegal. The Bench also defined the meaning of secularism as religious tolerance and religious freedom. Subsequently, on February 20, 2010, Law Minister Shafique Ahmed stated, "Now we don't have any bar to return to the four state principles of democracy, nationalism, secularism and socialism, as had been heralded in the 1972 statute of the State".
Finally, the 184-page judgment of the Supreme Court was issued on July 28, 2010. The apex Court got rid of the bulk of the Fifth Amendment, including provisions that had allowed religious political parties to prosper, or that legitimized military dictatorship. The verdict further dubbed such parties as extra-constitutional adventurers and suggested "suitable punishment" for those who installed military regimes and imposed martial laws. The simultaneous trial of 1971 War Crimes and the arrest of prominent leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) on such charges further heated up the debate on the role of Islamic parties in the political arena.
At that juncture, it appeared that the Hasina Government was determined to take on the radical Islamic groups - both militant outfits and political parties. On March 16, 2009, Home Secretary Abdus Sobhan Sikder placed a report that identified 12 'militant' outfits - the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B), Hizb-ut-Tawhid, Ulama Anjuman al Bainat, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Islami Democratic Party, Islami Samaj, Touhid Trust, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), Shahadat-e-al-Hikma Party Bangladesh, Tamir-ud-Deen (Hizb-e-Abu Omar) and Allahr Dal. The Government has so far banned four Islamist militant groups - the JMB, HuJI-B, JMJB and Shahadat-e-al-Hikma. The main targets of the law enforcers, however, were the party activists and cadres of five main groups - Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS, youth wing of the JeI)), JMB, HuJI-B, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Hizb-ut-Tawhid.
The Institute for Conflict Management database indicates quick follow-up action to arrest leaders and cadres of these militant formations. The numbers do not, however, include mass arrests that are common during political rallies, protest marches and violent mass activities. For instance, on April 12, 2010, the Chittagong Police filed a case accusing 1,500 to 2,000 leaders and cadres of JeI and ICS for attacks on the Police at the city's Anderkilla Intersection. The arrests in this incident are not included in the data.
Arrests of Militant Leaders and Cadre: 2009-2011*
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal [*Data till June 19, 2011]
Among the arrested are important leaders, such as the founder of HuJI-B, Sheikh Abdus Salam; its current chief, Mufti Abdul Hannan Sabbir; the chief of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Mahiuddin Ahmad; the regional leader of Hizb-ut-Tawhid, Mohammed Moinuddin; among others. Recoveries from the site of arrest have included arms and ammunition, with typical variety of cocktail and hand made bombs, bomb-making manuals, Jihadi literature, anti-Government leaflets, etc.
Contradictions were, however, sharpening within the country, with three visible and polarizing trends consolidating: the ongoing 1971 War Crimes trials; the anti-women Islamist demonstrations protesting the formulation of the National Women's Development Policy (2011); and the re-emergence of mass and violent street politics, after the Bangladesh Nationalist Party called a 36-hour national protest on June 13, 2011. The Islamist Parties clearly have huge stakes in all three issues, with JeI as the principal target of War Crimes trials, and Islamist allies of the BNP as key components in the anti-women and street demonstrations and protests. Bangladesh has, moreover, a long and infamous tradition of protracted and violent street protests and bandhs (general shutdowns) that have paralysed the country for weeks and months at end.
It is under these cumulative pressures that the AL's stand on Islam began to shift. When Sheikh Hasina appeared before a Parliamentary Committee (PC) which was reviewing the Constitution in the light of the Supreme Court verdict in April 2010, she had already modified her position to concede that her party was "not against having Islam as state religion". This constituted a complete reversal of the policy laid down by her father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Hasina also stated that her party was against banning religion-based political parties, though it wanted 'some restrictions' on them.
Internal conflicts within the ruling alliance make Hasina's situation more complex. The Jatiya Party, headed by H.M. Ershad and commanding 29 MPs, is against any ban on religion-based political parties. On the other hand, Left-leaning parties - including the Workers Party, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, Ganotantri Party and National Awami Party - are strongly opposed to the Jatiya Party's proposal. The Left-parties are lightweight, with three MPs in the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, two in the Workers Party, and none in Ganotantri Party and National Awami Party. The AL, with a more than three fourths majority in Parliament (270 MPs in a House of 345), is, in any event, under no threat, but values the alliances for the stability and inclusive mandate they provide. The management of the alliance, consequently, will remain a matter of concern as polarizing issues come to dominate the agenda.
Against this backdrop, Hasina's June 7 statement can only worsen the political muddle in the country, as it dilutes its projected Constitutional identity, in the words of Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, as "a secular, not moderate Muslim, country", and embarks on the slippery slope of an Islam pasand (committed to Islam) country. AL's progressive 'secular disillusionment' can only intensify the percolation of radical thought through Bangladeshi politics and society, even as voices against Islamist extremist dogma are gradually stifled by the original initiator of secular politics in the country.
[South Asia Intelligent Review]
657 BGB troopers sentenced for 2009 Mutiny: Special Court-7 of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) on June 27 sentenced 657 troopers of 24 BGB to different terms of rigorous imprisonment between four months and seven years in a mutiny case for their involvement in the February 2009 Mutiny at Pilkhana Headquarters in the Capital City of Dhaka. The Special Court also fined each of the convicts BNR 100 and acquitted nine others as charges levelled against them were not proved. Daily Star, June 28, 2011.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed to introduce Counter Terrorism Bureau of Police: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed on June 29 said her Government is going to introduce a Counter Terrorism Bureau of Police aiming to increase vigilance at all levels. The Government has approved a proposal to raise manpower in the Police Force by 32,031 while 15,775 persons in different categories have already been appointed and 6,000 would be recruited soon, she added. Daily Star, June 30, 2011.
Bangladesh will retain Islam as the 'State Religion': Bangladesh will retain Islam as the 'State Religion'. A special Government Committee prepared proposals for the amendment, and the Government will send those proposals to the Parliament for passing as a law. Times of India, June 22, 2011.
High Court begins hearing on petition challenging insertion of Islam as 'State Religion': The hearing on a writ petition challenging the validity of the insertion of Islam as state religion by the 8th Amendment of the Constitution began with deliberations by the amici curiae (friends of the court) at the High Court in Dhaka on June 16. The amici curiae expressed the identical view that the issue should be left for Parliament to decide as it enjoys the sovereign authority to amend the Constitution. Daily Star, June 17, 2011.
Enough evidence to prove War Crimes charges against JeI leader Kamaruzzaman, claim investigators: Investigators on June 14 claimed that they have enough incriminating evidence to prove the War Crimes (WCs) charges against Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) leader Muhammad Kamaruzzaman. A four-member investigation team quizzed Kamaruzzaman, an assistant secretary general of JeI, on his involvement in crimes against humanity and genocide at Dhaka's Mirpur and Jamalpur, Sherpur and Mymensingh during the Liberation War. Daily Star, June 15, 2011.
Prime Minister wants to keep Islam as state religion: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina wants to keep Islam the State religion, thus preserving the illegal changes to the Constitution, made in 2007 by the provisional Government. In a statement on June 8, the Prime Minister responded to those calls for the restoration of the original secular constitution, as established by the Supreme Court in July 2010. Spero News, June 9, 2011.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in favour of retaining Islam as State religion: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on May 31 expressed herself in favour of retaining Islam as the State religion. Taking a departure from the 1972 Constitution, Hasina said that the Arabic phrase "Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim" ("In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful,, the Most Compassionate") will remain above the Preamble of the Constitution. Daily Star, June 1, 2011.
[South Asia Intelligent Review]