Many of us label Bangladesh as a moderate Muslim democracy. But the current Awami League government classifies Bangladesh as a secular country. It defines Bangladesh as a “non-communal country” with a “Muslim majority population”. The Awami League emphasizes that the concept of a moderate Muslim democracy cannot be applied in the case of Bangladesh because it fought its war of independence on basis of the ideal of secularism. For Bangladesh, embracing religion or creating a secular identity has been a major contestation in the creation of its national identity. Identity questions for Bangladesh still stand: is it a country of secular Bengalis or Muslim Bangladeshis?
The Bangladeshi identity is made up of two distinct parts, the Bengali and the Muslim. The role of these two elements in the formation of Bangladeshi Muslim identity has varied at different times in the history of the country. Initially, Islam acted as a unifying factor, followed by the Bengali language, after which the two were reconciled. Finally a trend towards radical Islam has appeared in the society.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the people of the region were mobilized on the basis of religion. This led to the alienation of the Bengali Muslim population that ultimately resulted in the creation of Pakistan. This period saw the eclipse of old Muslim elite and the rise of the Hindus because of the Bengal renaissance. During this period the Bengali language and culture were linked to Brahmanic heritage. The Bangla language borrowed a large number of words from Sanskrit. This was difficult for the Bengal Muslims to swallow and they in turn started borrowing from Arabic and Persian language and also started focusing on Islamic scriptural heritage.
The breakup between the two major communities became visible in the Bengali Muslim attitude towards the partition of Bengal in 1905 and the Swadeshi movement against the partition. Muslims in general favored the partition of Bengal and saw the Swadeshi movement as a ploy to serve Hindu communal interests. They feared that as a backward community in united India they would continue to be exploited by Hindu landlords, businessmen and industrialists.
The fear of Hindu dominance made the East Bengal Muslims take shelter under the banner of Islam and support the Muslim League, which championed the cause of Islam and Muslims in India. This support was crucial to bring about the creation of Pakistan in 1947 on the basis of the two- nation theory. Pakistan was seen as a homeland for Muslims where they would get the opportunity to progress.
However, the sustained campaign for Pakistan under Jinnah also sharpened the communal identity among a section of the population despite the prevailing Sufi tradition of Islam in Bangladesh. The political developments in post-liberation Bangladesh unfortunately have failed to remove this distrust between the communities. This also prepared ground for the emergence of militant Islam in the country.
From 1947 to 1975 the Bengali language was the unifying factor in East. The ruling elites in Pakistan distrusted Bengalis and promoted their cultural assimilation by imposing Urdu on the region. Bengalis were however unwilling to give up their mother tongue which also signified their Bengaliness. This struggle gave rise to Bengali nationalism in East Pakistan.
Bengalis were not given much say in the decision making process in the power structure of Pakistan. The state followed a policy of centralized administration and monopolized political power. This also resulted into skewed economic development and created disparity between the two parts of Pakistan.
The formation and development of Awami League as a political party in 1949 was the result of the growing discontent among the Bengali population. The severe defeat of Muslim League in the general elections of 1954 encouraged the Awami League to put greater emphasis on political and economic issues. They started talking of creating an exploitation free society. The Awami League now wanted a fundamental change in the power structure of Pakistan.
In the 1970 general elections, the Awami League won a landslide victory, securing 160 of the 162 seats in East Pakistan. In this election Islam-based political parties could not get any seat but they still polled about 17 per cent of the votes. Despite this massive victory Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman was prevented from becoming the prime minister of Pakistan. The Pakistani state violated the principle of equality of opportunity and the people felt exploited in the name of Islam. By 1971, language had replaced religion as the society’s organizing principle and became a powerful instrument for nation-building in Bangladesh.
Mujib had championed the cause of a secular state as opposed to an Islamic state. Secularism also became important as a reaction against the orthodox Muslims who had sided with Pakistani forces during the liberation struggle. This change in nature of politics however made India important and underlined its important role in the Liberation War of Bangladesh. Mujib saw Muslims in Bengal linked with Bengali and not West Asian culture.
But a secular Bangladesh was a problematic concept which threatened Bengali Muslims’ quest for a unique identity. The community was now faced with dilemma that: if the unifying factor was Bengali culture and language then what was the need to exist separately from West Bengal and India.
The concept of secularism in Bangladesh also faced problems because its root did not run deep. Though lot of emphasis was placed on secularism during the Bangladesh liberation movement, its main support base was limited only to a small section of the country’s liberal elite composed of the academics, Bengali nationalists, political activists, social workers, reformists, writers, singers, artists, lawyers, sections of professionals, journalists, politicians, and feminists. Most of them come from the upper strata of society. They had participated in the nationalist movements before 1947 and in the subsequent liberation war of 1971. The leadership of these liberal elite came from the intellectuals in Dhaka University. The Bengali economists working there highlighted the economic disparities between the two wings of Pakistan. For this they had to face the brutality of Pakistani army in March 1971.
The liberals were secular nationalists who advocated the promotion of Bengali language and culture; the independence and sovereignty of Bangladesh; secularism; individual freedom, and liberal democratic institutions. They were opposed to religious orthodoxy and were committed to modernization, development, and the progress of women.
While the base of liberals in Bangladesh was a narrow one, the Islamic parties had significant support in the country. This was evident from the fact that even at the height of the anti-Pakistan upsurge during the 1970 general elections these parties managed to get 17 per cent of the total votes in East Pakistan, though they could not win even a single seat in the National Assembly.
The failure of the Mujib government to deal sternly with war criminals—the Jamaat, Rajakars, Al Badr, Al Shams — who had collaborated with the Pakistani army and his decision to provide them partial amnesty ensured that they could gather strength at a later date. The repatriation of Bengali military officers from West Pakistan and their integration in influential positions within the Bangladesh military structure enormously boosted the morale and spirit of the pro-Pakistan, anti-liberation forces in the country.
The shallow base of secularism in Bangladesh could not have curbed the desire of the Bengali Muslim community for a separate identity. The rift created by the communal movements of pre-partition days was weakened but did not disappear. Religion once again regained its importance in the country’s politics as the political parties and politicians of all hues started working in Bengali Muslims’ quest for a unique identity. The community faced with dilemma that: if the unifying factor was Bengali culture and language then what was the need to exist separately from West Bengal and India.
1971 shows that Bangladesh rejected the Pakistani interpretation of Islam but this did not mean that Bangladesh has rejected Islam from its own identity. The inability of the elites to understand this fact has trapped them into the secular-religious divide. The post-independent leaders of Bangladesh failed to deliver the dreams of nationalism, secularism, socialism and democracy based on a vernacular cultural model. Such failure essentially led towards creating the clash between the religious and the secular and between anti-1971 and pro-1971.
There is no legal way to tackle the rise of religiosity in Bangladesh. Instead, the failure to acknowledge these silent ‘religious’ transitions, where political parties are interested only in the bigger share of the pie using religion, will only add to the existing tension and divide the unity of the country further between the religious and the secular. Instead we must continue to implore why we are rapidly turning more religious than before, and why consider it a solemn duty to continuously project this religious identity.
I really have no idea where this will go. Will this all settle down? I doubt it. Will it escalate into civil war as the Jamaat have threatened to make it? I don’t know. Certainly the battle seems to be pitched between whether you are a Muslim first and Bengali second or Bengali first and Muslim second. From my point of view the situation is very complex but I do hope that Bangladesh will struggle through and find a true peace – one where everyone is free to live according to their own conscience and not one where they are fearful of the consequences of doing so.