BANGLADESH HAS TO BE A SECULAR STATE
Professor Mohit Ul Alam
As I read the history about the role of the anti-Liberation people, who were active during the nine months of the Liberation War, I see that the leaders of this group of people opposed the existence of Bangladesh due to an anxiety they felt about the birth of this new country, by which they thought it would mean the end of Islam. This anxiety also helped grow in them an inherent mistrust in the Bengali language and culture. So their anti-Bangladesh attitude had a bi-focal origin: they thought Pakistan as a state was synonymous with Islam, and secondly, they thought, its survival also ensured the survival of Islam. And they had at best a dubious attitude to the Bengali language and culture. Their mother tongue was Bengali, but they had seen it as an obstacle rather than an advantage in their attempt to pursue the dream of a theocratic state in the form of Pakistan.
The Bengali script looks so different from Arabic or Urdu script that they wanted to introduce the idea of writing Bengali in the Arabic or Roman alphabet so as to conform to the wrongly-conceived notion that Islam is inseparable from its language of origin. They also entertained the idea that the Bengali culture, having originated from the ancient Vaishnav civilisation was alien to Islamic culture. That is, they disregarded the fact of amalgamation of the Vaishnav traits with the Islamic middle-eastern culture in the practices and rituals of the Muslims, particularly with those of the Sufis, in Bengal that had taken place for a long time, since the time of the great conversion of the Hindus of the scheduled caste into Islam. Thus they were denying history, especially the processes of transition, transformation, acclimatization and appropriation that take place in a trans-cultural society.
Such reductive thinking that religion could be identified with a political state fails to take into account the impact on life from other potential sources as important as religion itself, which are history, geography, and economy. That is, the notion that religion can be an over-dominant factor in the context of reality is acceptable only in a theological sense, but the facts of history, geography, and economy do nullify this notion at every vital execution of life-force. I am deliberately excluding the prevailing debate between science and religion because in my understanding the three spheres of history, geography and economy provide as much a basis for a scientific argument as to make the science–religion dichotomy redundant. And, indeed, it may sound paradoxical, but science in itself does not proffer an anti-theological basis as history, geography and economy do. Science is neutral to application, and so it can be used as much as an aid to enhance theological practices as to destroy them. The priest’s sermon is an example of how science cuts on both edges in relation to religion. In a religious sermon the priest can magnify his voice by using a microphone, and though it ensures greater audibility, it at the same time demystifies the spirituality of the priest’s voice, proving the fact that he cannot be heard beyond a certain limit without technological embellishments.
Therefore, science is a malleable option for religion, but history, geography and economy are not. An example from the American history will clarify this.
President John F. Kennedy in a speech delivered on 9 January 1961 referred to a phrase used by John Winthrop, the Puritan founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in his sermon delivered on the flagship Arbella in 1630, while they were undertaking the voyage from England to America. In this sermon, titled, “A Model of Christian Charity,” he admonished the colonists by saying that they were not travelling to America for reinstitution of greed and lucre but for building the colony “as a city upon a hill” to be watched and followed by later generations of pilgrims and voyagers. Worth mentioning is that the phrase, “as a city upon a hill” was taken from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14), where he tells his listeners: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
Kennedy, in his turn, said, “We must always consider that we [America] shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.”
And Winthrop and other missionaries were vigorously preaching in Sunday congregations the dream (later to become known as the American Dream) about the very paradisiacal essence on which America was to be built. In one such congregation in Boston, while the priest was enumerating the virtues of God, a man stood up and said in a hoarse voice, “Father, we’ve come here for cod, and not only for God.” The cod fish, presumably, was the most profitable catch at the time, but in the later percolations of American history, this anecdote took on the defining characteristic for America as it denotes the dialectical opposition between Winthrop’s vision of the American dream and the shattering of the same by forces not included in the Puritan chapters of the missionaries. This duality is inherent in the history of America; on the one hand as a new land it was supposed to be a state to be built upon the biblical doctrines, which would have no similarity with the sin-infested European countries, and on the other the very landscape of America with its unbounded forest resources, river networks, the Prairie and the open seas on both coasts allured people to reconstruct the very material life (the cod fish symbolizing the material pursuits) which was despised and abandoned by the missionaries as factors ruining Europe.
The cod-God paradox does point out to the fact that religion can travel across boundaries, as Christianity and Islam have done, but it has an amenable dimension that adapts itself to the climate and culture it travels to. A great degree of acclimatization is the basis for a religion to succeed when it travels away from the place of its origin. And when it comes to basic needs, where man lives by bread alone, then geography, history, economy and culture become the determining factors. The cod fish is the leitmotif of such materiality.
Though it will be a slightly lopsided comparison, still we can say Winthrop’s vision for a heavenly state upon the face of the earth had, in a different way, stirred the minds of the people who created Pakistan. At least, initially, it was the ideal dream people of the then East Pakistan cherished regarding the creation of Pakistan, that the new state would be a classless, poverty-free ideal Islamic state.
But as the cod-God paradox defined the disillusionment with the American dream, so did the East Pakistani people discover that they were on the receiving end of the cod-God paradox, that is, the Pakistan government dominated by the Panjabi military junta created an image of religion as if it bonded the two wings peacefully together, but whereas under cover the East Pakistanis were aggressively exploited. That is, the Pakistan government posed for the image of God, but actually they were exploiting the cod. So the resentment among the Bengalis grew, and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led the Awami League in waging a movement against the military regimes of Pakistan, and finally the Liberation War broke out and the birth of Bangladesh was the resulting factor.
When West Pakistan exploited East Pakistan an economic disparity crept into the statehood, and the hold of religion on the people became tenuous, and in the widening gap, the more the government propagated the idea of religious harmony, the more religion became a matter of enforcement, which was the case in 1971, when Pakistan was breaking apart. When religion slides from its ethical dimension to function in a secular framework, it becomes inoperative, but then violent measures are adopted to enforce a make-believe religion. The traditional methods of subjugation that are deployed in the name of religion are characterizing the pro-people movements as anti-religion ones, thereby denying the verdict of election if any is held, and then initiating acts of violence, murder, arson and rape on the resisting people, and finally conducting genocide, all which crimes were instituted by the occupying Pakistani forces and their collaborators in the nine-month War of Liberation.
Blinded by the absurd idea of sustaining Islam in the form of Pakistan, which came into being denying the geographical and cultural absurdities in the first place, the pro-Pakistani Bengali nationals, later on to be known as collaborators, began to intensify their anti-Liberation activities from the beginning of the Liberation War. They refused to see the cod in the practices of the Pakistani rulers, which led them to misread the whole perspective of the Liberation War of Bangladesh from a distorted a historical, a-cultural and a-geographical view.
To illustrate this blindfold absurdity we will refer to just one episode which involves Matiur Rahman Nizami (a war criminal now awarded the death sentence) who was the President of the Islami Chatra Shangho in 1971.
On 7th November the Al Badar day was observed. On 14th November, a report in Daily Sangram covered a speech by Matiur Rahman Nizami, where he explained the reasons for founding the Al Badar squad:
In support of the Pakistan Army, the Islam-loving students of this country have formed the Al Badar Bahini following the glorious tradition of the Badar War. In the Badar War the number of fighting Muslim soldiers was three hundred and thirteen. In keeping with this tradition each unit of the Al Badar squad will also have three hundred and thirteen members. The virtues of the Badar fighters, which we have highlighted in today’s discussion, we hope, will also be replicated in the character of the youthful Mujahids of the Al Badar Bahini. Inshallah.
The Al Badar members and workers have taken a high-spirited new oath on this Badar Dibash today to preserve the ideology and existence of Pakistan, and have shown the world that they mean what they have pledged to do. Inshallah, they will also be able to translate into reality the memory of the Badar War. Standing side by side with our armed forces these youths will be able to defeat the Hindus and finish the Hindustan, and thus will fly the victory flag of Islam. [Translation mine.]
The point here is that Islam had been the religion of millions of Bengali for many centuries before the birth of Pakistan. So the spirit of the holy Badar War with which Nizami tried to imbue the members of the Al Badar squad had not succeeded in this case because, as we have explained above, the Bengali collaborators failed to see the cod in the net, and because of this inaccurate reading of the situation, the Al Badar squad, instead of becoming the glorious soldiers of Islam, simply turned into the executors of precious human lives. And what is required now is the abolition of the eighth amendment that goes against the secular spirit of the country.
The writer is Vice-Chancellor, Jatiya Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University, Trishal, Mymensingh.
DECEMBER 16, 2014