Published on July 31, 2022The history of Bangladesh is the history of peaceful coexistence and harmony among people of all religions, castes and races. But every time the colonial rulers made a mess to destroy the harmony to rule the Bengali nation easily. But it was Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who realized the matter first and reshaped his political tactics by uniting all irrespective of religions and races to make the nation free from the long-existing exploitation in name of religion. Thus, the idea of secularism came in effect officially after the birth of Bangladesh.
It is one of the main pillars of Bangladesh constitution. It is interpreted in different ways at different times. Many believe that secularism means the absence of religion as there has been widespread propaganda about secularism. But does secularism mean atheism or state without religion? The answer is no. It means non-communalism, stopping the use of religion as a tool to create anarchy. Basically, secularism does not mean the absence of religion, rather it means a peaceful co-existence of people from all beliefs in the society and performing their religions freely. It is very important, particularly for a nation-state like Bangladesh that came out of a common language. Because Bengali nationalism was evolved centring on the struggle for the rights to speak in the mother language. A non-communalism, irrespective of religions, colours and beliefs, played a crucial role to grow nationalism, which later brought an independent Bangladesh.
Before moving into the topic, let’s discuss the relations between the state and religion. In the modern state system, religion-based state or secularism is a political concept. There is no connection between people’s personal religious belief with this concept. A person without religious faith can speak about religion a lot at a political stage, or vice-versa. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, for example, was a complete pious man obeying the rules of Islam personally, but he did not want a religion-based state politically in the united India. On the contrary, Muhammad Ali Jinnah has been the founder of religion-based state Pakistan despite leading a British lifestyle. Even a Christian in Iraq does not first introduce himself as a Christian, but an Iraqi as he is more comfortable with his nationalistic identity rather than the religious one. In the same way, Bangladeshi citizens also uphold their cultural harmony for thousands of years and build a peaceful social system for generations after generations. Based on this fact, Bangabandhu followed the path of secularism officially after the independence of Bangladesh.
Why did religion-based partition not work?
East Bengal joined with West Pakistan in 1947 due to religion but this land was renamed East Pakistan. The Muslims wanted to get rid of the discriminatory policies and treatment of the English during the British regime. Then, there grew a religion-based nationalism, resulting in the birth of the Pakistan state. In 1946, 97 per cent of Bengali people cast vote for creating Pakistan, but the behaviour of the West Pakistanis changed soon after the partition. The East Bengal soon realized that the West Pakistanis had already harmed the people of this region in disguise of Islam. Though they used Islam as the signboard, they did not follow the minimum of it, rather started exploitation, discrimination and repression.
Thus, the true face of the Pakistanis, covered by the name of Islam, began revealing before the mass people. The repressed people started getting united demanding an exploitation-free society and thus there rose a new upsurge among people of all religions and colours. The nationalism grew through a massive movement in 1952 following Jinnah’s 1948 announcement to make Urdu the state language, awoke the nation based on non-communalism. Thus, Bengali nationalism stood based on secularism, which ultimately gave birth to an independent Bangladesh with the call for building an exploit-free and discrimination-free society.
A small example can clarify the matter of changing the mindset of people within a short period. The then very powerful political party Muslim League again used religion as their political tool during the United Front election in 1954. On the other hand, Awami League-led United Front promised people to build a non-communal society free from any sort of discrimination and exploitation. The people, who cast 97 per cent of the votes for Pakistan during 1946 provincial elections based on religion, now rejected the religion-based politics in empty hands within few years. Out of 237 Muslim majority seats, Muslim League managed to bag only nine seats, Awami League-led United Front won the rest 215 seats. Within half of the decade, people forgot their illusion of a religion-based society and started longing for a state with humanity and dignity. In between 1954 and 1971, people of this 80 per cent Muslim majority region did not want to fall the state into the trap of religion, causing no rise of communal force during this period. The mass support went for building a non-communal and humanitarian state, on which nationalism got its meaning leading to the Liberation War for an independent Bangladesh. As a result, after the independence, the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman announced secularism as one of the four pillars of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s journey to non-communalism under Bangabandhu’s leadership
Taking the initiative to frame the Constitution after the independence, Bangabandhu wanted to break the old structure of the state and build a new system to improve the lifestyle of the mass people. Bangabandhu envisioned a Bangladesh where human rights will be ensured for all. To this end, he declared secularism as one of the principles of the state to tighten the nation permanently with the cultural harmony irrespective of castes and religions that have been continued for thousands of years. He also clarified the meaning of secularism so that there was no propaganda against it.
Addressing the constituent assembly on November 4, 1972, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman said, “Secularism is not the absence of religion. The Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists and the Christians will perform their respective religions. Nobody can interrupt one another. We object that nobody can use religion as their political tool. We have seen fraudulence in name of religion, exploitation in name of religion, dishonesty in name of religion, and oppression in name of religion for 25 years. It happened in the soil of Bangladesh. Religion is a very holy thing. Holy religion can no longer be used as a political tool. The constitution has made arrangements to protect the religious rights of seven and a half crore people through secularism.”
One thing needs to mention here that Bangabandhu along with Sher-e-Bangla and Suhrawardy wanted to build Pakistan prominently at his early age. But he was frustrated seeing the way Pakistanis were using the religions for their interest. Then, he began working for building a non-communal state. Regarding this, Bangabandhu in his autobiography “Unfinished Memories’ writes: “After the creation of Pakistan I thought there was no need for the communal institution as Pakistan was born, there should be a non-communal institution which would have a specific manifesto.”
But Pakistanis tried to forced Urdu for us as the Islami language. But when Mohammad Ali Jinnah at Suhrawardy Udyan in 1948 made the announcement, young Sheikh Mujib with some others protested instantly. Later while in prison, he wrote about the language movement, “Muslims in different countries speak in different languages. Arab Muslims speak in Arabic. Persian people speak in Persia. Turkey people speak in Turkish. Indonesian people speak in Indonesian. Malaysian people speak in Malay. Chinese people speak in Chinese. But only they thought of deceiving ordinary religious people of East Pakistan in name of Islam, but they could not.”
The things that played the most crucial role in the rise of nationalism during the Pakistan period include urge of a discrimination and exploitation free society, the struggle for democracy and secularism. That is why the United Front won the 1954 election and Awami Muslim League became Awami League in 1955 under the leadership of Bangabandhu. The non-communalistic nationalism got momentum in the 1960s by the six-point demand that mainly called for constitutional, economic and political autonomy. But the basic philosophy of the six-charter was Bengali nationalism which lay in non-communalism. The slogans like ‘Padma-Megna-Jamuna, Tomar Amar Thikana,’ ‘Jago Jago Bangla Jago’, ‘Joy Bangla’ were not slogans only, these were the tones of non-communal harmony of Bengali nation irrespective of castes and religions.
Secularism through practising the religion by hearts
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came of a very renowned Muslim family in 1920. He grew up in his locality Tungipara village of Gopalganj. He was influenced by the then political atmosphere since his teenage. In his autobiography the ‘Unfinished Memories’, Bangabandhu wrote, “This was the time of the Swadeshi movement. Madaripur's Purna Das was then terrorizing the British. The Swadeshi movement for self-rule had spread to every part of Madaripur and Gopalganj. It seemed to me that Subhas Bose's party was the most powerful of all the political parties in Madaripur.” The teen mind of Sheikh Mujib developed a negative impression against the English then. And from this belief, he thought ‘The English have no right to stay in this country, we have to bring independence.”
From the autobiography of Bangabandhu, it is known that one Hamid master, an anti-British movement leader, used to teach him in 1937. And he was very familiar with Purna Das of Madaripur who served in jail for his movement. Even rebel poet Kazi Nazrul Islam sent a poem titled ‘Purna-Abhinandon’ dedicating to him.
Bangabandhu got the learnings of peaceful co-existence without Hindu-Muslim division from his teen ages. He was able to avoid communalism due to his passion for the nationalist movement and Subhash Bose later, and thus his mindset was developing with the spirit of humanity.
Later, when Shahid Suhrawardy and Sher-e Bangla AK Fazlul Huq went to Gopalganj in 1938, Suhrawardy asked Sheikh Mujib to join Muslim Chhatra League. In 1940, Sheikh Mujib joined the All India Students Federation. He got involved actively in the Pakistan movement when he was residing in Bekar Hostel of Islamia College in Kolkata. But no fanatic or extremist communalism could not touch him at all. He witnessed the communal riots during the partition, ran to cause of helpless people and tried to mitigate the riots in Kolkata.
When the non-communalism environment was deteriorating for the English, many took initiatives to sustain the environment but those went in vain again and again due to the ‘Divide and Rule’ of the British. Pakistanis also tried to use religion as a shield but Bangabandhu's indomitable leadership and Bengali people’s trust in him made the Pakistani effort failed. Bangabandhu started his political career with Muslim League and over time, he became the icon of non-communalism politics. That is why, he emphasized secularism to make Bangladesh a real democratic, non-communal and welfare state. And it was the main and first condition for Bengali nationalism. The secularism of Bangabandhu means non-communalism, stopping misuse of religion for political purpose and neutral stance of the state regarding religious affairs. In a word – religion is personal, and state is for all.