April 06, 2016

Bangladesh: Was secularism ever part of Sheikh Mujib's political agenda?

New Age (Bangladesh)

Sheikh Mujib: was secularism ever part of his political agenda?
April 6, 2016

WHAT was the cultural identity of Sheikh Mujib and his politics? His critics are content to call him communal, reactionary, etc and supporters think that he is a demi-god but none explains why he was the most successful politician in the history of Bengal. His party Awami League rolls on but his critics have disappeared from the scene along with ‘secularism’ as an issue.
Sheikh Mujib is often called ‘communal’ because he was part of the Muslim League before 1947 which was based on the ‘two-nation theory’. But the entire electoral politics of British India was constructed along ‘communal’ lines due to separate electorate. This system ensured that Muslims, who were a minority, could also get electoral representation as under universal electorate, only Hindus would get elected.
The one-nation theory is a convenient one to profess by any ruling class. In India, the Congress wanted to rule India in its entirety as one nation but many did not accept this basically North Indian — Aryan, Mughal — domination model. The first and most successful contest of this theory was made by North Indian Muslims under Sir Syed of Aligarh. The British also wanted to expand their support base after 1857 beyond Indian Hindus. Contest between Hindus and Muslims became a competition. The difference between both the communities existed at all levels. It became a conflict when the middle- and upper-class Muslims developed a political party and claimed equal access to elite benefits.
The two-nation model of Indian Muslims immediately became a one-nation model when Pakistan came into being. The ‘Muslim’ became the Pakistani, this Pakistan was West Pakistan/centre and everyone else was marginalised. Any political challenge was against Pakistan’s identity, hence Islam. Thus Pakistan became a one-nation theory state. East Pakistanis like earlier Muslims of India challenged this one-nation theory of Pakistan.
After 1971, the Bengalis then emerged as the proponents of a one-nation model of Bengalis and marginalised the non-Muslim, Bengali minority ethnic groups and Hindus. This theory allows domination of other ‘nations’. Had the Dalits of India had a chance they would have claimed a nation-state from themselves too. For the Muslims, geography was an advantage while for the Dalits, spread all over India, this was not possible.

Sheikh Mujib and his history
SHEIKH Mujib was a product of East Bengal rich peasantry, born in 1920 when Bengali Muslim politics, particularly of the Muslim middle class, was rising to compete with Bengali Hindus. The exclusive era of domination by Bengali Hindus, as zamindars and educated elite, was challenged by the newly educated Bengali Muslims.
The Bengali Muslim middle class emerged out of the zamindari system which was dominated by the Hindus; so the oppressor became a communal identity, the Hindus, although all peasants, were oppressed. Muslims peasants were organised by the rural elite like Titumir and the Faraizis/Wahabis but Hindu peasants were deserted by their rural and urban leaders. Thus rural Muslims community resisted British rule/zamindari militantly even as late as the partition of Bengal and this became both a religious and economic identity driven one.
These movements happened all over Bengal but as most peasant Muslims were in East Bengal, the roots of the contest lay close to Sheikh Mujib’s world. His entire political life was largely about the peasants of East Bengal to secure the lost ‘Sonar Bangla’. Secularism was and could not be an issue for him because he grew up in a politics where Muslims peasants were the main oppressed. It was about people, not state principles. It was the same with Maulana Bhashani. They were pro-poor and the poor in their political zone happened to be Muslims.

The Awami League foundation
BENGAL Muslim League was under the shadow of Suhrawardy and Abul Hashem, one a non-Bengali urban elite and the other a zamindar. But in 1949, they both were in India and in their absence, Bhashani and his ilk, including Sheikh Mujib, created the first East Bengal-based party in the form of the Awami Muslim League.
Hindus of East Bengal who were with the Congress — Dhiren Dutta — or the Scheduled Caste Federation — Jogen Mondol — had to develop a working alliance with the Bengali Muslims as they had no other choice. Once Jogen Mondol left, this became even more difficult for low-caste Hindus as the middle and upper class migrated to India. It was not political ideology of secularism that brought Hindus and Muslims together but mutual convenience. The community they never trusted before was ready to make a common cause with the Bengali Hindus. The alliance was possible as the common enemy was Pakistan/West Pakistan. Since Pakistan was ideologically anti-Hindu, the Awami Muslim League, the political inheritance of Bengali Muslims, became the party of Bengali Hindus too living in East Bengal/East Pakistan/Bangladesh.

SECULARISM was never an issue in the six points which was the main document of Sheikh Mujib. His politics was about economic rights and the rest was expected to follow as it did in 1954 elections. The historical tradition of the six points draws its roots from inequality which the East Bengali majority experienced, at Hindu hands before 1947 and later at Pakistani hands after 1947.
Thus the four main principles of the 1973 constitution seems to have been a concern more of the westernised liberal Leftist elite emerging after 1971. Religious freedom was never an issue for Sheikh Mujib or the Awami League. Pakistan was the enemy and everything Pakistan stood for, Mujib was against. He was against discrimination and exploitation, not constructing a Bengali/Bangladesh which would win approval of the old Left liberals who were close to Indira Gandhi’s India. He was a Bengali majoritarian not an ethnic/religious ideologue but nor against any group unless this lot was perceived as against the rights of the majority.

A STUDY of literature of the early 1970s of the secularists groups (‘Dharmonirepekkhata’. A symposium on secularism. Edited by Ali Anwar. November 1973) shows that the four principles were considered by them to be western in source and inevitable. To that extent, it was considered superior as well since these principles were not in the Bengali/Indian tradition. It seems to be more in line with the thinking of Left, liberal, democratic, etc trend represented by the CPI and the CPB rather than that of the Awami League of Mujib, who was not into constitutional declarations of faith management principles but more about economic action.
Secularism never sat happily in the constitution and over time was again used and abused by various rulers. In the end, it got pushed aside by Zia, then Ershad who first declared Islam as the state religion in an act of high opportunism and Hasina who installed it while declaring equal rights for others. It is a constitutional ‘management’.
In more ways than one, this seems to be part of the Awami League’s East Bengali tradition, where separation of faiths along community lines is a reality but that does not mean superiority of one over the others. Secularism in the constitution did not guarantee safety to the Hindus nor does making Islam the state religion make life worse.
But Hindus continue to be denied and they suffer much but that is a socio-economic issue of conflict and privilege, access and power rooted in social vulnerability, not faith. There is no link with the constitution relating to economic marginalisation as the application of the book is very very limited. However, the present constitution is more in line with what the ideas of Sheikh Mujib and his history was than any previous editions of the same book.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.