Is she heading towards a theocracy?
A M M SHAWKAT ALI
The four-party alliance government is presently faced with a two-pronged attack from religious bigots. The major plank of the attacks is from the armed cadres of JMB. The other plank is from International Khatme Nabuwat Movement Bangladesh (IKNMB). IKNMB’s primary objectives is to force the state to declare the members of the Ahmediyya community non-muslims. This demand was said to have been raised in 2004. The ultimatum to government then given had a time-limit of one year. It expired on last Friday. The members of IKNMB spearheaded the attack on Ahmediyya mosque. The clash with the police that ensued resulted in injury to 54 persons including some policemen on duty.
The first ever organised attack on the Ahmediyya community was in Lahore in Pakistan in 1953 organised by Maulana Maududi, the founder of Jamat-I-Islam in the then Pakis-tan. The normal law and order machinery broke down as anti-Qadiani or Anti-Ahmadyyia riots gained in intensity. This resulted in declaration of martial law in the city of Lahore. It was not in the nature of army being called out to quell the riots. The law and order management was left wholly at the hands of the army in 1953. General Azam Khan was in command. The situation was brought under control in no time. Since then not much was heard about anti-Quadiani riots.
In Bangladesh either during pre-1971 or post 1971 until recently, there was no major organised onslaught on the Qadianis. It gained momentum after 2001. Some analysts link this to the rise of Jamaat as a political force beginning from post 1975 days. During the period from 1975 to 1988, successive military regimes amended the Constitution. The amendments provided an Islamic tinge to the Constitution culminating in the declaration of Islam as the state religion in 1988. Earlier to this amendment, not only that the word ‘secularism’ was dropped from the Constitution but other amendments were also effected. A key amendment made was to allow religion-based political parties to function. The original constitutional provision imposed ban on use of religion in politics. National and international researchers explain these moves as part of the attempt to create favourable legal and political environment for parties wedded to the ideal of establishing Islam rule in Bangladesh. Jamaat-e-lslam emerged as the party having larger following than other parties wedded to the political concept of establishing Islamic rule in Bangladesh. However, such following is nothing compared to the popularity that the two major parities command.
The one-year ultimatum to the government to declare the Ahmadiyya community as non-muslim itself constitutes an offences because this is an utterance that is insulting to this community. Attacking Ahmediyya mosques is another and the list can go on.
The existing constitutional provision
Despite the above trend of amendments in the constitution and the subsequent political development, freedom of religion is guaranteed as one of the fundamental rights. The existing constitutional provision affirms that subject to law, public order and morality, (a) every citizen has the right to profess, practice or propagate any religion and (b) every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions. Seen in this light, the Ahmadiyya community enjoys full protection under the constitution to profess, practise, establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions. In practice, after 2001, despite such protection, this community has become frequent targets of attack from Khatme Nabuwat. The government, ofcourse, has always tried to save this community from such attacks. The attempts to foil the attacks appear to be in the nature of prevention rather than deterrent punishment in accordance with law.
What is the law
The law in this respect is very old and dates back to British rule when the penal code was framed. The penal code has a specific chapter on offences relating to religion. Under different sections of the penal code, the nature of offences are defined and varying terms of imprisonment ranging from one to two years are prescribed. The offences include (a) injuries or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class, (b) deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any classes by insulting its religion or religious beliefs, (c) disturbing religious assemblies in the performance of religious worships (d) trespassing on burial places to wound the feelings of any person or insult his religious beliefs and (e) uttering words with deliberate intent to would religious feelings.
Has there been any punitive action
As already stated, in the past and even now the government’s actions have been in the nature of preventive rather than punitive in terms of enforcement and subsequent prosecution under the laws of the land. The actions so far taken may even be construed to be in the nature ofpreventing outbreak of religious violence. Prevention based on the principle of evenhanded justice does not seem to be under consideration of the government. The one-year ultimatum to the government to declare the Ahmadiyya community as non-muslim itself constitutes an offences because this is an utterance that is insulting to this community. Attacking Ahmediyya mosques is another and the list can go on.
Problems of constitutional governance
Politicians and constitutional experts, more often than not, point out the imperative need for constitutional governance. Anything said or done which is contrary to constitutional governance is perceived to be a breach of the constitution. However, politicians including members of the legal profession inside the parliament appear to forget the fact that the breach of constitutional provisions can only checked by free and fair application of law. There may be and in fact are many gaps and inadequacies in the existing law which need to be addressed. At the same time, the more important things is to enforce the existing law without fear or favour, affection and ill-will which are part of the constitutional oath of office of the prime minister and ministers. There is no doubt that these salutary principles are not always followed in letter and spirit.
Narrow partisan interests, the propensity to hang on to authority, familial and other considerations blur the vision of constitutional governance. Electoral alliances are formed not on the basis of identity of ideologies and constitutional tenets but solely with the narrow objective of gaining entry into corridor of power. The current debate on four-party alliance tends to confirm the above view. Significantly, the debate is not only limited to the mainstream opposition party or parties but also is very much inside the major party of the existing alliance. This debate inside the major party in government has been brewing up for quite sometime. It ultimately came out in the open after some members of parliament of the majority party accused insiders within the alliance after August 17 serial bomb blasts. The majority party emphatically denied such accusations as did the other party, Jamaat, within the alliance.
Two streams of religions bigotry
As things stand now, there are now two major streams of religious bigotry. The first stream is spearheaded by the JMB whose armed cadre is now waging war on constitution and against the state. The intensity and the nature of the attacks led government with no option but to take legal action. Apart from the majority party in government, other parties wedded to the political belief in the establishment of Islamic rule and governance also have apparently come out in the open in support of government. Public misgivings continue to remain, however, about the sincerity of the expressed support to curb acts of terrorism in the name of Islam.
As the media, the mainstream opposition alliance, and the civil society continue to point accusing fingers at Jamaat, the majority party openly and emphatically defend the continuity of their alliance. However, lesser political parties with Islamic leanings and other Islamic organizations representing the second stream have voiced and continue to voice other demands that appear to make the position of four-party alliance government less than credible.
First, the apex agency of the Qaumi madrasha has recently issued a message of warning not to search and arrest students of such madrashas. It also demanded release of those already arrested. At least two MPs of the alliance government also addressed the public meeting organised by the Qaumi madrasha board. Second, as the suicide bombers of JMB and their cohorts continue to make confessional statements to the police about the top leaders of JMB responsible for asking and inspiring them to resort to bomb blasts to kill judges and lawyers, the Amir of Jamaat who is also a senior minister openly accused the mainstream opposition party of being responsible for such blasts. He said this in a meeting organised by the Masjid Mission where the state minister respectively of home and religious affairs ministries where present. In this meeting, the state minister for home affairs categorically sought support from all concerned to help the police to arrest the two top leaders of JMB. This is in sharp contrast to what the Amir of Jamaat has said in the meeting. Third, the state minister was recently asked by journalists as to why no sedition charges have been brought against the those members of JMB and their top leaders. The answer was neither positive nor negative in the sense that the state minister claimed that this was done at least in one case. Why other cases are left out? The state minister, however, promised to look into the issue. This means that government has not made up its mind and wants to go on a case by case basis although the gravity of the offence remains identical.
All of the above trend of events appears to make things very confusing for the citizen in so far as it relates to firm handling of terrorists. This confusion is compounded by verbal attacks from other Islamic parties that accuse Jamaat. For instance, Khatma Nabuwat which is out to pressurize government to declare the members of the Ahmadiyya community as non-muslims or Kafirs held Jamaat responsible for not taking a legislative proposal for such a declaration. Jamaat in its turn, is not clarifying its stand on the issue. The question is whether Bangladesh is sliding down towards a theocratic state, which is anathema to constitutional governance and international covenants of civil and political rights.
Dr A M M Shawkat Ali is former Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture.