Secularism, Bangali Hegemony and Our Constitution

September 14, 2010

Photo: Naeem Mohaiemen

Hana Shams Ahmed

[The Forum, The Daily Star, September 2010]

The Constitution of Bangladesh has been brought under the microscope for the 15th time since 1972. With the annulment of the fifth amendment of the Constitution through a judgment by the Supreme Court this year, the Constitution is to revert to some of the core values behind the formation of the original 1972 version, whose four main pillars were democracy, socialism, nationalism and secularism.

The latest judgment by the Supreme Court gives us a chance to look closely at the Constitution, which was adopted soon after the liberation war ended in 1971, in the aftermath of the emotions and ideology that led the nation in the struggle for identity and existence. While the 1972 document had an equal vie towards citizens of all religions, ethnic, cultural and linguistic pluralism were patently absent from the document. Thus, while the 1972 constitution was even-handed to all religions, it did not recognise the fifty or more indigenous peoples and their distinct identities, who still remain as second class citizens of Bangladesh.

When the draft of the Constitution of Bangladesh was presented to the Constituent Assembly in 1972, Manabendra Narayan Larma (founder general secretary of PCJSS) refused to endorse a Constitution that did not recognise the existence of people of other ethnic origins than Bangali . He had protested: “Under no definition or logic can a Chakma be a Bangali or a Bangali be a Chakma‚Ķ As citizens of Bangladesh we are all Bangladeshis, but we also have a separate ethnic identity…”

Thirty-eight years after MN Larma’s protest, the time has finally come to correct a basic flaw in our national constitutional framework. The formation of the current special parliamentary committee to review and recommend constitutional amendments is a welcome move by the government. Its recommendations must include remedies to a Constitution that is still ethnically communal in nature, putting people from non-Bangali groups outside our definition of nation.

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