Bangladesh won a bloody war for independence 50 years ago this month – but the war for its heart has never really ended. The Bangladesh Story has been told mainly in development terms, but it is simply not complete without a proper accounting of the intense battles over its identity.

Originally created during Partition in 1947 as the eastern half of Pakistan, the Bengalis realised their second-class status within the new formation almost right away and began to carve out their own path. In the evolving struggle for their rights, language and culture became the central source of inspiration. As did the idea of secularism – and the aspiration to build a society on the principles of non-discrimination.

The ideals animating Bengali nationalism that culminated in the Liberation War of 1971 led to the creation a new country – Bangladesh – which embraced secularism as one of its four founding pillars. Despite this hopeful emergence against all odds, a portion of the populace remained sympathetic to the idea of an Islamic nation. These pro-Pakistani ideologues and doubters, their reputations tarnished as traitors after the war, remained unreconciled to a main principle of the new nation – secularism.

Raging battle

It may be hard to appreciate today how central the idea of secularism was to the birth of Bangladesh. In the words of the nation’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, “Muslims will practice their religion…Hindus…Buddhists…Christians will practice their religion…We will only object to political use of religion.”

But the war that was won in 1971 was re-opened in August 1975, after the brutal killing of Sheikh Mujib and most of his family. (His daughters Sheikh Hasina, now prime minister of Bangladesh and Sheikh Rehana were the only survivors). Thus began a battle which rages to date between two ideas of Bangladesh: Islamic or secular.

In the decades to come, religion was used as a political tool by successive regimes. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the chief beneficiary of the assassination of Sheikh Mujib, appointed a prominent anti-independence collaborator, Shah Azizur Rahman, as his prime minister. He also lifted the ban on Jamaat-e-Islami, chief allies to the genocidal Pakistani regime. Zia also canceled trials of collaborators which were initiated by Sheikh Mujib. Zia even passed an appalling Indemnification Act to protect Sheikh Mujib’s killers from any trials, and appointed many of them to cushy ambassadorships.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with Bangladesh Air Force personnel. Credit: Bangladesh Air Force, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Zia’s successor, the dictator Gen. Hussain Mohammad Ershad, deepened Islamicising policies in order to gain legitimacy. He made Islam the “state religion” of the country – although Bangladesh remained a “people’s republic” rather than an “Islamic state.” This process continued even after the return to democracy in 1991, as the elections were won by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP, the party founded by Zia. The BNP, then led by Zia’s widow Khaleda Zia, forged an electoral alliance with the anti-liberation Jamaat.

While any party can prove useful as an ally in a first-past-the-post-system, the BNP-Jamaat partnership was more than tactical. BNP’s idea of nationalism, which increasingly placed Islamic identity ahead of Bengali-ness, fit naturally with Jamaat’s Islamist agenda.

How the nation might have evolved if it had advanced with its founding values intact, we will never know. What we do know is that years of Islamicist policies, starting in 1975 by military dictators and their Islamist allies, have taken a toll. Those years also coincided with the rise of Islamic propaganda driven by petro-dollars, and more recently with the advent of cross-border online radicalisation. The net effect of these diverse influences is that a large section of the public by now feel entitled to special treatment on the basis of their majoritarian religious identity.

Promoting Islamic sensibility

The dilution of the secular principle manifests itself now in ways that are both symbolic and substantive. Islamic inscription adorns the frontispiece of the constitution and the halls of the parliament. There are pernicious tweaks to school curricula that promote Islamic sensibility. In the judicial arena, while the country runs on secular laws inherited from the British, domestic matters remain under Shari’a codes for Muslims; and retrograde policies like denying women equal stakes in inheritance persist.

But more than affairs of the state, Bangladesh’s turn away from secularism is evidenced in changes in social attitudes. There is a quiet but pervasive pressure for everyone to comply with putative Islamic conduct. And perceived deviations can be punished in innumerable ways, from legal cases alleging affront to “religious sentiment” to social ostracism or online trolling, and more grimly, with outright death-threats or killings by Islamist groups. The public’s recruitment in the service of such intolerance is evidenced in the scale of periodic demonstrations, usually mobilised by Friday sermons, to protest some perceived offense to Islam.

Just as the echoes of Jim Crow are still battled over during the Black Lives Matter movement more than a century later in the United States, the questions of the fundamental identity of Bangladesh are still being contested over 50 years later, and often violently.

It is worth clarifying that secularism in the Bangladesh context never meant a strict separation of church and state as it does in the West. The term used in Bengali “Dhormo Niropekkhota” may be translated more literally as “religious neutrality”. So instead of proscribing religion from public life altogether what it emphasizes is the equality of all religions and no discrimination on the basis of religion.

The idea of secularism in Bangladesh was thus always inextricably tied with the principle of tolerance – and aptly measured by its absence. The blame for the appalling levels of intolerance today falls equally on successive governments who fanned the flames of majoritarian ego, and on a public that responded to that with tribal alacrity.

The fatal effect of both the state and the public repeatedly buckling in the face of Islamic agitation is most easily evidenced in the toll on free-thinking writers and activists. Writers have been driven to exile by Islamist mobs, most famously like Tasleema Nasreen in the early ‘90s. In the early 2000s, Islamic extremists went beyond threats and stabbed renowned and beloved national poets like Shamsur Rahman and Humayun Azad. By the middle of the 2010s, Islamist extremists conducted grisly targeted killings of free-thinking writers and bloggers, and even moderate Muslim preachers.

Campaigns against secularism

The escalating attacks on free-thinkers is a good measure of how far the nation has fallen from its founding ideals of secularism and tolerance. It has resulted in great part from the unabated campaigns against secularism by multiple regimes from 1975 to 1996, when the promotion of political Islam, and the public’s submission to it, ran unabated. When Sheikh Mujib’s party the Awami League, led by his daughter Sheikh Hasina, returned to power in 1996, the ground had shifted so much by then that even the Awami League could do little to revert to a secular ideal overnight.

Things have taken a more complex turn since the Awami League came again to power in 2009. While their elections have been heavily questioned for their credibility, election interference is hardly unique to the Awami League. What is unique to them, however, is their commitment to secularism.

The Awami League’s efforts to restore the secular ideal have ranged from restoring the constitution, to its original status to putting the perpetrators of genocide in 1971 on trial for crimes against humanity. During the BNP’s last tenure there was brazen promotion of Islam over other religions, persecution and bullying of minorities and even patronization of extremist outfits like “Bangla Bhai” and others. None of that is happening since Awami League took power again in 2009.

What’s more, Awami League also finds ways to stymie Islamist agitators when they try to stamp their anti-secular agenda on national life. A telling example of that occurred when Islamists mounted swelling protests to have a statue of the Lady Justice removed from the Supreme Court. The statue was shifted to avoid visibility from adjacent prayer grounds, but it never left the premises. That little episode perfectly captures the clever but principled accommodation that the Awami League is managing given the changed context that they inherited.

To be fair, the Awami League’s record is not without blemish; for example, secularists decry the party’s initial victim-blaming response to the targeted killing of free-thinkers in the mid-’10s. The grievances of pro-secular social and cultural activists, along with free-thinking writers and bloggers, are well earned since over the decades they have been the main custodian of the secular ideal. And without their sacrifices the Awami League too would have found it all but impossible to uphold principles the party promulgated during the independence movement.

The net result of the decades-long tussle over how secular the country should be, or can be, and in what forms, is a fight that cannot be said to be either won or lost – it is ongoing. At a time when extremism is sweeping through the world, Bangladesh’s long battle for secularism – in a country with 90% Muslims – is in and of itself a remarkable feat.

Bangladesh, once regarded as a country doomed by disasters, has lately turned heads with the clipped pace of its economic and social progress, especially in women’s empowerment, child and maternal health, and school enrolment. While Bangladesh’s development gains deserve all the praise they are receiving, an equally important and impressive victory can be found in that secularism still remains a defining, though embattled, ideal of the country.

K. Anis Ahmed is author of the novel The World In My Hands and a co-director of Dhaka List Fest. He is also the publisher of Dhaka Tribune.