Freedom of religion and secularism: High time for some action

Julian Francis

Just a few days ago, July 6 and 7, in London, a large two-day conference took place titled “Freedom of religion or belief.” It was attended by ministers, government personnel, representatives of NGOs, and activists from about 100 countries. Forty seven of the countries represented brought “pledges” to the conference and a positive one from Bangladesh was read out by Minister of State for Religious Affairs Md Faridul Haque Khan, MP. At the end of the conference, national delegates were invited to co-sign a number of statements on different aspects of religious freedom, belief, and secularism. It is disappointing to note that no countries from Asia endorsed any of these statements. Freedom of religion and secularism has travelled a difficult road in Bangladesh. Many Bangladeshis, including this writer, witnessed, in 1971, that among the freedom fighters and the refugees, all faiths were very active and cooperative. In the refugee camps it was touching to see how the people of different faiths helped each other at significant times. During Ramadan, some Hindu elders approached the Muslims suggesting that, because many of them were sick and starving, they should not observe the fast from dawn to dusk and that, perhaps, they could fast later at a time when they were healthy again. During Durga Puja, Muslims helped make rudimentary pandals and some even managed to make sweets to be distributed. In addition, at Christmas 1971, there was a double celebration, Christmas and the victory over the Pakistani forces a few days earlier. At this time, I am also reminded of a very moving incident which took place in West Bengal in January 1972. As thousands of the refugees were returning home to Bangladesh from India, Bangladeshi Hindu leaders from some of the Oxfam supported refugee camps came to my Oxfam office in Calcutta (Kolkata) to request for extra funds so that their Muslim “brothers and sisters” be given sweets as they crossed the Bongaon/Benapol border in the last few days of January when Eid-ul-Adha should have been celebrated. In 1972, Eid-e-Miladunnabi was observed at the end of April. Just before that, it is seen from the archives that Dr Kamal Hossain, then chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, said at a meeting that the constitution would incorporate the four principles of democracy, socialism, nationalism, and secularism. At the end of April 1972 on the occasion of Eid-e-Miladunnabi during a speech at a gathering at Baitul Mukarram, Bangabandhu declared that his government would not allow religion to be used for political purposes. He also said that the four basic principles -- democracy, socialism, nationalism, and secularism -- are compatible with the teachings of the Prophet and a happy and prosperous nation could be built on these principles. Bangabandhu also said that there would be no attack on any religion and the citizens of Bangladesh would be completely free to practice and profess their respective religions. The government that seized power in 1975 was strongly influenced by religious extremist groups which encouraged the government to remove “secularism” from the constitution and replace it with “faith in Allah.” In addition, Islam became the state religion. The Awami League government has, however, restored “secularism” in the constitution and it should be pointed out that Article 12 (d) of the constitution states that “The Principle of secularism shall be realized by the elimination of any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion.” Be that as it may, over the last 20 years or so, there have been numerous attacks against minority communities -- Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Garos, and Chakmas to name a few -- and I understand that none of the murderers and looters have ever been convicted. For instance, after the 2001 elections, hundreds of Hindus were killed and a judicial inquiry found that 25,000 people -- including 25 former ministers and MPs of the BNP-Jamaat led alliance -- were linked to the attacks. What is the reason that no action has been taken? It is high time that the home ministry explains why no action has been taken in respect to the numerous murders committed at the time of the elections in 2001 as well as on other occasions, including the atrocities against the Buddhists at Ramu in 2012. It is expected and demanded by many that swift action by the Home Ministry is taken to see that justice is done, as far as these cases from 21 years ago are concerned. In April 2021, while writing about Boishakhi, I wrote: “As the country celebrates Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary, the concept of secularism and respect for all religions has been coming under attack by brainwashed followers of Hefazat and others. Therefore, it is even more vital and important to celebrate, with loud voices, all aspects of religious and cultural diversity that are present in this beautiful country.” Mahatma Gandhi used to say that one of his eyes was Muslim and the other Hindu, and he appealed for a “union of hearts.” In the run up to independence in 1947, a famous Urdu poet, Allama Iqbal, who had written many soul-searching anthems, wrote Naya shawala, the new shrine. Through it, he called upon Hindus and Muslims to erect a new temple of unity. I heard it sung again while I was in Calcutta in 1971 and again on many occasions since then and I searched for a translation: If you don't mind, oh Brahmin I must tell the truth- These idols in your temples These idols have grown old. They teach you to hate your kith and kin So does the Mullah, climb the pulpit And preach aggression and war. In disgust, I have shut my ears To the chants and the calls From both, the temple and the mosque. In stone, oh Brahmin, you seek God I see Him in the dust of my motherland. Let the temple bells mingle with the muezzin's call Let us erase every trace of alienation And break the barriers of separation. Let us build a new temple of unity, The grandest, whose spears will reach the sky; Let the devotees drink the elixir of unity And sing the song binding the bonds of harmony For human liberation lies in love and compassion. In the context of current communal relations in South Asia, particularly in India, these words are moving. Gandhi had such high ideals -- Sarva Dharma Sambhava -- respect for all. And what is destroying it all, particularly in India, is the mixing of religion and politics. Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.

(Courtesy Dhaka Tribune)