Minority Communities Call For Re-establishment Of Bangladesh 's Secular Constitution
6/18/08 DHAKA (UCAN) -- A forum representing religious minorities in Muslim-majority Bangladesh has called for an end to Islam as the state religion, claiming this two-decade-old Constitution change made them "second-class citizens."
ba_dhaka.gifBangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad (Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian unity council) observed June 9, exactly 20 years after the government pushed through the Islamic amendment, as a "black day."
The protest meeting it held at the Dhaka Reporters Unity auditorium demanded reversion to the 1972 Constitution, which was formulated shortly after the country's bitter war for independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Under that constitution religion and state remained separate until June 9, 1988, when Article 2A was added through the 8th Amendment. It reads: "The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in the Republic."
In reality, rally speakers complained, minority religions face repression.
"Each year we get together on this day, we speak, and then everything is finished," complained Sabittri Bhattacharja, a Hindu leader of the council. "One government goes, another comes, but still we remain as 'number-two' citizens," she told the gathering of 200 Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.
Bhattacharja said that when members of minority religions fought as Bangladeshis for independence and freedom 37 years ago, they did not expect to end up with a constitution that treats them as "second-class citizens."
She claimed that oppression of minority groups has worsened since the amendment in 1988, alleging that after the 2001 general elections, many Hindu women were raped and murdered. Hindus are sometimes targeted because they are viewed as a vote-bank for one particular political party, the Awami League.
"A Hindu grandmother and her granddaughter were raped and killed by Muslim terrorists after the 2001 general elections," Bhattacharja asserted, adding that their bodies were cremated together.
Also vocal in his denunciation was Shahriar Kabir, a renowned Muslim journalist, filmmaker, human rights activist and author of books on human rights, communalism, fundamentalism and the independence struggle.
"The constitution of 1972 was the symbol of unity following our 1971 independence war," Kabir said. But the government today does not include any members of the minority communities, he complained.
Rosaline Costa, coordinator of Hotline Human Rights Bangladesh, told the meeting that people's rights had been "snatched" away.
The Catholic human rights activist told UCA News on June 12 that then-president and former military chief Hossain Mohammed Ershad enacted the 8th Amendment "to use religion (Islam) so that he could stay in power for a longer period."
Ershad ruled Bangladesh for eight years after seizing power in a coup in 1982. Mass protests ousted him in 1990.
"When people started talking against his (Ershad's) military rule, Ershad used religion as an easy tool to divert them," Costa explained. She said he took advantage of the Muslim-majority population's God-fearing nature, poverty and low educational level to pass the 8th Amendment in parliament.
Once the constitution had been changed, she added, people with bad intentions started misinterpreting it, telling the mostly illiterate Muslims that " Bangladesh became an Islamic state."
"Islam is the state religion, as per the 8th Amendment," she acknowledged, but "the state is not an Islamic state."
Costa claimed the amendment led to a rise in Islamic militancy, a clampdown on cultural events and bomb attacks at celebrations and in cinemas.
"Now police are deployed (for security) during celebrations of Christmas and other religious and cultural festivals of minority communities," she pointed out.
Despite the rise in Islamic fundamentalism, Costa said many Muslims in the country believe in secularism and could help re-establish the 1972 Constitution.