Syed Badrul Ahsan
The nation observes Constitution Day today. On 4 November 1972, the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh was adopted. The Members of the Constituent Assembly (Gano Parishad), led by the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, affixed their signatures to the Constitution on 14 December 1972. The Constituent Assembly was dissolved on 15 December 1972. The Constitution went into force on 16 December 1972 on the first anniversary of Victory Day. On the basis of the Constitution, general elections were for the first time held in independent Bangladesh on 7 March 1973.
Earlier, within months of Liberation, in April 1972,Bangabandhu had directed the formation of a parliamentary committee tasked with the drafting of the Constitution. Headed by Dr. Kamal Hossain, the Law Minister, the committee was comprised of Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed, A.H.M. Quamruzzaman, Abdur Rahim, Abdur Rouf, Lutfor Rahman, Abdul Momin Talukdar, Abu Sayeed, Mohammad Baitullah, Barrister Amir-ul-Islam, Badal Rashid, Asaduzzaman Khan, Mosharraf Hossain Akhand, Abdul Momin, Shamsuddin Mollah, Abdur Rahman, A. Rahman, Fakir Shahabuddin Ahmed, Abdul Mostakim Chowdhury, Khorshed Alam, Sirajul Haq, Dewan Abul Abbas, Hafez Habibur Rahman, Abdur Rashid, Suranjit Sengupta, Nurul Islam Chowdhury, Mohammad Khaled, Razia Bano and Khitish Chandra Mondol.
It is now important to note some very significant reasons why we should be going back to the Constitution as it was drafted, deliberated upon and adopted in 1972. It matters little what its detractors happen to be saying about it. There are some who think that Bangladesh will never go back to 1972. You tend to wonder why they should be saying that. Such men have always been vociferous defenders of the infamous Fifth Amendment, a piece of paper that will always be remembered for all the notoriety it brought into Bangladesh’s politics between August 1975 and April 1979 and even beyond that. When you place that amendment in juxtaposition to the 1972 Constitution, you know what your preference ought to be.
The 1972 Constitution remains by far the best and most eloquent instance of our self-expression as a nation. And it is because you have within it all those principles that went into the forging of Bengali nationhood, into an espousal of the four ideals which governed our thoughts as we waged war against the state of Pakistan in 1971. For those of us who were witness, either on the fields of battle or in internal exile in occupied Bangladesh, to the villainy that could be committed by an army and by the very state it spoke for in the name of national integrity and in defence of what was clearly fake religiosity, thoughts of nationalism, democracy, secularism and socialism were patently the new and needed underpinning of our collective life as a nation.
And yet, when you examine the historical parameters of Bengali heritage, you realise only too well that these four principles had always been at work among Bengalis. What occurred in 1947, when we decided hitch our wagon to thePakistan star, was but an aberration, and a grave one at that. And no matter how some people might inform you that Partition was inevitable, that the two-nation theory was the dominant reality of the time, you know in your heart and in your soul that it was anything but the truth. And we paid grievously for it. Indeed, all of us in what used to be undivided India have paid for the monstrosity of partition. The communalism that was inaugurated in the 1940s lingers, in diverse and sinister ways, all across the subcontinent.
The battle for Bangladesh in 1971 was, from the historical as well as philosophical perspective, a necessity in order for communalism, for an unnatural course of politics, to be set aside. That we were first of all secular Bengalis and not communal East Pakistanis was what increasingly came to be reasserted in the 1950s (think of the Jukto Front and, before that, the language movement) and reinforced through the 1960s. The War of Liberation simply formalized, through the supreme sacrifices of three million Bengalis, that secular Bengali spirit.
The Constitution of 1972 was but a moral and legal adoption of that spirit. In the 1972 Constitution lay embedded the highest ideals of political liberalism. That the state of Bangladesh was the abode of everyone who inhabited it, everyone across the frontiers of faith, was the point the Constitution drove home. Religion, having regularly been an excuse for Pakistan’s rulers to explain away their political misconduct and their racial prejudices (what was done to East Pakistan was political and economic exploitation resting on deep-seated racism on the part of West Pakistan), was restored by the 1972 Constitution to its proper, noble place. It was kept well out of the political arena, for democracy and religion coming together is always a toxic mix.
In January 1975, the Fourth Amendment to the 1972 Constitution changed the governmental structure of the state, but it did nothing to undermine the four fundamental principles upon which the state was founded in 1971. The real damage to the Constitution came with the advent of the country’s first military regime. The assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the four national leaders between mid-August 1975 and early November 1975 provided the opening the martial law regime of General Ziaur Rahman needed to push the country into regression mode.
General Zia had no business tampering with the Constitution. But since it has always been the rule with dictators to play God, Zia thought he could do a bit of tinkering with 1972. And the moment he did that, through giving the Constitution a dash of the communal, he opened the floodgates to disaster. Had Bangladesh been a proper democracy constituted of a politically enlightened citizenry, the general and those who humiliated the country thus would have been held guilty of sedition. The regime, in authoritarian fashion, removed secularism from the Constitution and at the same time exiled Bengali nationalism through bringing in a spurious concept of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’ to replace it.
If Zia hurled the first blow at the 1972 Constitution, General Hussein Muhammad Ershad followed with the next. He thought, in the infinity of his wisdom, that the state of Bangladesh was in dire need of a religion. People need religion. Countries do not, for they are home to men and women of all religious beliefs and persuasions. But Ershad told us Bangladesh needed a religion. And so the republic was burdened with one. Now the fallen dictator would like us to know — and he said it some years ago —that Bismillah and the state religion should not be tampered with.
But that is not our concern, is it? Our worry has more to do with the fact that two military dictators have tampered with the 1972 Constitution. It is their bad legacy which has spawned communal politics and has seen the rise of the Jamaat-e-Islami with all its murderous, unrepentant traits and the Hefazat-e-Islam with all its hearkening back to an era that conflicts with modern notions of political liberalism. It is the Constitution of 1972 we must go back to if we mean to have secular democracy revived and flourish in our land.
Democracy must touch the lives of all citizens. That is the reason why the 1972 Constitution, in its restored and rejuvenated form, must enshrine within it the political and historical rights of all the ethnic groups, all the sub-cultures that have inhabited this territory for ages. They are the Chakmas, Marmas, Mros, Santals and so many others.
Do not sacrifice their interests and their aspirations only because Bengalis happen to constitute the bulk of the population.
(Syed Badrul Ahsan: Contributing Columnist, Shottobani)