Constitution Day . . . reviving the spirit of 1972

 Syed Badrul Ahsan

The Bengali nation observes Constitution Day on 4 November. On this day in 1972, the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh was enacted and adopted. The members of the Constituent Assembly (Gano Parishad)comprised lawmakers elected to the Pakistan National and Provincial Assemblies at the general election in December 1970 who then, in the aftermath of the genocide launched by the Pakistan army in March 1971, joined the War of Liberation in allegiance to the Mujibnagar governmentformed in April 1971.

In November 1972, led by the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the members of the Constituent Assembly 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 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 comprised 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.

In the half century since the Constitution was adopted, it has gone through as many as seventeen amendments. The country has alternated between parliamentary and presidential forms of government before returning to the parliamentary system. It experienced an overhauling of the state through the formation of what was described at the time in January 1975, through the Fourth Amendment, as the formation of a national front known as the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Baksal).

Constitutional government was rudely interrupted when Bangabandhu was assassinated in August 1975. It came under the onslaught of extra-constitutional regimes, first on 7 November 1975 and then on 24 March 1982, when two generals, in that order, commandeered the state.

The Fifth Amendment incorporated the infamous Indemnity Ordinance preventing any questioning in any court of law of the assassinations of the Father of the Nation and his family on 15 August 1975 and validating all acts undertaken between then and till the adoption of the amendment in 1979. Other amendments have included the bifurcation of the higher judiciary in the era of a military regime as also the formation of caretaker governments to supervise general elections in the country. Another amendment had the caretaker amendment system revoked.

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 atrocities 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 spurious 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 to hitch our wagon to the Pakistan star, was but an aberration, and a grave one at that.

And no matter how some people might inform you that the partition of India 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 a 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.

It is the Constitution of 1972 we must go back to, with its underlying philosophy of Bengali nationalism, 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.

It will not do to sacrifice their interests and their aspirationsonly because Bengalis happen to constitute the bulk of the population. Majoritarian politics is not what this nation fought for in 1971.

(Syed Badrul Ahsan: contributing columnist, Shottobani)

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