On the Minority Question: Constituent Assembly Debates on Secularism and National Others in Bangladesh

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 4:10 PM
Calvert Room (Omni Shoreham)
Dina Siddiqi, BRAC University
The fifteenth Amendment to the Bangladesh constitution, approved by Parliament on June 30, 2011, was widely heralded as a landmark moment in the postcolonial nation’s constitutional and political history. Among other things, the Amendment sought to undo “damage” to the constitution wrought by fifteen years of autocratic militarized rule. As such, the four state principles inscribed in the preamble to the original 1972 constitution – nationalism, democracy, socialism, and secularism – were duly restored. Notably, Islam’s status as state religion, introduced during the rule of General H. M. Ershad, remained untouched.

In this paper, I examine the roots of the many inconsistencies produced by the fifteenth amendment. These, I argue, can be traced to specific conceptions of secularism immanent in the dominant Bengali Muslim/Bangladesh nationalist imaginary. Scholars have noted the relative clarity of debates around secularism in contrast to the contentious discussions over non-Bengali ethnic minorities in the Constituent Assembly. This, I suggest, was because secularism – defined in the constitution as the absence of communalism - was critical to national ontology. That is, secularism was not about minority rights, religious or otherwise. It represented a precondition and aspiration to Bengali ethnic and linguistic nationhood, one that ostensibly transcended religious difference. Those who were Bengali speaking, Muslim or not, were by definition, part of the nation. Non-Bengali speakers, Muslim or otherwise, could be only outside the nation.

In light of the above analysis, I ask what the original and current constitutions look like from the perspective of religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities today.

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