Political modernity is believed to have begun with the separation of religion from the State. Bangladesh is not the only country where the concept of the secular State and politics has faced serious challenges in recent years. The rise of Hindu nationalism in India continues to be a threat in Indian politics.
Tuesday’s ruling by the Bangladesh supreme court, restoring “secularism” to the country’s constitution and paving the way for a ban on religion-based political parties, is, therefore, of historic significance both for the country and the subcontinent. There are other important aspects of the ruling, especially the one that makes army takeovers “unconstitutional”.
But, more than anything else, it is the return of “secularism” to the country’s constitution that is the high point of the judgment. It reflects the new nation’s struggle to blend Islam with secular democracy and nationalism. The country has a mixed record in achieving this, but the successes seem to outweigh the failures.
However, the legal battle over the fifth amendment shows deep divisions within the political class in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party is clearly upset with the ruling, especially because it makes its founder, Ziaur Rahman, look like a tinpot dictator.
The BNP’s ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, has even more reasons to be unhappy. As the biggest religion-based party, it may face a ban if the ruling is written into the constitution. But the issues that the ruling raises are not political; they are central to the nation-building process in Bangladesh. Repeated army takeovers and martial laws once threatened to make the country a banana republic. In recent years, the rise of religious fundamentalism made the world worry about Bangladesh.
The court ruling brings an assurance of a change that Bangladesh desperately needed. But only a vigilant public can defend the rights that the constitution gives it.