Bangladesh Constitution and the National Minorities


The Bangladesh constitution, which was adopted on the 4th of November 1972 and came into effect on16 December in the same year, begins with the Islamic words “BISMILLAH-AR-RAHAMAN-AR-RAHIM” (In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful). This was inserted through the Proclamation (Amendment) Order, 1977 (Proclamation Order No. 1 of 1977). In fact, since its inception, the constitution has undergone many amendments, the latest one being the thirteenth amendment, and through this provisions have been made for the installation of a Non-party Caretaker government after the dissolution of the Jatyo Sangsad. Most of the other amendments were made either to provide for absolute power in the hands of a single party or to abridge civil and political rights of the citizens of the country. Even for the gratification of self-interest of some individual politicians and army generals, the Supreme law of the land had to be cut to size. The Sixth Amendment of the constitution is a case in point. This change in the Constitution was made to favour Abdus Sattar so that he could become eligible to stand as the BNP candidate for 1981 presidential election. But it is an irony that, when it comes to the question of the constitutional recognition of the national minorities, this vary political elite who brought about such changes and amendments refuse to amend the constitution on the pretext that the national minorities are insignificantly few in number. But what they refuse to understand is the fact that it is for the greater interest of the whole country, and not for a tiny section of it, that such a constitutional amendment has become necessary.

However, due to all these amendments the constitution has lost its original character and it has been highly Islamised. In fact this process of Islamisation of the constitution started during the rule of Ziaur Rahaman with the insertion of Islamic words. But it was General Hussain Muhammad Ershad who has completed this process by declaring Islam as state religion through the Eighth Amendment. Article 2A says, “The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in the republic”. With this insertion, one of the religions as practiced in this country has been placed above the other ones, and discrimination and religious prosecution against other religious groups intensified.

In the Preamble the constitution declares that “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah, nationalism, democracy and socialism meaning economic and social justice… shall be the fundament principle of the Constitution”. Further, in the chapter on fundamental principles of state policy, article 8(1) says, “The principles absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah, nationalism, democracy and socialism meaning economic and social justice, together with the principles derived from them as set out in this Part, shall constitute the fundamental principles of state policy”.

Again clause 1A of the said article provides that “Absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions”. One can aptly ask: are the actions of the ministers and other persons in the service of the state, who belong to religions other than Islam, based on “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah?” Whatever the intention of these amendments, at least theoretically, the non-Muslims are bound by this article, and in their actions relating to the service of the republic or the running of the state they are required by the constitution to place their faith and trust in the Almighty Allah. I do not know how the others would interpret this article of the constitution. But so far I have never seen any protest or objection being raised by any section.

It hardly needs to be mentioned here that the Bangladesh constitution does not recognise the distinct identities of the National minorities of the country. After liberation, Manobendra Narayan Larma, one of the two elected MPs from the CHT, submitted a memorandum to the Constitution Committee headed by the then Law minister Dr. Kamal Hossain and put forward the demand for regional autonomy. He also fought for the just rights of the Jumma people in the Jatya Sangsad and raised the demand for the recognition of the national minorities of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But his demand fell on the deaf ears of the boastful Awami League leaders. Larma refused to endore the draft constitution bill and walked out of the house in protest.

When General Ershad brought the Eighth Amendment into the constitution making Islam as state religion, almost all the political parties worth the name including Awami League and BNP protested against it, and held that this went against the main spirit of the constitution and impaired the secular image of the country. But it is irony that when these two parties came to power in succession, none took the initiative to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

The 1972 constitution made provision to the effect that all the citizens of the republic are Bengali. Article 6 of the original constitution says, the citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bengalis. But this article was changed later during the rule of Ziaur Rahaman, who termed the citizens of the country as Bangladeshi. The Bengali identity of the citizens created a lot of controversy and debate, and the Jumma people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts protested this and asserted that they are not Bengali, they have their own identity, though as citizens of the country they are Bangladeshi.

Thus it is quite clear that the constitution discriminates against the national minorities and does not reflect their hopes and aspirations. It is highly islamised and gives expression to the Bengali chauvinism. It also gives preferential treatment to the Bengalis, the dominant ethnic group, over the others.

Bangladesh is a multi-racial multi-cultural heterogeneous country where a number of ethnic minorities have been living side by side with the Bengalis for centuries. It is expected that the constitution should accommodate them and protect their rights by giving recognition to their distinct identity and culture. We need such a constitution which will provide equal footing to all the nations and national minorities within this country and give them equal rights so that no ethnic group would be able to enjoy special privilege by virtue of its being majority. Only such a constitution can be termed as democratic.

The article was published in Bangladesh Observer on June 15, 2003