State religion socially and politically discriminatory

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THE full verdict of the High Court, put on the Supreme Court web site on April 21, on a writ petition challenging in 1988 the legality of the declaration of Islam as the state religion has noted that it has not created any discrimination among religions as the constitution has ensured the practice of other religions. This brings to the fore an issue for consideration. The incorporation of Islam as the state religion by way of the eighth amendment to the constitution on June 7, 1988 lays out that the state religion of the republic is Islam while the state will ensure equal status and equal right in the practice of other religions. The High Court in the short verdict on March 26, 2016, rejected the writ petition that a civic group, Autocracy and Sectarianism Prevention Committee, filed challenging the legality of the amendment that instituted Islam as the state religion. The declaration could, legally speaking, be considered right on the premise that it was passed by the parliament with the required majority. It should, however, also be remembered that the parliament, constituted in 1988, was controversial and that there was no referendum held to seek public opinions on such a culturally sensitive issue. But it appears, socially and politically speaking, discriminatory in a democratic dispensation where the republic has adherers to faiths and beliefs other than Islam.

In a republic that has adherers to faiths and beliefs other than Islam, who are reported to have accounted for as many as 8.96 per cent, which is close to 15 million, a state religion in the constitution is, of course, discriminatory as the constitution in a democratic dispensation is supposed to b e a ‘social contract’ forged between people of all classes and faiths and a democratic republic, therefore, leaves no scope for the state to have a religion, which may have other ramifications on believers in other faiths. The major unpalatable ramification is that with Islam as the state religion, adherers to other faiths and beliefs are automatically relegated to second-class citizens and other faiths and beliefs are automatically under-prioritised. This also constitutes an expression of religious majoritarianism and is antithetical to the secularist view of a democratic republic, as laid out in the preamble to the constitution, as a fundamental principle. It, thus, stands that Islam as the state religion is incompatible, socially and politically, with secularism, stated as a fundamental principle, that forms part of the constitutional framework of the country. Moreover, after the constitutional amendment had been passed in 1988, both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, along with some other parties in the opposition, as it was reported the day after, opposed the declaration of Islam as the state religion, both noting that people would not accept the provision meant to fool the citizens.

While the government as the manager of the state, keeping to the constitutional provisions, must ensure equal status and equal right in the practice of all religions, faiths and beliefs, the political leadership must see that the republic in a democratic dispensation cannot have a state religion, for it is is socially and politically discriminatory.

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