Secularism and the virtue of tolerance | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 26, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:59 AM, September 26, 2017

Secularism and the virtue of tolerance

Secularism, as one of our fundamental state policies, was unanimously adopted by the Constituent Assembly. The Assembly was of the view that without the high ideals of secularism, none of democracy, nationalism or socialism can thrive. The adoption of secularism basically was in response to the viles of communalism that West Pakistan subjected our people to and also was in line with the idea of never allowing the (ab)use of religion for any political purpose. However, the virtue of tolerance was always embedded essentially in the very word 'secularism'- “….secularism, not amounting to irreligion; where a Hindu shall profess his religion, so shall a Muslim, a Christian and a Buddhist. And no one shall interfere with the religion of others”, as the then Prime Minister and the leader of the Constituent Assembly, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman said (Constituent Assembly Debate, p. 20). Secularism only speaks for the freedom of 'living' a religion which embraces the concepts of the freedom to believe and the freedom to act in pursuance of that belief.

One has the inviolable right to believe in whatever religion (s)he thinks is proper and has a qualified right of practising that religion. Laws can, in no way, take this right away rather can only regulate the manner of professing and practising it. This right, reciprocally, gives birth to an obligation; obligation on part of those against whom such right can be claimed. In furtherance of this constitutional obligation, everyone needs to contribute individually and collectively towards the exercise of another person's right. And nonperformance of such obligation surely is tantamount to a violation, in an indirect yet brawny way.

Everywhere around the world, the religious minorities suffer and get subjected to atrocities which can only (in)humanly be carried out.  The Rohingya refugees are no exception to this unwritten transnational principle(!). None other than in an arguably 'secular' modern Myanmar, has Suu Kyi been able to bury her head in the sand over the ethnic cleansing of the minority Rohingya Muslims. Arguably so, because on one hand, the Constitution of Myanmar recognises the 'special position' of Buddhism as the faith professed by the majority and on the other hand, it also recognises Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism as the religions existing in the Union (Articles 19 & 20). However, it seems that the constitutional recognition, in reality, did not get realised in the lives of the Rohingya minorities. Religion only may not be the sole factor working behind the present situation. However, other factors basically got fleshed out because of religion. It's their minority which has made them vulnerable to the means of exploitation, to the vested politico-economic interests of others.

In a similar way, we can view and analyse the rarely-discussed reality lived by the Dailt (untouchables) Muslims in India (BBC News, 10 May 2016); not to mention the rise in the numbers of 'cow vigilante groups' and its unimaginable impact on the not-arguably-secular State.

Bangladesh is not lagging behind either. Pre Durga Puja celebrations(!) in our country have always been two-faceted. As far as newspapers remind us, on one hand, Durga faces get the very final touches and simultaneously, many of them get defaced (The Daily Prothom Alo, 29 August 2016, 8 October 2015, 27 September 2014). The Hindu community has a constitutional right to celebrate their biggest religious festival as an integral part of the right to practise their religion, without any interference and a blow upon the exercise of this right only gives an indication that the majority, or a part, however small thereof, has started sailing towards bitter tomorrows. The Constitution of Bangladesh, unlike that of Myanmar, categorically provides for secularism as one of the State's fundamental principles. And hence, to my understanding, there is no scope for deeming otherwise or questioning the State's constitutional stance in terms of all the existing religions, notwithstanding the Article keeping the provision of State religion.

Optimistic minds would not like to contemplate the gravity of the situation of India and Bangladesh in terms of their respective Muslim and Hindu minorities. Nonetheless, even extreme optimism would not disagree that these incidents do have the potentials of leading to something irreversible. The 1982 Citizenship Law was not enacted overnight in Myanmar. It had a context with an undeniable significance. The separate identity of the Rohingyas was recognised under the democratic regime (1948-1962). However, despite such recognition, the Rohingyas did face discrimination. The situation worsened in 1962 in the wave of the military takeover which subjected them to demeaning and humiliating restrictions. Thus the prologue for 2016-2017 Rohingya tragedy was written more than 60 years ago, with the aid of some apparently insignificant and small-scale discrimination. Hence, today's India or today's Bangladesh, too, can be feared of as a proem to a shameful exodus in an unseen future.

One country's majority heaves a sigh of grief sympathising the sufferings of those who are minority in a neighboring land. We are empathetic towards the inhuman degradation a minority goes through, mostly when such minority resembles us, in one way or the other. Planet earth could be a better place to live in only if every majority was compassionate towards the minorities residing in their land irrespective of the resemblances and could comprehend the truest essence of secularism. Now is the time to practise tolerance, along with one's one religion. Because tolerance is what secularism stands for; tolerance is what Article 41 of the Constitution impliedly speaks of.

The writer is a student of law, University of Dhaka.  

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