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Minority Rights, Identity Politics and Gender in Bangladesh: Current Problems and Issues

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  • Pages: 6
  • Word count: 1264
  • Category: Minority

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Minorities have been variously defined in international forums. First the following definition was constructed prior to the Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in 1977 to Article 27 of International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (16 Dec. 1966)

Minorities were considered to be a group numerically inferior to the rest of the population of the state, in a non-dominant position, whose members being citizens of a state, possess ethnic beliefs or linguistic characteristics differing from the rest of the population and show if only implicitly, a sense of solidarity directly towards preserving their culture, traditions, religions or language. (Capotorti, 1991, 96)

In Article 11 of the UN Declaration on Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic religious and Linguistic Minorities 18 Dec. 1992, it is stated that states should protect the existence of national or ethnic, cultural or religiously defined identity of minorities within their respective territory. Under certain circumstances foreigners can come within the range of this definition.

According to the first definition protection of minorities are linked to citizenship. Here the criterion of citizenship is considered essential for their protection. This is a rule usually subscribed to by the European regional system. At the universal level however, minority protection is a basic human right, which is linked to territoriality. Hence even foreign minority communities falling under the jurisdiction of a state shall have the right of protection.

Bangladesh is composed of several different religious groups, including the Hindus who represent 10.5% of the population and form the largest religious minority group in Bangladesh, the Christians who make up 0.32% of the population, the Buddhists amounting to 0.59% of the population. Other minorities including the Adivasis or ethnic minorities or indigenous communities, and the Biharis (stateless people) make up 0.26%. Biharis are generally Sunni Muslims. The exact number of ethnic groups in Bangladesh remains contested. Hindus and Christians essentially are scattered over different parts of the country, while the indigenous population is largely concentrated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and the plain land Adivasis inhabit the border areas of the northwest and northeast. The Biharis who are considered stateless people and represent linguistic minority groups are concentrated in and around the capital city, Dhaka as well in the northern districts of Syedpur and Rangpur.

Despite the fact that there exists a whole range of minorities in Bangladesh, especially religious groups, the Constitution of Bangladesh does not distinguish these groups from the majority population. Art. 1 Part 1 of the Constitution declares Bangladesh as a unitary state, and Art. 6 (2) state that the citizens of Bangladesh shall be known as Bangladeshis. There is thus no specific reference to the recognition or to the identity of minorities in the Constitution of Bangladesh. There are however articles, which establishes the fundamental rights of citizens of Bangladesh.

Article 27 states that all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law. Article 28(1) says that the state shall not discriminate against any citizens on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. However political realities have proved otherwise. In the face of communal tensions the state often assumes the position of protecting all citizens and thereby dismisses the need to establish minorities as a category to be protected. It is because of this that minority and human rights groups feel the need to incorporate constitutional safeguards for the protection of minorities. This is something, which the Bangladesh state and its majoritarian political system still try to resist.

The Construction of Minorities in the Discourse of the State

Two majoritarian trends is located in the evolution of the Bangladesh nation-state. The first based on the majority religion i.e. Islam and the second based on Bengali language i.e. Bangla. The first trend helps to construct the concept of religious minorities, i.e. those professing other religions like Hindus, Buddhists and Christians while the second helps to construct the concept of ethno-linguistic minorities as in the Chakmas, Marmas, Tripuras and plain land Adivasis on the one hand and linguistic minorities like the Biharis on the other. The section below attempts to sketch the evolution of the Bangladesh state with respect to the evolution of religious and linguistic-racial ideology espoused by the state.

Religious Identity and Bangladesh


Secularism was one of the four pillars of the first Constitution that was drafted in post independent Bangladesh. This principle was constructed largely in response to the use of Islam as an ideology of domination by the Pakistani state vis a vis the Bengali population. During the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh the military crackdown and genocide committed by the Pakistani Army was often justified by calling the Bengali Muslims as kaffirs or non-believers or Hindus. Needless to mention non-Muslims in East Bengal got specially targeted. Therefore the way in which secularism entered the political discourse in Bangladesh, did not mean the absence of religion nor a separation of the state from religion but rather each will observe their own religion and that no one will be allowed to interfere in the other. It also noted that religion cannot be used for political ends.

Article 12 of the first draft of the Constitution stated that the principle of secularism should be realized by the elimination of

a. communalism in all its forms

b. the granting of the state of political status in favor of any religion

c. the abuse of religion for political purposes

d. any discrimination against, or persecution of persons practicing a particular religion

e. no persons shall have a right to form or be a member or otherwise take part in the activities of, any communal or other associations or unions which in the name or on the basis of any religion has for its object, or persons a political purpose (The Bangladesh Constitution, 1972:27)

The above principle resulted in a state practice where all religions were tolerated for example in ceremonial state functions not only the Quran Tilawat would be recited but also verses from the Gita, Bible and Tripatak. Such tolerance at the religious level was however not matched with toleration of ethnically and linguistic diverse population, because the independent state of Bangladesh rested on a cultural hegemony of the Bengali speaking people and hence excluded the political demands of a ethnic minorities. However that is another story.

But well meaning as the above clauses of secularism were it could not withstand the political turmoil of the mid seventies, which saw the assassination of President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman by a bloody coup and the eventual takeover of President Zia ur Rahman, first, as Chief Martial Law Administrator and then as President. The constitutional changes, which accompanied this political changeover of power, were equally radical. Secularism as a principle of statehood was replaced by the clause “the principles of absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah”. Socialism was replaced with the phrase ‘economic and social justice’ (Constitution of Bangladesh, 1991:9). It was also a time when the banned party of Jamaat-e-Islam which had collaborated with the Pakistan Army was rehabilitated back into mainstream politics.

1981 saw the assassination of President Zia ur Rahman and from 1982 to 1991 Bangladesh came under the autocratic rule of General Ershad. A further constitutional amendment (the 8th amendment) declared Islam to the state religion of Bangladesh. It was a ploy to use Islam as policy of statecraft so as to gain more friends and allies in the Islamic countries as well as to legitimize his autocratic rule. It is interesting to note that even the right wing parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islam opposed this since it fell short of their ideal which was to make Bangladesh into an Islamic Republic.

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