THOUSANDS OF protesters marched in capital Dhaka on Thursday against Bangladesh parliament adopted an Islamic constitution, steering away from a secular political culture, which was enshrined in 1972 constitution.
A half a mile long rally organized by a conglomerate of left parties and pro-secular groups, chanting anti-government slogans and waving red flags marched towards the parliament, where the ruling party and her alliance lawmakers hastily adopted several amendments to the constitution on Thursday noon.
Hundreds of riot police in flak jackets, armed with shot guns and tear gas shells blocked the marchers putting up barbed-wire fences. The protesters in summer heat and intermittent rain stopped at exit of the Dhaka University, where leaders in makeshift dais addressed the crowd and bitterly criticized the government for switching to an Islamic constitution.
In a massive constitutional reform, the non-partisan interim government has been deleted, which was practiced for 15 years to hold credible elections and ensure smooth transition to an incumbent political government. The opposition fears that the ruling party will rig the election, despite denial by the prime minister.
A set of 55 amendment proposals were incorporated in the constitution amendment bill by 289-1 division vote.
Main opposition described the abrogation of neutral caretaker government from the democratic constitution will be written in the history as a “black day”. Opposition leader and former prime minister Khaleda Zia threatened series of street protests and political agitations to undo the constitution reforms.
Prime minister Shiekh Hasina warned the opposition not to create anarchy and instead olive branches to hold parleys with the government and suggest how to hold a credible election scheduled in 2014 and also reduce military interference in state polity.
The prime minister was highly critical of the last military-backed caretaker government (2006-8), which sent the present prime minister and opposition leader to prison for corruption.
The independence war veterans, secularist and left leaning parties have came down heavily on the government for converting a secular political culture to an Islamic one.
Several lawmakers mostly from the left leaning parties have voted against the proposed amendment of the constitution, which has included Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim (in the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful), a verse from Koran in the preamble and Islam as state religion.
The ethnic minority leader Mangal Kumar Chakma in a statement protested the new constitution, which has termed the indigenous peoples as “tribals, small nationalities, ethnic groups and communities.”
What angered the indigenous peoples when the discovered that they have been bracketed as “Bangalee”, who are majoritarian Sunni Muslims. The indigenous communities divided in several sub-groups have different languages and are mostly Buddhist, Hindu and animist.
Bangladesh gained independence from Islamic Pakistan after a bloody war on the principle to establish a secular and democratic nation.
Former Justice Golam Rabbany lamented at a seminar on Thursday that from now the nation has lost its secular identity, which was gained after decades of struggle. The sacrifices of thousands of martyrs during the independence war forty years ago have been insulted, he decried.
Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and elective democracy. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org