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Old January 29, 2013, 12:11 AM
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Religion-based political parties and the Bangladesh Constitution

Barrister Harun Ur Rashid
On June 30th, the Bangladesh Parliament passed the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, and it was signed by the President on July 3rd. The Constitution now comes into effect with the assent of the president.
The Constitution of 1972 has gone through 14 amendments, the last of which was adopted in May 2004.
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution brought 55 changes, some of them reversions to the 1972 constitution, following the judgment of the apex court on the illegality of the fifth, eighth and thirteenth amendments.
The opposition party BNP boycotted not only the sessions of the Parliament when the 15th Amendment was passed but also the deliberations of the special parliamentary committee on constitutional amendments.
One of the amended ones is Article 12, which prohibited religion-based politics. The question is whether a political party's name with the words "Muslim" or "Islamic" or "Hindu" or "Christian" is prohibited under the constitution.
The answer to the query is in the negative because it is not just the name of the parties that matters.
What matters is whether a political party wants to change the structure of the constitution and laws of a state on the basis of a particular religious set of guidelines. In such circumstances, it is considered using religion for political purposes and is counter to the Constitution of Bangladesh, which is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-religious state.
When political parties in their manifestoes want to change the structure, system of government, judiciary and laws of a state in accordance with the principles and beliefs of a particular religion among multi-religious citizens, people of other faiths in such a state perceive gross discrimination on the basis of religion. Such discrimination is arguably untenable under the Bangladesh Constitution.
In many European countries, political parties have prefixed the name of a religion, such as Germany's Christian Democratic Union and Christian Union in the Netherlands. In Pakistan, it is Muslim League, and there are parties with Hindu names in India.
Although many political parties in Europe have prefixed the word "Christian," there appears to be no intention to change the basic structure of a state's existing structural system and laws on Biblical doctrines.
The word "dharmanirekhapata" (religious pluralism) is to be distinguished from non-involvement with religion. Religious pluralism implies governmental engagement with religion for the purpose of treating all religious groups fairly, equally and equitably, while non-involvement implies governmental isolation from matters of religion.
It is argued that in the background of festering and destructive communal politics in British India, religious pluralism and Bengali-language based nationalism constituted the spirit of the Liberation War of 1971. The fact that Pakistani Muslim soldiers committed crimes against humanity against Bengali Muslims in 1971 demonstrates that commonality of religion could not hold back the Pakistani soldiers from committing such nefarious crimes.
Religious pluralism is a golden thread running through the Constitution that was adopted on November 4, 1972. The concept of freedom of religion is further stipulated in Article 41 of the Constitution, which is as follows:
"(1) Subject to law, public order and morality:
(a) every citizen has the right to profess, practice or propagate any religion;
(b) every religious community or denomination has the right to establish, maintain, and manage its religious institutions
(2) No person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or to take part in or to attend any religious ceremony or worship, if that instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than this own."Article 41 is founded upon on religious pluralism. In Bangladesh, people of various faiths are deeply religious, and the most devoutly religious people are also the staunchest defenders of religious pluralism.

The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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