Eminent citizens from all walks of life feel that successive constitutional amendments have been made for political, personal gains since the country’s constitution came into being after the liberation war 50 years ago.
Bangladesh’s freedom fighters, constitutional experts and jurists, journalists and civil society groups and minority groups are questioning if the country’s present constitution at all retains the spirit of the 1972 war of liberation.
A series of discussions over the weekend suggested a disquiet among jurists, academicians, intellectuals and civil society leaders. The discourse on the path taken by Bangladesh’s constitution over the five decades since the country became an independent nation centres on two points – one of the country going back to the constitution of 1972 that did not specify a state religion and another on how the present day constitution has been purposed to serve the ruling class.
November 4 is observed as constitution day in Bangladesh, commemorating the constitution’s adoption on this day in 1972 by the constituent assembly.
At a seminar organised by the Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad, former minister Dr Abu Sayeed opined that the 1971 liberation war was fought to establish a democracy, with no space for military dictatorship or religious identity. But, he regretted, the military rulers who took power at the point of the gun changed those features. This was evident as the killers of the country’s first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or Bangabandhu added the invocation from the Quran atop the constitution.
AMS Arefin Siddique, a former vice chancellor of Dhaka University said that it would be difficult for democracy and for the rule of law and equality to take roots unless the 1972 constitution is restored, as that constitution embodied the spirit and dreams of the liberation war.
There was also concern over the rise in religious fanaticism. Senior journalist and freedom fighter Shahriar Kabir said that fanatical forces are working to strangulate democracy and freedom in the country by taking advantage of the ‘state religion’ clause of the current constitution. He said he wants a restoration of the constitution of 1972 as it bore the concept of secularism espoused by the makers of the original constitution of 1972.
Arguing for the removal of the clause of state religion from the constitution to retain the spirit of the liberation war, secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad Rana Dasgupta said that religious-ethnic minorities have become state minorities since the idea of ‘state religion’ was introduced, in turn dividing the country.
Speaking of the modern-day challenges to the Constitution, editor of The Daily Ittefaq, Tasmima Hossain, cited the enactment of the Digital Security Act, which he said works at cross-purposes with the constitutional guarantee of the citizens’ freedom of expression.
One way out would be the establishment of an ombudsman as this will help upholds the rights of citizens. Former governor of the Bangladesh Bank Atiur Rahman said, “The constitution clearly states the fundamental rights of citizens but there is no ombudsman to monitor whether it is being implemented or not.”
Political, personal gains
Krishna Debnath, a former judge said that the many amendments to the constitution over the years have actually mutilated the constitution. He sought to know if these were necessary and if the responsibility for these deviations will ever be fixed.
He asked, “Were they actually necessary? It was done for political necessity and personal reasons. Who will take responsibility for this?” The responsibility lies with parliamentarians, intellectuals and civil society, he said, adding that the country’s supreme court should act as the guardian of the constitution, not as a guardian of any government or to fulfil the desires of any individual.
Supreme Court lawyer Qazi Zahed Iqbal spoke of how, entirely for personal reasons, the constitution was amended during General Ershad’s dictatorship to facilitate the swearing in of a hand-picked deputy prime minister.
Repeated, “haphazard” amendments have led the State to deviate from the aspirations when the constitution was first formulated in the days following the 1972 liberation war as most constitutional amendments were made for either political or personal gains, legal experts associated with the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust said.
The felt that though the constitution provides for the fundamental rights of citizens including freedom of speech and expression, the lack of oversight on the part of the state to monitor how many of these rights are actually being ensured is a matter of concern.