Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Religion-based political parties and the Bangladesh Constitution

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.

Bangladesh, despite a few extra-constitutional bumps on the road, has been very successful in keeping harmony among people of all faiths, which is consistent with the long-standing political and cultural history of the Bengali people. 

Recently, a Vatican leader Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, during his visit to this country, expressed happiness that Bangladesh could be considered "as an example of how it is possible for people of different religions to live together, cooperative together and simply be together."

He tried to ascertain the reasons for such an extraordinary characteristic of Bangladesh. He posed questions: "Is it based in Bengali culture? Is it based in constutional realities? Is it based in the history of the country? Is it based in the realm of religions themselves and in particular in Islam as it exists and is followed here? I leave the answers to those to experts."

Given the foregoing paragraphs, one may argue strongly that if a political party uses religion for political purposes, meaning when it wants to change the basic structure, laws and judicial system of Bangladesh on the basis of one religious doctrine to the exclusion of other religions or faiths, it is counter to Article 12 of the amended constitution.

UN declares Somalia famine in Bakool and Lower Shabelle

The United Nations has declared a famine in two areas of southern Somalia as it suffers the worst drought in more than half a century.
An estimated 10 million people have been affected by the drought in east Africa.

The UN said the humanitarian situation in southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle had deteriorated rapidly.
It is the first time that the country has seen famine in 19 years.
Meanwhile, the UN and US have said aid agencies need further safety guarantees from armed groups in Somalia to allow staff to reach those in need.

Al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group which controls large swathes of south and central Somalia, had imposed a ban on foreign aid agencies in its territories in 2009, but has recently allowed limited access.
An estimated 10m people have been affected in east Africa by the worst drought in more than half a century. More than 166,000 desperate Somalis are estimated to have fled their country to neighbouring Kenya or Ethiopia. 

'Rarely used'

Drought, conflict and poverty have now combined to produce the necessary conditions for famine. Those conditions include more than 30% of children being acutely malnourished, and four children out of every 10,000 dying daily.
"Across the country nearly half of the Somali population - 3.7 million people - are now in crisis, of whom an estimated 2.8 million people are in the south," said a statement by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for Somalia.

It said that the ongoing conflict had made it extremely difficult for agencies to access communities in the south, which are controlled by al-Shabab.

"If we don't act now, famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months, due to poor harvests and infectious disease outbreaks," the head of the agency Mark Bowden warned.
The BBC's Africa correspondent Andrew Harding says the emotive word "famine" is used rarely and carefully by humanitarian organisations, and it is the first time since 1992 that the word has been applied to a situation in Somalia.

The UK Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, said the response by many European and developed countries to the crisis in the Horn of Africa had been "derisory and dangerously inadequate".

"The fact that a famine has been declared shows just how grave the situation has become. It is time for the world to help," he said.

Meanwhile, the UN is calling for unhindered access to affected areas, saying that the security situation is hampering humanitarian efforts.

Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, told reporters that the situation for aid workers in Somalia is "not what we want it to be".

"We do have a very minimal presence, and we have regular visits into the country, but we need significantly better access than we have at the moment to address an emergency of this scale," he said, speaking from Geneva.

The UN World Food Programme, which is trying to feed 1.5 million people, estimates that as many as one million people are in areas it cannot currently access.

"Once we have the assurances of security and the ability to have full access to deliver and distribute and monitor, then we will be prepared to go back in," Emilia Casella, a spokeswoman for the WFP, told the Associated Press news agency.

Johnnie Carson, the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, says the US was assessing if they were seeing "real change" from al-Shabab, or whether the group planned to impose some kind of "taxation" on aid deliveries.

"Al-Shabab's activities have clearly made the current situation much worse," Mr Carson said.

"We call on all of those in south-central Somalia who have it within their authority to allow refugee groups and organisations to operate there to do so," he said.

In a separate development, Amnesty International says children in Somalia are being systematically recruited as child soldiers by militant groups such as al-Shabab.

Drawing on interviews from more than 200 Somalis who have fled their country, the rights group says some of those recruited are as young as eight years old.

The report says al-Shabab lures children with promises of money and mobile phones, but also carries out abductions. 

Areasn Of Food Shortages.