State and Religion
State and Religion : Religion plays a significant role in the state system of today’s Bangladesh. It was far more so in ancient and medieval times. Even the British rulers, who were least concerned with the religious beliefs of the people, recognised their religious sensitivities, and prudence dictated them not to interfere with the religious affairs of their subjects. The state of Pakistan, though founded to become a home for the Muslims, also thought it discreet not to disturb the ways of life of other religious groups.
The dominance of religion in the state system seems to have been quite apparent throughout the history of Bangladesh. In ancient times religious establishments and priests usually enjoyed the patronage of the state. It was the conscientious duty of the rulers to support the religious establishments and the priestly class by way of land grants, endowments, charities and brittis or grants. For obvious reasons, they favoured their own religions while other religions declined in the absence of state favour. Brahmanical religion flourished under the Guptas who were Brahmanic themselves and declined under the Palas who were Tantric Bhuddists. The great Bhuddist viharas were established during the Pala rule. The Brahmanical faith revived under the Sena kings. For lack of royal patronage Bhuddist establishments shrank and by the 13th century the faith virtually became almost extinct from India.
The transition from one faith to another at the state level was always painless because such changes did not involve changes in the fundamentals of religious practices at village or community level. The rise and fall of gods and goddesses took place within the main framework of the existing religions, and within the practices of the community. There was even a popular doctrine that religion changed rightfully from age to age. In other words, religion had one form during the Satya Yuga (age of truth) which followed Veda, another during the Kreta Yuga (age of Ramayana) and still another during Dapar Yuga (age of Mahabharata). There was no strife or tension among the believers during all these periods.
The term ‘Hindu’ came into currency after the establishment of Arab rule in Sindh and subsequently of Turko-Afghan rule in northern India including Bengal. By attributing the territorial name ‘Hind’ to its people the Muslim rulers began to call the people of Hindustan Hindus as opposed to Muslims. Politically the former identities of people as Brahmins, Khatriyas, Sudras, Tantriks, Shibaits, etc became obsolete and got incorporated into one grand religious category, Hinduism. The Indians got a common religious name for themselves. The elite Indians could quickly grasp the significance of this name. They accepted the appellation for themselves at once. For them, the term Hindu carried a new identity.
In blanketing the Indians with one monolithic religious name, Hindu, the Muslim rulers were perhaps influenced by a practical problem of governance. To the Turko-Afghan ruling aristocracy, the state that they had established by ousting the native rulers in the early 13th century was a Muslim domain, in spite of the fact that they were an insignificant minority. They realised that governing a non-Muslim society by Islamic edicts was sure to meet resistance. Hard realities dictated the Muslim rulers to govern the country under two sets of laws, one for the Hindus and other for the Muslims. All people other than Muslims were treated as Hindus in the eyes of law. Hindus were governed according to Hindu laws and Muslims according to Muslim laws.
Therefore, the Turko-Afghan rule did not come as a threat to the Hindu system. It was essentially a change of rulers rather than of religious beliefs. The Turko-Afghan rule did not also lead to any remarkable change in the structure of the elite society. They were kept entirely undisturbed in their control of land and other resources of the country. The local administration was entirely vested in their hands. The religious establishments and educational and charity institutions continued to enjoy the rights and privileges that they had hitherto been enjoying from the preceding regimes. Participating in war in a Muslim state is farz or compulsory for all citizens, although the non-Muslims were exempt from military service in lieu of a tax called jizia. The Turko-Afghan rulers, though they waged many wars, had refrained from imposing the jizia tax on the Hindus.
In their administrative system the Sultans changed nomenclatures of posts and positions, but rarely the structure and functions of the existing institutions. They took the local Hindu elite into partnership and conferred on them high titles like mahapatradhipatra. They tried to please the native people by patronising their literature, supporting their religious establishments and promoting agriculture, trade and industry. Though the Sultan assumed the title khalilullah or representative of God, he also considered himself to be a patron of Hindu establishments and institutions. Perfect amity between the Hindus and Muslims prevailed during the pre-Mughal regimes. The rules of the Holy Quran and the Sunnah and those of the Purana and Dharmasastras operated harmoniously side by side.
The situation of state and religion in Mughal Bengal assumed considerable secular character in the sense of religious neutrality practiced by the Mughals in Bengal. The Hindu nobility had played a significant role in founding the Mughal state. In recognition of their contribution the Hindu nobles got responsible state positions. Like the Sultans the Mughal rulers also administered the country according to Hindu and Muslim laws. The state gave patronage to both the Hindu and Muslim religious establishments without much discrimination.
The Mughal regime in Bengal was characterised by large scale Iranian immigration into Bengal. Among the immigrants were sufis most of whom settled in the countryside and propagated Islam among the Bangalis. The expansion of Islam in Bengal was more or less the singular achievement of the sufis. In propagating Islam the sufis had been practicing the syncretistic tradition. The local myths, rites and rituals were blended with sufistic Islam which did not attach crucial importance to the scrupulous observance of the fundamentals of Islam and which discovered merit in the local belief systems as well. The khanqas of the sufis attracted all sorts of devotees, Muslims and non-Muslims. Conversions to Islam did not arouse any commotion among the rest of the non-Muslim population because such an act did not materially change the existing ways of life.
The most important branch of Mughal administration was land revenue. For revenue collection they had created the zamindari system. The zamindars collected tax on behalf of the state and they took the local issues to the highest authorities on behalf of the rural population. They were the representatives of both the state and of the people. The Mughal government chose most of these zamindars from amongst the Hindu elite. During the Nawabi period in the early 18th century it was the Hindu zamindars who dominated the countryside. The Mughals also employed the state amla and mutsuddis (civil service cadres) mostly from amongst the Hindu elite. The trade and commerce including banking became the monopoly of the Hindus. All these were indicative of the Mughal policy of accommodation and partnership in governance. The Hindus and Muslims were looked at as equally important elements in administration and social life.
That the Hindu and Muslim elite were not yet inclined to behave on communal lines is well attested by the fact that in all the palace coups that took place at Murshidabad, including that of the staged Battle of Palashi, the Hindu and Muslim amirs were divided on the basis of group or individual interests rather than religious beliefs. Many Hindu leaders extended support to Sirajuddaulah while there were many Muslim leaders to support the conspiracy against him.
With the beginning of the East India Company rule in Bengal in the late 18th century, the state and religion had entered a new phase in which government departed drastically from the policies of the preceding government. Though the Company officials themselves were devout Christians and maintained chapels at Calcutta Fort William and on the ship at sea, they seemed to have carried no religious ambition to India. No missionary was allowed to enter the Company state and preach Christianity. Missionaries like Carey and Ward operated from the Danish settlement at Serampore. As for the internal affairs about religion, the Company possessed no liking or disliking for either Hinduism or Islam.
Up to 1785, the officials used to join on invitation the Hindu and Muslim religious festivals. But the Cornwallis administration banned it on the ground that it was a source of corruption among the officers who received gifts and presents in cash and kind from the hosts. The Company state never yielded to the pressure of the London evangelicals to open India to Christian missionaries in spite of the fact that there had been mounting pressure from the end of London. Within the Company’s state, the authorities kept constant watch on the movements of the missionaries. They were not allowed to use any state facility in their evangelical activities. Missionaries were allowed to operate freely from 1833 but no state support was ever held out to them. The missionaries were directly funded by various British based organisations which included British and Foreign Bible Society, Baptist Missionary Society, Established Church of Scotland, London Missionary Society and Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society.
But some actions of the Company’s government had created considerable misgivings among the natives about the religious neutrality of the government. The government policy of large scale resumption of lakharaj or rent-free lands and forcing their holders to pay revenue to government had stirred commotion among the lakharajdars. They were required to produce their valid documents in favour of their claim to rent-free land grants failing which their grants were made liable to be resumed. The lakherajdars claimed that all the grants were made by the previous governments on account of aima (for maintaining educational establishments), piruttar (for maintaining dargahs of Muslim saints), devottar and brahmottar (for maintaining temples and learned Brahmin families).
The government recognised the lakheraj tenures they considered to be valid and resumed other grants considered to be invalid. But the invalid tenures were so huge in number and their resumption affected so many families hitherto ruling and privileged that the government’s lakheraj resumption policy had created consternation among the native aristocracies. They looked at it as a serious interference in religious affairs of the country. Their suspicion was reinforced by the Suttee Act of 1827, which had banned forcible suttee. A petition was sent to British parliament asking relief against the government’s interference into religious life of the people, particularly of the Hindu community. Forcing the sepoys to chop off beards, go overseas, live and eat in the same mess irrespecitve of religion and caste and wearing uniforms were considered as acts against religious belief of the natives. The missionary activities, government reform measures, construction of railways, opening of steamer services and telegraph communication, giving uncovenanted jobs to the Anglo-Indian half-castes to the exclusion of natives, and many other isolated measures had created grave concerns among the Hindus and Muslims which culminated in to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.
Both Calcutta and London governments were convinced that the catastrophe of the Sepoy Mutiny could have been avoided if the state could maintain strict neutrality about religion. It was realised by the colonial rulers that in sustaining the colonial rule in India, the state must maintain absolute neutrality about religion. While taking over the government of India by the Crown in 1858 Queen Victoria proclaimed: ‘We declare it to be our royal will and pleasure that none be in anywise favoured, none molested or disquieted by reason of their religious faith or observances, but that all shall alike enjoy all those who may be in authority under us that they abstain from all interference with the religious belief or worship of any of our subjects on pain of our highest displeasure.’
But the six decades following the 1870s, which were marked by high imperialism on the one hand and rise of nationalism on the other, had witnessed development of a complex type of politics of religion. Nationalist scholars think that to fight Congress nationalist agitation, the colonial government tried to set up the Muslim community as a counterweight against the Congress demands. The creation of quota system for the Muslims in government jobs and services, encouraging the Muslims to raise Muslim communal problems, creation of separate electorate under the Reforms Act of 1909 and, finally, Communal Award in 1933 were all salutary measures for the separatist Muslim community and other depressed classes, but for the nationalist Congress these were clear indications of ‘divide and rule’. Religion became a top subject of politics in the three decades following the India Act of 1919, and no wonder that the country was divided on communal lines when independence was achieved from Britain in 1947 through an unprecedented blood bath.
The state of Pakistan was created on the basis of Muslim nationalism. Obviously, religion and state remained inseparable during the whole period of Pakistan (1947-1971). To many critics, Pakistan was a theocracy. In fact, making Islam the state religion and making Allah the sovereign of the state of Pakistan under the Constitutions of 1956 and 1962, and requiring the legislature to make laws in consistence with the Quran and Sunnah, are clear testimonies of the theocratic nature of Pakistan. In practice, the situation was much less rigorous. The policy makers made pronouncements not to make laws repugnant to Islamic cannons, but in reality laws were enacted at times in direct violation of Sharia law, for example, the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961.
Unlike Pakistan, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh drew its inspiration from Bangali nationalism. Unlike Pakistan, the sovereignty of the state of Bangladesh lay in Parliament. Unlike Pakistan, the Parliament of Bangladesh was not to enact any law against fundamental rights defined in its Constitution. The Bangladesh Constitution made a categorical declaration that Bangladesh would be a secular state having no institutional relation with religion.
Secularism, however, began to decline within a few years of the birth of Bangladesh. The process was initiated by the participation of Prime Minister sheikh mujibur rahman in the conference of the Organisation of Islamic Countries held at Lahore in 1974. The first concrete change, however, came under ziaur rahman (1975-1981) when the Quranic verse Bismillahir Rahmanur Rahim was pasted on the top of the Constitution of Bangladesh and the state functions were begun with the verse. Further to Ziaur Rahman’s Islamisation measure, hussein mohammad ershad (1982-1990) made a constitutional amendment by declaring Islam the state religion of Bangladesh.
In its movement against the regime of begum khaleda zia, Awami League changed its policy of secularism. sheikh hasina, leader of the Awami League, categorically declared her determination to stand for Islam. When in power, the Awami League increased government support to Madrasah education, Islamic institutions and establishments. Although all major political parties of Bangladesh have their support to Islam, none of them support communalism or show aversion to other religions.
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