The secular vote bloc

Naeem Mohaiemen

Published by the Daily Star on 29 Dec 2008.

STANDING at many intersections. What were the arguments in favour of secularism? In the 1960s, a push-back against West Pakistani colonisation. In 1971, it was simply and joyfully, a decisive rejection of the Pakistan model. Later in the 1980s, it was also expanded to explain that religion was for private space, inner life, spiritual healing; but not for politics. Now in this decade, we also insistently emphasise that religion is to be respected (because secularism’s critics falsely accuse it of being anti-religion), but it should not be involved in the running of the state.


A symbolic principle first settled in 1971, but under methodical attack by many quarters in the post-liberation decades. This December 29, it is time to decisively vote, again, to separate religion from politics.

I have to look at the calendar to remind myself. It’s almost 2009. But in some political party rallies are still bashi slogans remniscent of a political past, not a present or future. When voters hear of “Islam in danger” or “Vote for us to save Islam” they should raise their eyebrows, express a skeptical gesture and turn their head.

Islam “in danger”? A religion in its fourteenth century, with 1.8 billion global followers (second highest after Christianity), a robust tradition and teachings (the only problem being occasional misinterpretation) in danger? And we need to vote for someone in Bangladesh to save it?

These are darkness politics we have faced down since the 1950s. The “mosjid e ulu dhoni,” the vote for us to “save religion,” the false blasphemy allegations, the attacks on Bangla culture as “Hinduani.” It won’t work, not this time, not any more. Perhaps it never did.

But still broken tactics hammer on. In our education system we are in the grips of triple tracks: English medium, Bangla medium, and madrassa. The expectations and training created by each track, along with the intersections of class and locality, is different and sometimes clashing. Divide and rule. What are needed are education systems that can train people for the future. To work, earn and live.

Rumi Ahmed talks about the “Manna Factor,” to delineate a first-time voter group that is outside everybody’s definition, constituency, or appropriation: “Nobody organised them, no chain email notified them, and no Facebook group was created to make the event successful.” Actually none of the political parties know how to reach out to this voter bloc. There is now some talk about job creation programs, global competitiveness and “digital” Bangladesh, which is a good, late start. Certainly talking about job creation is better than the politics of “religion in danger,” which has no impact on the daily practical life of the nation’s gigantic unemployed youth bloc.

We need candidates who can get us jobs, safeguard our economic livelihood, build up the national economy. They need to explain how to do all that, and earn our vote. A columnist once talked about the shadows “behind the BMW shine.” While business and development has empowered a tiny elite, the vast majority are still shei timire. A particular political hysteria keeps yelling that the toiling masses should be voting to save religion. Actually, they should be voting for jobs, school, education, equality.

The five years that follow this election, people will watch, monitor and participate and see how the winning side makes economic lives better. In a way connected to practical issues, to economics, to income, to the world inside and outside these borders. In an age of brutal global competition, fluctuating open borders and rapidly evolving economic scenarios. A forceful return of the politics of bhat-kapra-makaan.

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