The Genealogy of the Secular Discourse of Bangladesh – A Second Reading to Bangladesh History

Mubashar Hasan*

Dhaka, May 8, 2015 (Alochonaa):

Even though, according to a series of Gallup and Pew Research polls, Bangladeshi society is now perhaps most illiberal in its history of existence, most informed readers know that a strong secular discourse led by a group of academics, creative writers and artists still continues to flourish and resisting the illiberalism to be the main discourse of the country.

After the independence, the 1972 constitution of the country have endorsed secularism, socialism and democracy as key founding principles among others. However, it is unclear to me as a Bangladeshi who is in his thirties whether these principles were propounded within the constitution with mass support or influential elite intellectuals who were close to the power-base asserted these values because they had the luxury to construct Bangladesh in paper the way they wanted to. May be the latter is true. If secularism was a value held close to the hearts of Bangladeshi masses, it does not make sense now why there is a huge mass support-base for the center-right party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) or the growing shift to Islam by the ruling Awami League (AL).

In this article, I want to revisit the role of a group of intellectuals who were instrumental in shaping a secular discourse for Bangladesh when Bangladesh was known as the East Pakistan. I call my approach as a second reading to Bangladesh history simply because I haven’t come across any narratives that looks into the thought process of the key constructors of secular discourse in Bangladesh. In this lieu, I shall try to point out to the motivational forces of key actors behind the secular discourse of Bangladesh. 

The Legacy

In East Bengal and East Pakistan few  groups of intellectuals such as Freedom of Intellect Movement, New Value Group and National Association for Social and Economic Progress were instrumental in shaping the course for secular politics. They found philosophical inspiration for secular thoughts from liberalism and socialism.

In East Bengal, the legacy of the shift of the political values from religious nationalism to secular nationalism began before the partition of India, in 1947. Groups and movements believing in secular values such as religiously neutral politics, humanity and rationalism were influenced by the universal humanism of Tagore. Established in 1920s in Dhaka, the intellectual motto of this movement was– Where knowledge is restricted, there the intellect is inert, there freedom is impossible. It used to regularly publish a Bengali journal titled ‘Shikha” (meaning education in English). This journal used to promote inclusiveness of people and its founder Kazi Abdul Wadud was inspired by the vision of universal humanism of Rabindranath Tagore.

Later, Inspired by the Freedom of Intellect Movement group, an amorphous group of university teachers had formed the New Value Group after the partition of 1947 and against the backdrop of central government’s suppression of Bengalis of the East Pakistan (Murshid: 1997,9). Hossain (2013) argues that this group was ‘inspired by the conviction that social transformation required a change in the value system, especially where the old values were a legacy of an authoritarian, colonial, and feudal system’ (Hossain: 2013, 6). It used to publish an English language journal titled New Values. Freedom of Intellect Movement and the philosophy of Tagore influenced this New Value group. Dr. Kamal Hosain and Dr. Anisuzzaman were members of this group. Dr. Kamal Hossain, was the Chair of the constitution drafting body in independent Bangladesh.

In 1960s another group of intellectuals known National Association for Social and Economic Progress helped drafting Sheikh Mujib’s famous ‘Six Points Charter’ as well as other publications advocating for a secular-democratic Bangladesh (Hossain: 2013, 24-25).  Professor Abdur Razzaq of Dhaka University who later was announced as the National Professor of Bangladesh, with Rehman Sobhan, a well known economist in Bangladesh, Badruddin Umar form Rajshahi University and Dr. Kamal Hossain  belonged to this group. What are the motivational forces behind these group of intellectuals? 

Sources of motivation and inspiration

I shall initiate my effort by examining Professor Abdur Razzaq, a noted Dhaka University Professor who is said to influence and inspire a group of writers and academics in Bangladesh who were instrumental in shaping the discourse of secularism in the pre and post liberation war period.

Professor Abdur Razzaq was an active member of the National Association for Social and Economic Progress group. Razzaq went to the London School of Economics (LSE) to conduct PhD thesis under British Professor Harold Laski who also was the Chairman of the British Labor Party in late 1940s.  Laski had legacy of influencing political and intellectual figures of South Asia. Especially in Indian context it is an established fact. For example, former Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh in a lecture at the LSE in 2006 said:

Professor Laski had great many followers even among our political leaders. Many of his students, like our former President K.R. Narayanan, had distinguished careers in our government. Often their appointment to government service was based on a mere note of recommendation from Professor Laski to Jawaharlal Nehru!’ (Manmohan Singh 2006 quoted in Moscovitch , 2012: 33).

Following an analysis of power of education in shaping vision of political figures in India, Moscovitch (2012) argues that Professor Laski’s education to his students who included the future president of India K.R. Narayanan, future Defense Minister V.K. Krishna Menon and numerous other intellectual and political figures such as P.N. Haksar, B.K. Nehru, Tarlok Singh, Anila Graham (ne ́ e Bonnerjee), Renuka Ray and G.L. Mehta had ‘broadened their sense of India’s challenges from a prior focus on attaining independence to an increasing emphasis on inequality and social problems’ (Moscovitch: 2012,33).

To define Laski’s political philosophy Ralph Milliband (1995), father of the top British Labour party leaders Ed and David, states that, ‘Laski sought throughout his life to explore the conditions in which fundamental social changes which he deemed urgent and desirable in our society might be realised without the obliteration of freedom; how, furthermore, socialism as a form of economic and social organisation might be combined with political democracy.’  The 1972 Bangladesh constitution too resembles Laski’s favorite principles.

In my view, this connection between Laski and Bangladesh constitution is no surprise because Professor Razzaq, Laski’s former student and one of the major philosophical architect for the political movement for Bangladesh was too close to Dr. Kamal Hossain, who was in charge of framing the constitution. During the time of Bangladesh movement, in 1960s Razzaq was so influential that he was dismissed from his teaching position in Dhaka University by the central government of Pakistan, as the government thought Razzaq was having “pernicious” influence of his political ideas on the dissenting politicians of the 1960s (Mahmuduzzaman: N.D). His “treasonable” acts during the War of Liberation earned him in absentia a fourteen-year rigorous imprisonment (ibid). In recognition of his unique status among academicians and scholars, the Government of Bangladesh honored him with the distinction of National Professor in 1975 (ibid).

However, it is a challenge to reach conclusion whether Razzaq was an original thinker. He probably was not. I haven’t come across anything written by Razzaq. That does not by any mean refer that I am questioning his intellectual depth.  People could know about Razzaq through the writings of an influential Bangladeshi essayist who became a key figure in upholding Bangladesh’s secular thoughts at post liberation period, Ahmed Sofa. Sofa had written a book  titled  Joddopi Amar Guru  a close translated English would be “  Although My Guru” based on the conversation between him and Professor Razzaq taken place over several months in Dhaka. This book gives a fair understanding to a reader that Razzaq following his teacher Laski, favored socialism, freedom and democracy( Sofa:2010, 39,52,56, 78).

One should note that Razzaq was a staunch supporter of Muslim League during the time of Pakistan movement as like other young Bengalis including Awamileague’s Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and later dismayed by Islamic nationalism since it betrayed Bengalis of East Pakistan.

It was palpable from Sofa’s first hand account of Professor Razzaq that Professor Laski made a permanent impact on Razzaq’s mind. Razzaq spent 5 and half years in London as a PhD student under Laski’s supervision. Laski introduced the then contemporary western political philosophies to him as Razzaq told Sofa,  ‘when I was not sure how to start my thesis, Laski showed me the library of the LSE and told my boy go and soak’ (Sofa: 2010, 20). Razzaq admitted that Laski had a wondrous power to influence someone (Sofa: 2010, 84). When Laski died during the studentship of Razzaq, Razzaq never submitted his thesis to anybody else cause he thought no body else could understand his work apart from Laski. So one sees a personal connection in the form of a disciple-master developed between Razzaq and Laski.

Sofa’s account of Razzaq also highlights the inner-world of Bangladeshi group of scholars such as Dr. Anisuzzaman, Dr. kamal Hossain, Badruddin Umar, who were the key brains behind the political force in shaping the secular politics in Bangladesh. In numerous times, a reader gets a glimpse of philosophical standpoint of member of these groups as Sofa’s personal account features references, uncritical appreciation and admiration of John Locke, Max Weber, Friedrich Engels, Arnold Toynbee, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Salman Rushdie(for his book children of the mid night) and Shakespeare. In short, these group of Bengali scholars were influenced by the Western enlightenment.

It is also evident that these groups of scholars had favored Marxist revolution against the backdrop of Pakistani colonial suppression of Bengalis. They appreciated Lelin’s Economic History of Russia and Razzaq even translated Leon Trotsky’s the Idea of Permanent Revolution in Bengali. They circulated leftist leaflets to their students. Therefore, the turn of the events that led to a bloody revolution instigated by armed Bengali guerillas including a large number of Bengali students and workers, for an independent Bangladesh in 1971 was not surprising.  On the other hand, ‘to maintain the control of the guerillas, the Awami League leadership found it increasingly necessary to link their liberation movement with revolutionary and socialist ideas’ (Maniruzzaman: 1975,2). In this regard, Maniruzzaman (1975) states that:

By using the tactics of cultural subversion through front organizations, infiltration of popular parties, and incorporation of secular, anti imperialist and socialist planks into their programs, while creating resentment among the masses by exploiting the delicate  and sensitive issues of language, autonomy and economic distress, the leftist first created an atmosphere for socialist and secular nationalist appeals. The leftists in East Bengal were also the politicians that had given prior thought to and raised public discussion about the possibility of guerilla warfare and other revolutionary tactics before the armed struggle in 1971 (Maniruzzaman: 1975, 2-3).

The emergence of Bangladesh as a secular state only within 24 years of the emergence of Pakistan in 1947, by supplanting Islam and Islamism—popular and powerful ideological foundation of Pakistan, and the endorsement of secularism, nationalism, socialism as well as democracy in the first constitution of Bangladesh, requires to be seen as a collective effort of theorists of radical left and liberal background.

By contrast, in order to suppress the influence of Bengali scholars, according to Rashiduzzaman (1994), Pakistani government had jailed university teachers time to time or tried to neutralized with offers such as lucrative jobs, foreign trips, book contracts and grants but without much success (Rashiduzzaman: 1994, 977).  The grudge against Bengali scholars of central Pakistan was culminated through its brutal military action against Dhaka University teachers and students on March 25, 1971, day before the beginning of the official war and 14th December, 1971 ( Bose: 2005, 4465 and Khan : N.D).

Here Jamaat e Islami helped Pakistani military too. Specially on 14th December, just two days before the conceding defeat in the war Pakistani military in conjunction with local collaborators of Jamaat, systematically had killed Bengali intellectuals, including teachers of Dhaka University, Rajshahi University, Doctors, Journalists, lawyers and  artists.  Khan (N.D) notes that, ‘the killers used to abduct and carry away the targeted victims from their houses in gestapo style to particular camps or spots very often covering their face with black cloth where the victims were physically tortured, brutally killed mostly by indiscriminate bayonet charges.’  According to Khan (N.D), majority of 991 educationists, 13 journalists, 49 physicians, 42 lawyers, and 16 others including litterateurs, artists and engineers were killed by Pakistani forces on 14th December.

This systematic killing of Bengali intellectual forces underpin that Pakistani government and Islamists wanted to crush the liberal thinkers who were most influential in orchestrating a discourse for separation of Pakistan. Amid this struggle of secularism and Islamism, Bangladesh was born in 1971 as an independent country based on socialist and secularist principles. However, whether these principles were representative of large  Bengali masses is a matter of different debate and article.


Bose, Sarmila. 2005. ‘Anatomy of Violence: Analysis of Civil War in East Pakistan in 1971.’  Economic and Political Weekly. 40 (41): 4463- 4471

Brant Moscovitch. 2012. ‘Harold Laski’s Indian students and the power of education, 1920–1950.’ Contemporary South Asia. 20(1) 33-44, DOI: 10.1080/09584935.2011.646074

Hossain, Kamal. 2013. Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice, Dhaka: The University Press Limited

Khan, Muazzam Hussain. ND. ‘Killing of Intellectuals.’ Banglapedia. http://www.banglapedia.org/HT/K_0330.htm (01/02/2015)

Maniruzzaman, Talukdar. 1975. Radical politics and the emergence of Bangladesh. Dhaka: Bangladesh Books

Mahmuduzzaman, Mohammed. ND. ‘Razzaq, Abdur’. Banglapedia. http://www.banglapedia.org/HT/R_0215.htm ( 02/02/2015)

Miliband, Ralph. 1995. ‘Harold Laski’s Socialism’. Marxists’ Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/miliband/1995/xx/laski.htm (19/03/2014)

Murshid, Tazeen. 1997. ‘State, Nation, Identity: The Quest for Legitimacy in Bangladesh’. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 20 (2): 1-34

Rashiduzzaman, M. 1994. ‘The Liberals and the Religious Right in Bangladesh’.  Asian Survey. 34 (11): 974-990

Sofa, Ahmed. 2010. Joddopi Amar Guru (Although My Guru). Mawla Brothers: Dhaka, Fifth Edition

*Mubashar Hasan is a PhD candidate at the School of Government and IR, Griffith University. He is also the founder of Alochonaa, .Cross posted via kafila

***Alochonaa.com is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of Alochonaa.com’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at alochonaa@gmail.com

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