The dream for a democratic secular and exploitation-free society was the driving ideology behind the creation of Bangladesh. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her party colleagues had never stopped telling the people that it is this ideological stance that draws the line between Awami League and other parties, especially the opposition BNP.
Besides, secularism is one of the cornerstones of our constitution which has been a little diluted down the line. Even so, we were taken aback by the PM's allusion to Sharia law.
It came as a shocker when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Friday warned that the Jamaat-Shibir activists responsible for recent attacks on law-enforcers would be tried under Sharia law. Are we to believe her words at their face value? She must have uttered those words off the cuff, for trial under Sharia law is inconceivable under the provisions our constitution.
Justice system under Sharia law exists in countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Talibans, who shot the 12-year-old Malala in the Swat valley of Pakistan, follow the strict laws of Sharia. A former military dictator of Pakistan General Zia-ul-Haq disbanded parliamentary democracy, banned all political parties and set up the Majlis-e-Shura in 1980. He started "Islamisation" of the country by establishing Sharia Benches.
He actually misused Islam for his own survival and the perpetuation of his power. The ultimate sufferer was democracy and the parliamentary system of government existing before. Dictators often use religion to fulfil their personal ends.
So it is exactly not Sharia laws as such, which are basically divine in origin, but their various interpretations by people, where the danger of their abuse lies. As noted in the foregoing, dictators, to hoodwink the people, enact draconian laws to suppress opposition and thereby perpetuate their rules.
We also come across, from time to time, reports in the media on harsh treatment of women at the hands of half-educated, self-declared clerics called quadis (judges who are experts in Islamic jurisprudence), who deliver harsh sentence against mostly women allegedly for having broken, according to their interpretation, Islamic codes of conduct.
Whether used by village clerics or by Islamic states, we have only seen the misuse of these laws. So, when the PM referred to Sharia law to try Jamaat-Shibir people or those facing trial at the war crimes tribunal, it was bound to send chill down the spine.
However, whether the enactment of such a law is at all permissible under the present constitution is another question. As jurist M. Zahir says, "If the trials have to be done under Sharia, the Islamic law has to be passed by parliament," adding that if any law was passed only to punish someone or some people, it would be considered a bad law.
If the PM hadn't meant what she said, we would have got a clarification from her by now. Even so, what she said was music to the ears of the extremists and bigots, some of whom killed a court judge in the past in a bid to establish their brand of Islamic Sharia court in the country.
The reign of terror in different parts of the country is still fresh in our memory. Being avowedly committed to the cause of secularism and democracy, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina cannot be the one to stoke the fire of that of kind of right-wing extremism.
Bangladesh's constitution has already gone through numerous amendments since the country's inception to suit the personal ends of the governments of the time. In the process, its original spirit has been compromised many times over.
With the introduction of Islam as the state religion during the regime of General Ershad, a provision that is still in existence, talk of secularism from the leaders of the present government sounds hollow.
Against such backdrop, such utterances from the PM, even if these were used in a lighter vein, make us concerned; as the adage goes, once bitten, twice shy.
Another issue of concern is that the PM's words may cause serious misgivings in the minds of people who want to see justice through the ongoing war crimes tribunal. For people may get the impression that the PM is not happy with the process and its pace under the present tribunal, which is why she was referring to Sharia law as a means to ensure expeditious completion of the trial.
The sooner that kind of misgivings are removed from public mind the better. This is more the reason why the PM needs to come up with a clarification of her statement to dispel any misunderstanding among the people about the efficacy of the ongoing war-crimes tribunal.
At the same time, we would expect utmost discretion from the prime minister when she utters something in public. That is because people want to believe what is said by someone holding high public office. So it is important that she would exercise necessary caution while speaking to the audience in a not-so-serious mood.
The writer is Editor, Science & Life, The Daily Star.