A larger bench of the High Court (HC) on Monday started hearing on a rule that was issued 28 years ago questioning the constitutional provision giving Islam the status of state religion of the country.
The development came on a long-pending writ petition by 15 distinguished Bangladeshis filed in 1988 just after the then government of military ruler turned politician president HM Ershad incorporated a provision in the Constitution declaring Islam as the state religion under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
A three-member bench headed by Justice Naima Haider started hearing on the petition Monday afternoon. The two other members of the bench are Justice Quazi Reza-Ul Hoque and Justice MD Ashraful Kamal. The Chief Justice formed the larger bench following a petition filed on September 6 last year.
"The bench has set March 27 and 28 for next hearing on the rule. The court has withdrawn a previous order that appointed 14 senior jurists as amici curiae. New amici curiae may be appointed during the next hearing, petitioners' lawyer Zoglul Haider Afrik told the Daily Observer last night.
Dr Kamal Hossain, who was previously appointed as amicus curiae in the case, also stood for the petitioners Monday.
Islam had been given the status of state religion by inserted Article 2A in the Constitution through the 8th amendment in 1988 during the regime of military ruler HM Ershad.
The 15th amendment in 2011, however, expanded the article by including the phrases "the State shall ensure equal status and equal right in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other religions."
The Article 12 of the Constitution says that the principle of secularism shall be realised by the elimination of communalism in all its forms; the granting by the State of political status in favour of any religion; the abuse of religion for political purposes; any discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practising a particular religion.
Article 12 didn't exist in 1988 when Islam was given the status of state religion. The martial law regime after the brutal assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975, dropped Article 12 as a whole. This article was restored in the Constitution in 2011 through the 15th amendment.
Soon after passing the Eighth Amenment fifteen eminent persons filed a writ petition challenging the change in the Constitution.
They are former Supreme Court judge Justice Kamal Uddin Hossain, National Professor Kabir Chowdhury, Prof Khan Sarwar Murshid, Prof Mosharraf Hossain, retired Maj Gen CR Duttta, Prof Serajul Islam Choudhury, writer Badaruddin Umar, journalist and writer Faiz Ahmed, Borhan Uddin Khan Jahangir and Prof Anisuzzaman.
Of them, only CR Duttta, Badaruddin Umar, Borhan Uddin Khan Jahangir, Serajul Islam and Prof Anisuzzaman are alive.
The previous bench that issued the rule had also appointed nine lawyers as amici curiae, or friends of the court, for advice.
They are TH Khan, Kamal Hossain, Rafique-Ul Haque, Amir-ul-Islam, Rokanuddin Mahmud, Yusuf Hossain Humayun, M Zahir, Mahmudul Islam, Fida M Kamal, ASM Mesbahuddin and Abdul Matin Khasru.
Another bench of the HC comprising Justice AHM Shamsuddin Choudhury and Justice Gobinda Chandra Tagore had also issued a rule in 2011 seeking explanation from the government on legal grounds of keeping Islam as the country's state religion, amid demands to restore the secular character of 1972 Constitution.