The rekindling of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's secularism in Bangladesh will mark a dramatic transformation from the present doom-laden atmosphere of terrorism in the subcontinent as well as in the larger Islamic world.
The change is expected to take place following the Bangladesh Supreme Court's decision to revive the secular polity of Mujib's dream. It was a shortlived quest by the Bangabandhu, for his vision was shattered by his assassination in 1975. It paved the way for the assumption of power by the right-wing fundamentalist, Ziaur Rahman, who was then the army chief.
Thus began the retreat from the country's non-religious identity, which was preferred by its founder to distinguish it from its past as a part of Pakistan. Along with secularism, Mujib also stressed a pan-Bengali outlook with its focus on the distinctive culture, which Bangladesh shared with West Bengal.
Zia rejected both. Apart from emphasising Bangladeshi — as opposed to Bengali —nationalism, the constitution drafted during his rule called upon the government to "endeavour to consolidate, preserve and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries based on Islamic identity". Evidently, Bangladesh's ties with the countries of kafirs or non-believers were to be less close and cordial.
Zia also lifted the ban on the pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami that had been imposed by Mujib and allowed its chief to return from Pakistan. The indemnity legislation adopted at the time also gave immunity to Mujib's killers.
The subsequent regression into fundamentalism saw not only an alliance between Zia's widow, Khaleda Zia, who had replaced her husband as leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and the Jamaat but also the growth of terrorist outfits like the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen (JuM) and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islam (HuJI).
Not surprisingly, Begum Zia's terms as prime minister were marked by a pronounced anti-Indian bias, which manifested itself in the safe havens provided to fugitives from India like the chief of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), Arabinda Rajkhowa.
The defiant writer Taslima Nasreen, who personified Mujib's pan-Bengali worldview, was hounded out of Bangladesh by the militant mullahs. Since then, she has chosen Kolkata as her preferred place of residence.
However, the first check on this process of retrogression was provided by a high court diktat in 2005, which invalidated all coups that took place between 1975 and 1979. It also said that "the state must not be seen to be favouring any particular religion, rather, ensure protection to the followers of all faiths without any discrimination, including even to an atheist".
Now, the judiciary has taken the next step by ordering the restoration of the original constitution of 1972 by shedding the "forced identity" of a Muslim nation, which was imposed on it by the fiat of the country's first military dictator in 1977.
Needless to say the judicial initiative has underlined ideals, which are anathema to all Muslim countries from Indonesia and Pakistan in Asia to Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East and to Egypt in North Africa. Given its revolutionary potential, it can set off a churning in the Muslim world if the long suppressed civil libertarians there have the guts to take up cudgels against the mullah-dominated establishments.
The task will not be easy because the powerful military, aging autocrats and crusty theocrats, as in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, prefer their currently closed societies because allowing free play to democratic and secular aspirations, which include freedom for women, can undermine their position.
It will not be easy even in Bangladesh, where the BNP has already decided to move against the judicial order. Since it has the support of the Jamaat-e-Islami and other minor orthodox parties, the BNP may be able to take the issue to the streets by whipping up popular sentiments.
One of the cards, which it is bound to play is the old anti-Indian one. There is little doubt that Begum Zia will accuse Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has always been branded as pro-Indian by the BNP, of bowing to New Delhi's pressure to dilute Bangladesh's Islamic identity.
Pakistan is bound to find the turn of events in Bangladesh highly disconcerting because the erosion of hardline Islamism will reduce the scope of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to recruit and station any terrorists there. It is no secret that Bangladesh and Nepal are the two countries, which the Pakistan-based terrorists use to enter India.
On its part, India will have to play its cards with great care because the closeness of the secular ideals of the two countries cannot but promote greater cultural exchanges, especially between the two Bengals. But this, in turn, may arouse the old fears in Bangladesh of Dhaka being overwhelmed by Kolkata's vivacity.
Much of this lies in the future. What is immediately apparent is that Bengal's traditionally benign Islamism based in its rain-soaked countryside has stolen a march over the harsher version associated with the deserts of the distant northwest.