Dhaka: Bangladesh's Parliament on Thursday scrapped the nonpartisan caretaker system to conduct general elections and retained Islam as the state religion as part of controversial constitutional amendments that has sparked a political row in the country.

The Parliament dominated by the ruling Awami Leage party of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, passed the 15th Amendment Bill 2011 with a vote of 291-1, well over the two-thirds majority needed in the 345-member popular House.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, which has 38 members, abstained from the voting, describing that scrapping of the nonpartisan caretaker system as aimed at rigging the 2014 polls by the incumbent government.

BNP, which has already taken to the streets over the issue, warned of fresh protests. Zia said the development made political confrontation "indispensable" as "this amounts to waging war against the people by dint of sheer power".

"They (government) has done the heinous task (of amending the constitution) showing complete disregard for the main opposition BNP and the public sentiment," she told a hurriedly called press conference at her office.

Hasina, the leader of the ruling Grand Alliance, has dismissed allegations that the amendments are aimed at rigging polls. "This is a historic moment for democracy," Hasina said, adding "We can't allow unelected people to oversee national elections."

Though the amendments calls for "equal status" for all religions, Bangladesh's main grouping of religious minority communities, including Hindus, slammed the provision to retain Islam as the state religion and keeping the Arabic phrase 'Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim' above the preamble, as it was against the secular character of the 1972 constitution.

"We are deeply disappointed...this has violated our fundamental rights and that is why we are rejecting the amendment," Rana Dasgupta, General Secretary of Hindu Boudhha Christian Oikya Parishad, a key organisation of religious minorities in Bangladesh, said.

Introduced in 1996 to ensure free and fair elections, the country's top court recently declared the caretaker system of government at odds with the constitution's main spirit that the state be governed by elected representatives.

The Awami League-led government has underlined that was obligated to carry out the amendments under an Apex Court verdict declaring illegal the 13th amendment to the constitution that had introduced the caretaker system.

The BNP chief Zia urged the people to be united to "save the county from the fascist Awami League government as it was out to retain power (by) rigging the next general elections scheduled for 2014", indicating that her party would wage a tough anti-government campaign in the coming days.

The BNP and its key ally, Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, earlier this month enforced a 36-hour nationwide shutdown over the issue.

The interim system became controversies in 2007 after a military-backed caretaker government held on to power beyond its mandated three months and delayed the general election in the country for about two years.

The interim government also carried out a massive anti-corruption drive in which both the arch rivals, Hasina and Zia, along with their top leaders were jailed on graft charges.

The controversial amendment bill, placed in Parliament by Law minister Shafique Ahmed, includes a punitive provision for the subversion of democracy in the country and capture of state power and suspension of the constitution.

It describes it as an act of treachery in which the usurpers of power could be handed down the maximum penalty in line with an earlier Supreme Court ruling.

The amendment also acknowledged Bangladesh's founding leader 'Bangabandhu' Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, the father of Prime Minister Hasina, as the "Father of the Nation" and his
historic speech of March 7, 1971 as declaring independence for the country.

Agencies