Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bangladeshi Hindus - Coveted Enemies Under the Vested Property Act

By Rabindranath Trivedi

Dhaka , (Asiantribune।com) : The Vested Property Act (VPA), a controversial law in Bangladesh that allowed the Government to confiscate property from individuals it deemed as an enemy of the state. Before independence it was known as the Enemy Property Act and is still referred to as such in common parlance. The act is criticized as a tool for appropriating the lands of the minority population The vested property was known in Pakistan as ‘enemy property' after the 1965 Indo-Pak war.

On 6 September 1965, Pakistan proclaimed a state of emergency under the Defense of Pakistan Ordinance at the outbreak of war with India. In exercise of the powers conferred by the Ordinance, the Central Government of Pakistan promulgated on the same day the Defence of Pakistan Rules. Under the rules, the Governor of East Pakistan passed an Order on 3 December 1965 regarding enemy property by which the property of the minorities was declared “Enemy Property”.

Renamed as Vested Property Act

After Bangladesh won independence through bloody War of Liberation against Pakistan in December 1971, President of Bangladesh in his Order No-29 of 1972 ,changed the nomenclature to Vested Property Act without altering the contain of the law। After a long struggle and a bloody war of Independence the rise of Bangladesh naturally conveyed the message to the democratic and progressive forces that the communally promulgated Enemy Property Act would not continue।

Surprisingly enough the existence of the Act is inconsistent not only with the UDHR but also with the provisions of the constitution itself। In Independent Bangladesh on 26th March of 1972 Bangladesh (Vesting of Property and Assets) President's order No. 29 replaced former Enemy Property Act. But it was a classic irony that Bangladesh saw the continuation of two mutually opposed things simultaneously, One a secular democratic constitution in 1972 and the other the continuance of the Enemy Property Act though in a new name. Bangladeshi Hindus become coveted enemy under VPA. What does it mean? ’

The VP Act was practically declared void by promulgating 'The Enemy Property (Continuance of Emergency Provisions) (Repeal) Act XLV in parliament on 23 March 1974। But immediately after words another declaration named the Vested and Non-resident Property (Administration) Act XL VI of 1974, brought the above act into force। This Act was later amended on 27 November 1976, by the Enemy Property (Continuance of Emergency Provision) (Repeal) (Amendment) Ordinance 1976.

The government, or any officer or authority as directed by the government, was empowered to administer, control, manage and dispose of, by transfer or otherwise the enemy property or enemy firms known as 'vested property'. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in a judgment said:” Since the law of enemy property itself died with the repeal of Ordinance No.1 of 1969 on 23 -3-1974 no further vested property case can be started thereafter on the basis of the law which is already dead.
Accordingly, there is no basis at all to treat the case land as vested property upon started VP Case No-210 of 1980। (58 DLR 2006 pp 177-185). A writ petition has been filed in the High Court of the Bangladesh Supreme Court in August 2008 for annulment of VPA,The Government of Bangladesh has, within the framework of this law, taken possession of property declared to belong to the enemy, by appropriating the property of members of the Hindu minority who had migrated to India, or by appropriating the property of people who were heirs or co –owners. Since then the issue has been rolling with ordinances, amendments, circulars, memos, and committee and so on. But no tangible action has yet been taken by the Government to solve the contentious issue of minority Hindus.

Though renamed as the Vested Property Act in 1974, the law still retains the fundamental ability to deprive a Bangladeshi citizen of his/her property simply by declaration of that person as an enemy of the state। Leaving the country through abandonment is cited as the most common reason for this, and it is frequently the case that Hindu families who have one or several members leaving the country (for economic as well as political reasons) have their entire property confiscated due to labeling as enemy.

The enactment of Enemy (Vested) Property Laws which are at the heart of the matter relating to the various socio-economic problems of the minorities in Bangladesh has not come all on a sudden। This act is actually the culmination of many discriminatory ordinances passed one after another by the ruling elites of both Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Chronologically they are: The East Bengal (Emergency) Requisition of Property Act (XIII of1948), The East Bengal Evacuees (Administration of Property) Act (VIII of1949), The East Bengal Evacuees (Restoration of Possession) Act (XXII of 1951), The East Bengal Evacuees (Administration of Immovable Property) Act(XXIV of 1951), The East Bengal Prevention of Transfer of Property and Removal of Documents and Records Act of 1952, The Pakistan (Administration of Evacuees Property) Act (XII of 1957), The East Pakistan Disturbed Persons (Rehabilitation) Ordinance (No 1 of 1964), The Defence of Pakistan Ordinance(No। XXIII of 6th September, 1965), The Defence of Pakistan Rules of 1965,The Enemy Property (Custody and Registration) Order of 1965, The East Pakistan Enemy Property (Lands and Buildings Administration and Disposal Order of 1966.

The Enemy Property (Continuance of Emergency Provision) Ordinance No। 1 of 1969. Bangladesh (Vesting of Property and Assets) President's (Order No. 29 of 1972). The Enemy Property (Continuance of Emergency Provisions) (Repeal) Act (XLV of 1974), The Vested and Non-Resident Property (Administration) Act (XLVI of 1974). The Vested and Non-Resident (Administration) (Repeal) Ordinance 1976 The Ordinance, (No. XCII of 1976). The Ordinance No. XCIII of 1976.

As Pakistan was established on the two nation theory from the very beginning the rulers were quick to smash any kind of democratic movement. They deliberately used communal tactics to drive out religious minorities’ from their home land and to suppress all kinds of movement.
It may be recalled that "Transfer of Property Act" is ignored in case of the Hindus by keeping the Enemy Property Act as the Vested Property Act। So the property based crisis deepened and disturbed society at the root.

One report makes it clear how with the promulgation of the Vested and Non-resident Property (Repeal) Ordinance by President A। M. Sayem during the rule of General Ziaur Rahman, many government officials became the owners of lands earlier held by the Hindus.

With this process of eviction of the Hindu peasantry and their ejection from the villages has appeared a new class of land grabbers। The gradual disappearance of the Hindu peasantry from the Bangladesh countryside, the same report shows, reached a new phase with the circular of 23 May 1977 on the Ministry of Lands of the Government of Bangladesh which empowered the Tehsildars to find out the lands suitable for enlisting as enemy property.

Since there was a provision for rewarding the successful tehsildars they felt encouraged to bring many undisputed properties of the Hindus under this list।

Hindu peasants were thus left with no alternative, but to move on, as they could not expect any remedy from the additional deputy commissioner, the sub-divisional officer, or the circle officer who, like the tehsildar, were similarly entrusted with the responsibility and similarly promised reward। While steps for disposal of vested properties were under way at different levels, the President Genl. H M Ershad issued an order to stop disposal and fresh enlistment of vested property by an announcement on 31 July 1984, in the conference of the representative of the Hindu community held at Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka.

In pursuance of the announcement of the President, the Ministry of Land Administration and Land Reforms issued a memo on 23 November 1984 reiterating that disposal of vested property and further enlistment of any property as vested would stop on 21 June 1984, and that any action taken in contravention of the announcement of the President should be treated as cancelled। The government, however, issued a memo on 1 June 1989 revoking the ban on renewal of lease and eviction from vested property on certain conditions.

On November 4, 1993, the then BNP Government led by Begum Zia made another declaration for scrutiny of the census list of the enemy properties। This declaration was another initiative to use the 'Act' to harass and oppress the religious minorities in Bangladesh. In a changed political situation the present govt. issued two circulars from the ministry of land on November, 14, 1996 the gist of which is –

1. Not to enlist any more property as enemy vested properly.(b) Without prior permission of the land ministry no member of Hindu, Buddhist, Christian communities shall be evicted out.

2. In land survey the land property of religious minorities should be properly assessed During Awami League Government (1996-2001),the Vested Properties Return Act, 2001 is not only tokenism.

It may well be the beginning of legalising the omissions and commissions committed under a patently discriminatory law. Sheikh Hasina led Awami League government annulled this VP Act in 2001. It wanted to return the 'Vested' property to their original Hindu owners. The move was criticised as a 'political tokenism' aimed to appease minority voters prior to the general elections.
Hindu properties continue to be' vested'- a recent observation

Nearly two lakh Hindus have lost 22 lakh acres of their land and houses during the last six years, a Dhaka University Professor Abul Barkat says in May 2007 . At the current market price, the value of the 22 lakh acres of land (one acre roughly equals three bighas) that the Hindu families were displaced from is Tk 2,52,000 crore, which is more than half of the country’s gross domestic product, he says Some 12 lakh or 44 per cent of the 27 lakh Hindu households in the country were affected by the Enemy Property Act 1965 and its post-independence version, the Vested Property Act 1974. Prof. Barkat points out that 53 per cent of the family displacement and 74 per cent of the land grabbing occurred before the country’s independence in 1971 .
About 1.2 million households and 6 million people belonging to the Hindu community have been directly and severely affected by the Enemy/Vested Property Act. The community has lost 2.6 million acres of its own land in addition to other moveable and immovable property. The approximate money value of such loss (US $ 55 billion) would be equivalent to 75 per cent of the GDP of Bangladesh (at 2007 prices). The EPA/Vested Property Act has compelled Hindus to break family ties. Stress and strain, mental agony and a fuelling of religious fundamentalism have been the offshoot. The deprivation led to the growth of a communal mindset in what had been a historical secular climate and context.

The Bangladeshi newspaper Daily Sangbad (21st March 1977) alleged that at that point in time, according to the government's own figures, 702,335 acres (2,842 km²) of cultivable land and 22,835 homes were listed as enemy property.According to a report of the Land Ministry in October 2004,submitted to a parliamentary standing committee "445,726 acres of vested property out of 643,140 acres ended up in encroachment across the country. “Grabbers gabbled up more than two thirds of vested property as the government lost control over the lands as the custodian and its long-line dithering blocked anti-encroachment efforts,” the report said. (The Daily Star, 15 October 2004) Professor Abul Barkat and his co-authors have accurately projected the economic history, lapses in the land laws, willful negligence of the bureaucracy and greed of the politicians for property.

Prof Barkat found that no list of the people evicted or the quantum of lands grabbed on the basis of the Vested Property Act has been prepared till date. Instead, politically powerful people grabbed most of the land during the reign of the BNP-led alliance government between 2001 and 2006. Politically powerful people grabbed most of the Hindu lands during the reign of Begum Khaleda Zia's. Forty-five per cent of the land grabbers were affiliated with the BNP, 31 per cent with the Awami League, eight per cent with Jamaat-e-Islami and six per cent with the Jatiya Party and other political organisations, the New Age and the Daily Janakantha, on 27 May.07 quote Prof Barkat. The affected Hindu families met with more incidents of violence and repression in the immediate-past five years of the BNP-led government than in the previous five years of the Awami League government, the Barkat research report concludes. (NewAge, Janakantha, Manabzamin,27 May.07)

The US State Department in its Human Rights Report in 2007 says: "During the year the government did not take any measures to implement the 2001 Vested Property Return Act providing for property restitution to persons, mostly Hindus, who had their property seized by the government after the 1965 India-Pakistan war".

USCIRF Report issued in May 2008 says : In light of Bangladesh's upcoming national elections, currently scheduled for December 2008, the Commission recommends that the U.S. government should ask the Bangladesh Government to: repeal the Vested Property Act, discriminatory legislation that has been used unjustly to seize Hindu-owned property in the decades since Bangladesh's independence and has continued to be used under successive governments to reward well-connected members of the majority community in Bangladesh.

Exodus of Minority

Migration is the ultimate consequence of black laws since 1948, state communalism, discrimination, persecution and oppression on minorities. The readers will get an accurate scenario of migration from the following statistics. In 1947 the proposition of the religious minorities was 29.7% of the total population. Before 1971 it was 19.6%, in the 1974 census it was 14.6% and in1991 it was 11.7%. and now in 2001 it is 9%. The average number of family member in Bangladesh of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian is 5.7, 5.5, 5.9, 5.4 respectively. The statistics shows that 1 crore 25 lakh people migrated in the Pakistan period and 1 crore in the Bangladesh period-from 1971 to the present. Even government statistics admit that the number is around 50 lakh. The weekly Holiday showed in 1991 that from 1974 to 1991 29 lakh 50 thousand humiliated Hindus left Bangladesh to become a 'stateless-citizens' in India and their present number became 1.5 crore since the period between1974 and 2006.

But in reality, as Professor Barkat study shows the Hasina largesse did not benefit the Hindu minority, who owned land at the time of partition. In fact, it ended up displacing most of them from their ancestral land. While trying to review the impact of the law on the land ownership of the Hindu community, we have to get rid of this uncivilized state of affairs to establish a civilized society.

Otherwise, we have to face a bigger historic catastrophe,' Professor Abdul Barkat, who teaches economics, insists in his research paper, 'Deprivation of affected million families: Living with Vested Property in Bangladesh'. It is needless to say that Vested Property Act is a law against the spirit of the Constitution of Bangladesh. The Act has violated the fundamental rights of a class of people guaranteed in the Constitution of Bangladesh: Those discriminatory laws and post seventy-five constitutional amendments not only hurt the feelings of the minorities severely, their confidence on Bangladesh state machinery have been dwindled; they have been effectively transformed into second class citizens.

It is needless to say that Vested Property Act is a law against the spirit of the Constitution of Bangladesh. The Act has violated the fundamental rights of a class of people guaranteed in the Constitution of Bangladesh:

Article-27, "All citizens are equal before the law and are entailed to equal protection of law”,

Article-28(1), "The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth",

Article-29(1) "There shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in respect of employment or office in the service of the Republic" and

Article 29(2) "No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, be ineligible for, or discriminated against in respect of, any employment or office in the service of the Republic."

The story of Pakistan is one of remorseless tug and pull between the civilian and military rulers on the one hand, and the liberal and religious forces on the other. In the process, the country has failed to become a democracy, a theocracy or a permanent military dictatorship. The chief casualties have been the rule of law, the state institutions and the process of national integration, with grave consequences for the civil society.

Despite 15 years of formal democracy in Bangladesh, the army remains unaccountable to the public, who cannot freely criticize it due to constitutional forbidding. Even the liberal Awami League party uses religion in all its activities and does not clearly advocate reinstitution secularism in the constitution. Political leaders of all spectrums oppose civil society activism in the name of traditional religious values.

The culture of intolerance, hatred and violence of political parties goes hand in hand with terrorist activities that have "intruded into the popular psyche" since the mid-1990s. The state's total failure to check terrorist threats to democracy is ascribed by many to the fact that Bangladeshi rulers themselves patronize Islamic fundamentalism.

Politicization of the bureaucracy and judiciary and the absence of internal democracy within parties are other obstacles to democratic practice. "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely says Lord Acton." So not dictatorship, but democracy -- a government of not one man but of all people -- is now the norm in almost all countries of the world. But the quality of democracy obtaining here is abysmally low. The reasons are not far to seek.

Corruption has eroded the vitals of democratic institutions all over the country. A large segment of Parliamentarians, who make laws and frame the guiding principles of governance, and the bureaucrats who implement the same, barring a few, indulge in corruption. That is why democracy in Bangladesh took different shape and size under bootish regimes and became demo-crazy of power.

Reza Hossein Borr , a leadership consultant (email: writes about Pakistani leaders : “A country begins its decline when its politicians and leaders begin to lose respect for integrity, competence, performance of duty and serving people. These are the issues that can break down any country. No country can survive without integrity of its leaders. No nation can survive without competent professionals running the affairs of the country at an acceptable level every day. No nation would survive when its leaders do not have on lasting commitment for serving the people and creating conditions in which the masses feel that their lives get better and better every day. No nation can survive if oppression and brutality becomes the routine of the day with a sense of impunity in those who commit oppression.

If we look back at the history of Pakistan so far, none of its leaders had any dignity to realise their end and accept it gracefully. General Ayoub Khan dominated the country for some time. When his time was over he could not realise it and therefore he continued oppression. There were demonstrations against him everywhere. The public called him a dog and finally threw him out of power in disgrace.

He came to power with pride, called himself Field Marshal and left like a dog. His successor, general Yahya Khan was even worse than him. He caused the disintegration of Pakistan, massacred millions of Bangladeshis. His army raped thousands of women. He was the person who accused you Ayoub Khan of mismanaging the country and corruption, however he himself turned to become even worse than his predecessor. He had to leave and live in disgrace too because of not realizing that his time was all over.

Z Ali Bhutto had the same fate. General Zia hanged him for corruption and murder. Zia became the target of the same fate. He did not hand over the power with dignity and grace until he was killed in an aeroplane crash. Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif both defied public. Both did not learn from the history of their predecessors. None of them retained their respect and dignity. Both of them were fired and sent into exile in disgraceful manners.

General Musharaf took over the power from Sharif promising that he would clean the country and would bring prosperity and dignity to the nation though shortly after assuming power he followed in the steps of his predecessors and repeated their mistakes. Today he is the man without dignity. He has lost respect. And he would go in disgrace like his predecessors. It seems that Pakistan is the land of disgraceful leaders. The leaders of Pakistan are either killed or sent into exile in disgrace, yet there are hundreds of army generals and politicians who would do everything possible to face this fate.

The Pakistani generals and politicians certainly know how to take over the power. They certainly do not know how to retain the power and how to manage and lead Pakistan. They surely do not know how to hand over the power gracefully and with dignity before they have lost all the respect. They come with grace and go in disgrace. They come with dignity and go without dignity.”( Bangladesh also stripped with the legacy of Pakistan.

In Bangladesh, being a minority means being a victim of oppression, torture and discrimination. The educated Hindus, who could play a leadership role in the community, left the country. The poor, who lacked leadership qualities, stayed back. Eminent personalities of the minorities who stayed on in Bangladesh live in the cities, so there are none to look after them in times of distress. As a result the minority community, a very much-advanced component of our population, is unable to contribute to country’s development activities. So, we need not to produce more evidences, rather looking forward the needful action from the non-party caretaker Government led by Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed to repeal the VPA as he is committed to establish democracy and rule of law.

Rabindranath Trivedi is a retired Addl.Secretary and former Press Secretary to the President of Bangladesh, Secretary General Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities (HRCBM) Bangladesh National Chapter

- Asian Tribune