Protecting Whose Vested Interests?
SUSHMITA SHARMIN PREETH
For the Hindu community in Bangladesh, land is a deeply political issue. The Vested Property Act gives the Bangladeshi government the power to confiscate, either on a temporary or permanent basis, any property of individuals that it deems to be an “enemy” of the state. Under the Pakistani regime prior to independence, the Vested Property Act (VPA) was called the Enemy Property Act and had a distinctive communal bias: it was used as a means to appropriate lands from the minority Hindu population in East Pakistan. On March 23, 1974, the law on vested property was declared void. Unfortunately, the law continues to be used even today as a tool for confiscating lands of Hindus by local and political elites, affecting almost 43 percent of total Hindu households in Bangladesh. (Abul Barkat et al. Deprivation of Hindu Minority in Bangladesh: Living with Vested Property. Dhaka: Pathak Shamabesh, 2008. )
The VPA has its origins in a number of laws and by-laws promulgated by the Pakistani authorities after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1957. During the communal violence that ensued after partition, large numbers of Hindus migrated from East and West Pakistan to India, and Muslims from India to Pakistan. In order to administer and manage the huge amount of left-behind properties, the Pakistani government passed a series of laws that gave it almost unfettered access to Hindu lands, especially those belonging to Hindu elites and Zamindars.
In 1965, a war broke out between India and Pakistan that lasted only for 17 days. During this time, the Pakistani government passed the Enemy Property (Custody and Registration) Order of 1965, which declared India as an enemy country and stated that “all interests of the enemy, i.e., the nationals/citizens of India, those residing in the territory occupied/captured/controlled by India are to be taken over by the custodian of Enemy Property for control of management.”
Living under the constant threat of losing everything.
Photo: zahedul i khan
Interestingly enough, Muslims residing in India were exempt from this Order; thus, from its inception, the Enemy Property Act demarcated Hindus as an inevitable Other – the “enemy” of the state. Moreover, under this Act, the government was the custodian of the property of the absentee owner. If the person returned to Pakistan after the war, he was entitled to get his property back from the government. In reality, however, very few Hindus, if any, were redressed.
After Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman promulgated the “Laws of Continuance Enforcement Order, 1971” to keep in force all laws that were in place in East Pakistan till March 25, 1971. The Enemy Property Act was retained even though it clearly contradicted the secular ideals of the new nation. As advocate and activist, Shubroto Chowdhury argues, “Our Constitution guarantees that no 'black laws,' that existed in East Pakistan, meaning laws that grossly violate human rights and are anti-people, would continue in Bangladesh. To remain true to the spirit and values of independence, we should have declared the law dead then and there.” But instead of redressing the Hindu population, the communal act was given new life in the newly independent Bangladesh. In 1972, it was renamed the Vested Property Act, and in 1974, it was finally declared void. However, since then, no systematic attempts have been made to redress Bangladeshi citizens affected by the law, and the law continues to be evoked by local and political elites till date to appropriate new lands from Hindus.
The lives and livelihoods of millions of Bangladeshi Hindus are severely hampered as a result of this law. Sujit Kanti Paal and his family from Bakhshali thana in Chittagong is among the 27 lakh households directly impacted by this law. In 1971, one of Paal's uncles left for India. According to Hindu inheritance laws, the property he left behind should have gone to his family members still residing in Bangladesh. But the land was declared as vested, and consequently leased out to a well-off Muslim family. In 1981, some powerful local elite took the land of another uncle who had been martyred during the Liberation war by presenting forged documents. Paal says, “We were poor and uneducated and we didn't know how to protest. The said elite was an advocate himself, with good relations with the police, tahsildars and land administrators, and he just came in with his goons, divided our home in half and grabbed the land. Everyone told us protesting would be of no use, that they would declare the land as “vested” anyway and take it from us.” Paal's family was continuously harassed and persecuted till they were forced to comply.
The unyielding use of violence and power by local elites and land administrators feature frequently in case stories of vested law. When Shamaresh Nath from Shirajdikha, Munshiganj challenged the declaration of 134 decimal of his homestead property as vested, the Union Nirbahi Officer (UNO) of the area physically harassed him, violently beating his family members with goons and the police. Even though High Court ruled in Nath's favour in 2009, the UNO continues to deny him access to his land, threatening to harm Nath and his family if they don't back off. Nath has not been able to return home even today. He says, “My father was the District Commissioner of Bangladesh. If he can't get justice, where will ordinary people go?”
The Enemy Property Act was retained even though it clearly contradicted the secular ideals of the new nation. Photo: zahedul i khan
Nath's frustration is shared by law consultant, Kumud B Das. 52 decimals of his land in Bashail, Tangail declared as vested in 1971 was illegally sold off by the sub-registrar's office to a Muslim family. Das says, “The selling of our vested property in a predominantly Hindu area is a clear sign of their intention to evict other Hindus from here. The DC and police harass us instead of helping us, knowing that vested property cannot be sold to anyone in any manner without legislative decision to the contrary.”
It becomes apparent from these stories that the local powers that be are intricately linked in the misuse of this law, and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The political parties also benefit from it, especially the party that is in power at any given point in time. As such, there is no real push in the policy-making circles for progressive change.
After consistent demands for redress from affected communities and human rights activists, the Government led by the Awami League promulgated the “Vested Property Return Act, 2001” near the end of its tenure. Among other salient features, the act states that properties be returned to their rightful owners, that a public gazette be published within 180 days of the act's enactment with a list of returnable vested properties and that special Tribunals be set up in each district. Although this was the first attempt by any regime to redress the Hindu community, it fell short in a number of aspects: the act defined 'vested property' as those vested by 1969, when in fact the majority of Hindu lands were declared vested after that date; it does not provide compensation to those whose lands have already been sold or leased to others and it demands that a person be a “continuous” citizen of Bangladesh to be eligible for redress, which leaves room for discrimination. In 2002, the BNP-Jamaat led government passed an amendment giving the government unlimited time to return the vested properties and the DCs full control of the properties till tribunals are set up. This amendment has hindered any meaningful transfer of land to affected communities.
The civil society has consistently pointed out that there are numerous inefficiencies and inadequacies in the Act, and that it must be repealed/amended immediately. Organisations like Association for Land Reform, Ain O Salish Kendro, Bangladesh Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Oikko Parisad, Vested Property Restoration Movement, Shammilito Shamajik Andolon, HDRC and Nijera Kori have been at the forefront of this resistance. They have met with policy-makers, ministers and the Prime Minister to present a concrete set of demands. Nijera Kori coordinator Khushi Kabir states, “It is pathetic that we still have to fight against this communal act, against systematic discrimination of the Hindu community. This government promised in its election manifesto that it will resolve this issue, but so far it has not taken any meaningful measures. It seems as if the powers that be are not really interested to relinquish control over these lands.”
The Vested Property Return Act (Amendment) Bill is supposed to be tabled in the current parliament session, but whether or not the Bill is ultimately passed and brings about positive change remains to be seen. The civil society, like the affected communities, is pessimistic, but they refuse to give up the hope for a Bangladesh free from exploitation.
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