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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 75
July 5 , 2008

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Law opinion

Vested Property Act a tale of injustice

Samir Bhowmik

The British empire in the Indian Sub-continent was divided into two separate independent states, India and Pakistan. India was assigned for the Hindus and the Pakistan for the Muslims. Since then, the discrimination on the basis of religion has been working in this region. In 1965, a 17-day long war took place between India and Pakistan. On September 6, 1965 Pakistan proclaimed a state of emergency under the Defense of Pakistan Ordinance. The Central Government of Pakistan promulgated on the same day the Defense of Pakistan Rules. Under the Rules, the Governor of East Pakistan passed an Order on December 3, 1965 regarding enemy property by which the property of minorities was declared 'Enemy Property'. The Government of Pakistan took the advantages of the war as a pretext and enacted this provision to seize the property of the Hindus with a declaration that the Hindus were the enemy of the Muslims and Pakistan also. The law allows the government to seize the property of individuals it deems enemies of the state. The military rulers had enacted this law to drive Hindus out to neighboring India after grabbing their lands. A lot of Hindu families have been deprived of their ancestral property after the enactment of this inhuman and black law. In 1974 the law had been renamed as the Vested Property Act, 1974. But the law still retains the fundamental ability to deprive a Bangladeshi citizen of his/her property by declaring that person as an enemy of the state. The encroachers have misused the law with the help of corrupt state authorities, political elements and locally influential people to grab property of the Hindu minorities.

“Bangladesher Grameen Samaje Arpito Sampatty Ainer Probhab” Ekti Anusandhan”, a report prepared by Prof. Abul Barkat and Shafiquzzaman presented to the National Seminar of Association for Land Reform and Development, 13 April, 1996, said: “On the devastating effects of the Vested Property Act on the material and psychological conditions of the Hindus it was calculated that from 1964 each day on average 538 Hindus have vanished.” The basis of calculation was the uniformity of the death rate for all religious communities in Bangladesh, the birth rate among the Hindus which has been 13 per cent less than that of the Muslims, and the difference between migration figures coupled with total Hindu population and the figures of the census. Thus, had there been no migration, the Hindu population in Bangladesh would have been 16,500,000 instead of census figure 11,200,000. The same report calculated that the vanishing rate has not been uniform over periods; in 1964-71 it averaged 703 per day, between 1971 and 1981 it was 537, and in 1981-91 the figure stood at 439. The report further said, “The sample survey, on the basis of which the report was prepared, showed that out of 161 dispossessed, 13 per cent were near landless whereas 40 per cent became landless through dispossession, and 15 per cent of the surveyed persons were rich before dispossession but the figure came down to 6 per cent later.”

A comprehensive work was published in 1997 by Prof. Abul Barkat and his co-authors on 'An Inquiry into Causes and Consequences of Deprivation of Hindu Minorities in Bangladesh through the Vested Property Act.' This showed 9,25,050 Hindu households (40 per cent of Hindu families in Bangladesh) have been affected by this act. This included 7,48,850 families dispossessed of agricultural land. The total amount of land lost by Hindu households as a result of this black act was estimated at 1.64 millions acres which is equivalent to 53 per cent of the total land owned by the Hindu community and 5.3 per cent of total land area of Bangladesh.

Prof. Abul Barkat in his research paper 'Deprivation of the affected million families: Living with Vested Property in Bangladesh' said 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. 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.

Dr Barkat's work showed that since 1948, 75 per cent of land of religious minorities in East Pakistan and subsequent Bangladesh had been confiscated through provisions of this Act. It is frequently the case that Hindu families who have one or several members leaving the country have their entire property confiscated for being labelled as enemies.

The massive appropriation of Hindu property took place immediately after the independence during 1972-75 and 1976-1980. In 1977 the government empowered the tahsilders to find out the lands for enlisting as enemy property. Since there was a provision for rewarding the successful tahsilders they felt encouraged to bring undisputed properties of the Hindus under the list. Finding no alternative Hindu peasants thus started migrating as they could not expect any remedy from the authority concerned. The ADCs, SDOs, COs were also promised for reward like the tahsilders. In many cases the tahsilders enlisted any land as vested property only if, it was owned by a Hindu person during 1965-69 even if that owner never left East Pakistan or Bangladesh.

'Deprivation of Hindu Minority in BangladeshLiving with Vested Property', a recently published work by Prof. Abul Barkat and his co-authors, tells the stories and events that actually took place to deprive the Hindu minorities of their rights and titles of property ownership. In this outstanding research work the authors show that about 1.2 million households and 6 million people belonging to Hindu community have been directly and severely affected by the Vested Property Act. The community has lost 2.6 million acres of its own land in addition to other moveable and immoveable property. The approximate money value of such loss (US$ 55 billion) would be equivalent to 75 percent of the GDP of Bangladesh (at 2007 prices). Assuming the 1961 population share of the Hindu population was 18.4 percent, the absolute size of this population in 2001 would have been 22.8 million rather than the 11.4 million reported in the census. In other words, the actual current (2001) figure is half the expected size. Thus the missing Hindu population was estimated to be 50 percent with the mass outward migration from the mid-1960s onward as an effect of the Enemy Property Act and its post independence version, the Vested Property Act.

Dr. Barkat does not think the land grabbing is a problem of 'Hindu versus Muslims' polarisation. He emphasised that less than 0.4 percent of the population of Bangladesh has benefited from the EP/VP Act.

The best persons have been affected by the most inhumane law. Shaheed Dhirendranath Dutta, the veteran political leader from Comilla, freedom fighter against British Raj, and a member of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly who raised the first voice of protest in the Parliament against imposition of Urdu as the only state language of Pakistan and demanded Bangla be recognised as a state language and dedicated his whole life to the people and fought to his last breath for the cause of the country is one of the prominent persons affected by the Vested Property Act. The other eminent persons who have been affected by the EP/VP Act are Masterda Surya Sen, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Prof. Dr. G.C. Dev., Mr. Amal Sen and Mr. Barin Majumder. The stories of common persons are less known.

On April 2001, 30 years after the independence, the Awami League government passed the Vested Property Return Act, 2001 in a session boycotted by the then opposition BNP and Jamaat. But the government could not implement the Act as it was passed in the last stage of its tenure. But the successive governments could not prepare and publish the list of vested property even after seven years of the enactment of the law.

The non-party caretaker government should immediately prepare the list and publish the gazette of vested property. The Vested Property Act is a law against human rights, justice, democracy and the spirit of our constitution. In our constitution the people of Bangladesh are pledge bound to establish “a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human right and freedom, equality and justice, political, economic and social will be secured for all citizens.” Article 27 provides that, all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law and Article 28 provides the state shall not discriminate against any citizens on the grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. These are fundamental rights which are enforceable under the Constitution. So the Vested Property Act is a clear violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed in our constitution. People want to see the returning of the so-called vested property to real owners and their descendants. The non-party caretaker government should immediately take effective steps regarding this man-made problem that is contrary to the spirit of humanity.

Samir Bhowmik is a freelancer on legal and rights issues.


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