Written by Dipanwita Roy
Pagolnath Suri had fled to India in fear of life when the liberation war erupted in 1971. Suri saved himself but could not protect his land property. “When I came back home after the independence, I found all my land property in state acquisition as those were declared enemy/vested property,” recalls Suri, the then president of Shankhari Bazar Mechanics’ Association in old part of Dhaka. Suri says, “I just wonder why did the government take away my land property and why was I declared an enemy of the state?”
Sons of Bikram Halder also share the same story. One-third of Bikram’s property in Gopalganj went to state acquisition after his death under the same law. Bikram’s younger son, Saikat, was studying in India when he died and this was cited as the reason why the government seized his property. “Why does the government claim stake in our ancestral property?” Bikram’s elder son Dhiman wants to know. The stories Suri and Bikram share are not unique. Many families of the Hindu community have been deprived of their ancestral property after the liberation war.
The law allows the government to seize the property of individuals it deems enemies of the state. The Vested Property Act, formerly known as the Enemy Property Act, is still referred to as such in common parlance. The act is criticised as a tool for appropriating the lands of the minorities. Before Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971, West Pakistani military rulers had enacted the Enemy Property Act, 1965, to drive Hindus out to neighbouring India after grabbing their lands. Since then, encroachers have misused the law with the help of corrupt state authorities to grab property by identifying Hindus as “enemies of the state”.
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 declaring 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 for being labeled as enemies. “After independence, a predominantly Muslim but secular Bangladesh should have had abolished this law. But the state renamed it as the Vested Property Act to acquire the property of the people from West Pakistan who had left after the war.” explains Prof Abul Barakat of Dhaka University.
A comprehensive work was published in 1997 by Prof Barkat on ‘Inquiry into Causes and Consequences of Deprivation of Hindu Minorities in Bangladesh through the Vested Property Act’. This demonstrated that 925,050 Hindu households (40 percent of Hindu families in Bangladesh) have been affected by the Enemy Property Act. This included 748,850 families dispossessed of agricultural land. The total amount of land lost by Hindu households as a result of this discriminatory act was estimated at 1.64 million acres, which is equivalent to 53 per cent of the total land owned by the Hindu community and 5.3 per cent of the total land area of Bangladesh.
The greatest appropriation of Hindu property took place immediately after independence during the first Awami League government (1972-75) and during the first period of the rule of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (1976-1980). Dr Barkat’s work also showed that since 1948, 75 percent of land of religious minorities in East Pakistan and subsequent Bangladesh had been confiscated through provisions of the act. Dr Barkat also emphasised that less than 0.4 percent of the population of Bangladesh has benefited from the Enemy Property Act, demonstrating that this law has been abused by those in power through corruption, with no demonstrated sanction by the population at large.
Successive governments promised to repeal the act, but to date, some 35 years after the independence, none has done so. The first government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had vowed to repeal any laws that contradicted the values of the newly liberated country. Even though the Enemy Property Act was in clear violation of the non-communal constitution that had been established, the law was not repealed and confiscation of property continued unabated. The government of Awami League moved towards repealing the act through a majority vote of the national parliament in 2001 and introduction of the Vested Property Return Act (2001) in a session boycotted by the opposition BNP and Jamaat. But the law was never ratified or implemented either in the remainder of parliament nor by the next government of BNP.
Much of the property of Hindu politician Dhirendranath Datta was confiscated by the government of Bangladesh after independence in 1971 because Datta’s body was never found after he was arrested by the Pakistan Army during the Bangladesh Liberation War. An affidavit that brought forward could not be confirmed that Datta had not voluntarily left the country. Even the family property of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had been confiscated by the then Pakistan government. In 1999, the Bangladesh government announced that it was investigating opportunities to return the property to Sen’s family.
According to Prof Barakat, around 1 lakh to 1.5 lakh acres of land are now in the hand of the government but land-grabbers have taken control of the remaining huge quantity of land, which was declared as “Vested Property”. “There are controversies over significant portion of lands, which have been listed as vested property. Lands of many Hindus, who are living in the country by generation, have been deliberately included in the lists of vested property. Some have gone to court seeking justice while many others left the country silently,” says expatriate writer and columnist Prodip Malakar in his book, “Communal Politics in Bangladesh and Minority Repression”.
Advocate Sultana Kamal of Ain O Salish Kendra says the Vested Property Act has to be repealed so that Hindus can think they are also the country’s citizens. “If I go to Pakistan or Europe then my property will not be declared as vested property because I’m a Muslim. This should be the case when a Hindu does so. Property of many martyrs in the old part of the capital were declared vested property instead of returning it to their family members,” says researcher Taimur Islam. Prof Barakat finally stresses the need for passing Vested Property Return Act and returning the so-called vested property to the real owners and their descendants.
SOURCE: Daily Star