Written by Dhiraj Kumar Nath
The historic India-Pakistan War continued for 17 days from Sept 6 to Sept 22, 1965 that ended with Tashkent declaration. During the war, Pakistan promulgated Defense of Pakistan Ordinance (Ord. no XX111 of 1965) followed by Defense of Pakistan Rules under this ordinance. Under these rules, the government made an executive order on 9 September 1965 named Enemy Property (Custody and Registration) Order II of 1965 that eventually came to be known as the Enemy Property Act. India was declared as enemy country and thus, all interests of enemy, individual properties, firms, companies, lands and buildings should be taken over as enemy property.
The state of emergency was lifted on 16 February 1969 but the government promulgated a new ordinance named the Enemy Property (Continuance of Emergency Provisions) Ordinance 1969. This discriminatory law against the minority Hindu community remained in force until independence of Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Vesting of Property and Assets Order 1972(Order 29 of 1972) combined the properties left behind by Pakistanis and enemy properties. However, in 1974, the government passed the Enemy Property (Continuance of Emergency) Provisions (Repeal) Act (Act XLV of 1974) repealing the Ordnance 1 of 1969. Despite the fact of repealing ordinance 1 of 1969 under the Act of 1974, all enemy properties and firms were vested with the custodian of enemy property under the banner vested property. Thus, the problem continued creating opportunities for land grabbers to adopt foul means in collaboration with corrupt officials like Tehsildars of land departments. Thus, the legacy of this black law continued for last 48 years as tale of woes of religious Hindu minorities generating continuous communal hatred and discontent between Hindus and Muslims.
Dr Abul Barkat in his epoch making research findings as reflected in his book, “Deprivation of Hindu Minority: a story of perpetual discrimination” stated that 12 lakhs households and 60 lakhs of Hindu population were directly affected and lost their properties with the introduction of Enemy Property/Vested Property Act during the period 1965 to 2006. They have lost about 26 lakh acres of land and many families became destitute literary. The findings revealed that this has institutionalised the communalism and feudal mindset in the country contrary to the traditional concept of harmony.
According to Dr Abul Barkat, “The Enemy/Vested Property Act is unconstitutional, anti-humanitarian and anti-civilisation. It provoked communalism and served as a powerful instrument towards gradual marginalisation and pauperisation of Hindu community through eviction and dispossession of their land and homestead, breaking family ties, loss of human potential and formation of a parasitic vested interest groups — and all these have acted as barriers to human capital formation in the country.” The demolition of Hindu temples that started after 28 February 2013 and continued unabated till now is the consequences of Vested Property Repeal (amendment) Act of 2011 and amendments thereafter.
Bangladesh Awami League in 1996 took initiatives to return properties to the legal heirs and genuine claimants of minority living in Bangladesh. Nevertheless, they could not complete the task even in 2001. During this tenure, after four years of regime, the government has introduced Vested Property Repeal (amendment) Act 2011, gazetted on 11 December 2011 with amendments in 2012 and 2013. Under this Act, two schedules of property “Ka and Kha” were prepared and tribunals were established for disposal. So far, six lakhs of cases were instituted of which only 1 percent cases were disposed of.
The High Court on 23 March 1974 in a judgment has categorically awarded verdict not to enlist any more property as vested property. In spite of the fact, the present government has prepared two schedules of properties with huge mistakes and lapses that generated total confusions at the field level creating factionalism and disunity among the stakeholders. Corrupted land officers have prepared the schedule “Kha” that ministry officials failed to realise its meanings and implications.
There are opportunities to rectify mistakes, modify faults in consultation with stakeholders and renowned jurists and thereby overcome the weaknesses of the law and to make it more realistic. The hurdles those impending the quick disposal should be reviewed with regular monitoring.
Secondly, properties that were enlisted in the schedule “Ka” after the verdict of High Court on 23rd March 1974 should be rescinded and those officials who did so defying court order should be taken to task.
Thirdly, the schedule “Kha” prepared unlawfully should be annulled forthwith.
Fourthly, any confusion regarding the ownership could be dealt with in the light of the precedence of court orders. The owner of the land, if not traced after seven years of 1965 might be considered as embraced civil death following the Rule 108 of the Evidence Act of 1872. According to Hindu Law, if any person remains untraceable even after 12 years is considered as dead and a Hindu woman breaks her conch bangle and remove vermilion on the forehead if her husband is not traceable within 12 years.
It is fact that this government since 1996 could not promulgate Vested Property Repeal Act until 2001. Even during this term, they took four years to deliver an Act confusing the total scenario. If this party returns in power in next election, they might try to resolve it by 2019 and if they do not, other alliance might review and take the time that might not be earlier than 2019. It indicates that a law promulgated within 7th days in 1965 might have implications for 70 years with the sufferings of few generations. The tale of woes and sorrows will continue as before.
Land is the life and blood of Bangladeshi people. No government so far taken any step to make a significant reformation in the land tenancy and land revenue system. This happened because most of the parliamentarian have serious stake in this area to earn their livelihood and maintain influence over the local electorates by hobnobbing.
The Vested Property Act is a successor of many laws and by-laws promulgated by the Pakistani feudal rulers with ill motives to destroy the unity of Bangalis of the then East Pakistan. It has continued to be a major source of violence and oppression and tale of woes to minority. Realistic solution to this problem of vested property is now a crying need. This could be taken as a national issue to resolve quickly.
Dhiraj Kumar Nath is a former secretary and adviser to the caretaker government.