Written by Srabasti Sarker.
The migration of Hindus from Bangladesh to India has steadily increased in the past 53 years. Around 11.3 million Hindus have left Bangladesh due to religious persecution and discrimination. Today, on average, 632 Hindus leave the country each day to find fortune in India. No Hindus will be left in Bangladesh 30 years from now if the current rate of exodus continues.
At the heart of this migration lies the Vested Property Act – a controversial law in Bangladesh that allows the Government to confiscate property from individuals it deems as enemies of the state. It is high time that firm steps are taken by the government to enable Hindus to reclaim their property taken over by the government and individuals before this country is left with no Hindus.
New incidents of land encroachments continue unabated. These incidents were specially high between 2001 and 2006 when the Bangladesh National Party was in power.
Vested Property Act
In 1965, following the outbreak of a war between India and Pakistan, the military government of Pakistan initiated one of history’s most discriminatory laws, the Enemy Property Act (EPA) – a law used as an expedient mechanism to appropriate land belonging to Hindus that had temporarily fled to India in fear of their lives both during the Partition of 1947 and in the aftermath of the division, or those that never left East Bengal, but were accused of supporting India during the war and labelled as “enemies” of Pakistan. The EPA did not consider Muslims leaving for India or those residing in Pakistan that were Indian citizens as enemies of the state, reinforcing the Act’s prejudicial intent. Bangladesh, the successor state to Pakistan’s East Bengal Province, adopted the EPA after gaining independence in 1971 as the Vested Property Act (VPA). Each successive administration since then has only continued this repressive law in one form or another using it to benefit members of the Muslim majority community.
Mass exodus of Hindus
Labelling of Hindus and other minorities as enemies of the state in the erstwhile East Pakistan and later Bangladesh by the EPA and its subsequent versions under the VPA has not only resulted in massive appropriation of Hindu owned land, but also led to a drastic decline in the Hindu population. According to a study conducted by Professor Abul Barkat of Dhaka University, 1.2 million Hindu families or 44 percent of all Hindu households were affected by the EPA/VPA. The study further revealed that Hindus were displaced of more than two million acres of land, comprising 5.5 percent of Bangladesh’s total land mass and 45 percent of all land owned by Hindus in the country. Professor Barkat’s findings also demonstrate that 53 percent of the incidents under the EPA and 74 percent of the total land loss occurred between 1965 and 1971 under the auspices of Pakistan’s military rulers. The rate of land appropriation initially decreased between 1972 and 1975, following Bangladesh’s independence but increased again after 1975. In 1961, the Hindu population of the erstwhile East Pakistan was 18.4 percent, while Hindus currently comprise only 9.1 percent of Bangladesh’s total population. If this current trend persists, the future survival of Hindus in Bangladesh is questionable.
The Restoration of Vested Property Act of 2001 that was introduced to enable the Hindus to reclaim their property does not go far enough. The Act does not only contain much of the same discriminatory language as the VPA, but also creates several burdensome requirements to recovering property under the Act. For example, it only applies to land that was considered “enemy” or “vested” prior to February 1969, thus disregarding large amounts of Hindu owned property seized and vested in the government after February 1969. Moreover, the Act requires the land claimed to be presently under the government’s control or possession, excluding any property that was sold or transferred by the government. The Act further mentions that if the “vested” property is actively used by the government for its own purposes or leased out to an authorised person or agency, it would not be eligible for return under the Act and could not be reclaimed through the court system.
New incidents of land encroachments continue unabated. These incidents were specially high between 2001 and 2006 when the Bangladesh National Party was in power. Despite the introduction of the Restoration of Vested Property Act in 2001, nearly 200,000 Hindu families have been deprived of approximately 195,200,000 square yards of land. Needless to say, the enactment of the Restoration Act has done little to alleviate the suffering of the Hindu community. They continue to be subjected to ongoing land encroachments by government officials from across the political spectrum as a result of the loopholes in the Act.
The socio-economic impact of EPA/VPA on Hindus transcends the pure loss of land and mass migration. The Act has resulted in the widespread economic marginalisation and disenfranchisement of the community. The fundamental human rights of Hindu minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh have been systematically violated by the EPA, along with its later adaptations, in contravention of established human rights treaties and conventions recognised by most nations. This includes treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Pakistan and Bangladesh are signatories.
The way forward
It is impossible to fully rectify all the damage caused by these discriminatory laws, even within a long time span. However, the Government of Bangladesh should undertake concrete steps to return “vested” properties to their rightful owners without placing burdensome requirements on claimants. In cases where it is not possible to physically return properties, the government should compensate the claimants at the fair market value of the land. Finally, the legislative body should entirely remove any prejudicial or inequitable provisions relevant to the issue of “vested” property.
However, in order for that to happen, the people of the country need to come together irrespective of their religion and advocate for the right of the Hindus to their lands. In addition to that international pressure also needs to be created on the government of Bangladesh as this Act involves violation of fundamental human rights. This can only happen when awareness is created about this Act both on a national and global level. Currently, as it stands, only a few know about this Act. If we do not change things now, then the day is not far when Bangladesh will be cleansed of all Hindus.
Srabasti Sarker has recently completed her Bachelor’s in Government and Economics with a concentration in South Asia from Smith College, Massachusetts, United States. She is currently working to establish a rehabilitation centre for the climate change refugees of Bangladesh as a commitment maker of Clinton Global Initiative. Image credit: CC by Sudipta Arka Das/Flickr.