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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 877

Bangladesh - The Vested Properties Return Act, 2011

From our diplomatic correspondent
Dhaka, 05 December(Asintribune.com):

The Bangladeshi parliament on 29 November 2011, Tuesday, has passed a landmark bill that will enable the return of property seized from the country's Hindu minority.

Land minister Rezaul Karim Hira placed the Bill before Parliament and it was passed with voice vote.

The act was renamed as the Vested Properties Act after independence. The Vested Properties Return (Amendment) Bill 2011 now enables Hindus to reclaim their property taken over by the government and individuals."There are some good provisions but it doesn't go far enough to address our demand that all the properties seized or taken over until recently should be returned to their rightful owners," Supreme Court lawyer Subrata Chowdhury told the BBC.

The Hindu community has been maintaining their halfhearted reserve reaction since enactment of 15th amendment in the Bangladesh Constitution. So as the return of seized property would face more bureaucratic impediment in future, particularly properties of the people who are citizens of the country and co-sharer will have to be returned, while those with no owner will remain with the government.

Politicians and religious minority leaders on Saturday called on the government to implement the law on vested property without delay. They at a rally in the city expressed satisfaction at the passage of the Vested Property Return (Amendment) Bill 2011by parliament accommodating the suggestions made the representatives of minorities and said that delay in making it a law might hamper the interests of the Hindu community. Criticizing the 15th amendment to the constitution, the speakers said that secularism and Islam as the state religion could not stay together ‘if we want to establish a non-communal country. ’Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council organized the rally at the Central Shaheed Minar with its president Chitta Ranjan Dutta in the chair.

Hailing the passage of the bill, Workers Party of Bangladesh president Rashed Khan Menon said that the minority communities would be benefited if the law on vested property was implemented effectively.

He called on the minority communities to continue the movement to establish their rights.

Civil aviation minister GM Quader said that enacting a law was not enough. He called for effective implementation of the law on vested property to protect the interests of the minority communities.

Communist Party of Bangladesh general secretary Mujahidul Islam Selim excoriated the government retaining ‘Islam as the state religion’ in the 15th amendment to the constitution.

Rana Dasgupta, general secretary of the organization, called on the government to enact the law in 30 days.

Chittagong Hill Tracts Regional Council chairman Jyotirindra Bodhipriya Larma, better known as Santu Larma, also hailed the passage of the vested property bill but lamented that the government had not yet implemented the CHT peace agreement in full.AL advisory council member Durgadas Bhattacharya, Bangladesh Adivasi Forum leader Sanjib Drong, among others, also spoke at the rally, reports NewAge on 4 December 2011.

The proposed bill has provisions to prepare district-wise lists of such vested properties and publish those through gazette notifications within 120 days of the execution of the act.

The bill has provisions for widely circulating this list of vested properties locally and also for providing such lists to interested and intended persons.

If any property is wrongly included in the vested property list, its owners must put up a claim with the upazila or mohanagar committee concerned within 90 days of the gazette notification.

They must then apply with proper documents to the authorities for releasing the property from the list.

The committees concerned after proper scrutiny, examinations and, if necessary, on the spot visits will prepare a report within 120 days of receiving the application and send it to the relevant district committee for further action.

The district committee, within 45 days of receiving recommendations from the upazila and mohanagar committees, will refer it to the deputy commissioners for final decision. The deputy commissioner will pronounce the final verdict within 30 days of receiving the recommendations of the district committee.

If anyone feels aggrieved by the deputy commissioner's decision, he may submit an appeal to the central committee within 30 days of the decision.

The central committee on receiving such complaints will arrange a personal hearing from the aggrieved person and give its decision on the basis of rules, regulations and provisions. This decision will be final.

Provisions were kept in the proposed bill to form a five-member upazila committee headed by the upazila nirbahi officer, a five-member Mohanagar Committee headed by the additional district magistrate, a five-member district committee headed by the deputy commissioner and a seven-member central committee headed by the land secretary for enlisting and proper scrutiny of the vested properties.

The minister and state minister for land would be advisers of the central committees while the lawmakers concerned will be the advisers of the upazila, mohanagar and district committees. If any claim is not found satisfactory, the asset will be considered a government property and the government can sell or transfer the property, as it deems fit. In this case, inheritance, or those enjoying the property under lease, will get preference.

In August last, Government MP Suranjit Sengupta has threatened to take to the streets if a fresh law to return vested properties is not pushed through parliament in the current session according to the demand of the Hindu minorities. "Minorities in Bangladesh hoped that they would be free from the Vested Property (Return) Act, that a new law would be passed. However, the old act is going to be amended instead of a fresh law being passed," Sengupta, the head of the parliamentary standing committee on the law, justice and parliamentary affairs, said Sengupta warned those hindering the passage of the new act." Don't make fun of everything.

Stop misleading the prime minister. The world has changed," he said. Giving example of recently held election in West Bengal, India, he said, "If those, who conspire, think the minorities of the country will be their vote bank forever, are mistaken."

But, Mr SenGupta has been absented himself from the day proceedings of the Bangladeshi parliament on 29 November 2011 that passed a landmark bill that will enable the return of property seized from the country's Hindu minority Moreover, Mr Sengupta became minister without port folio on the same day.

In last October 2010, a number of eminent personalities including 13 parliament members of minority community along with Bangladesh Hindu-Buddha-Christian Oikkya Parishad signed the memorandum with a 7-point demand and submitted to the prime minister’s office, seeking changes to ''Vested Property Return (amendment) Act'' in light of the Supreme Court verdict.

It may be mentioned here that the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in a judgment in 2006 said: “Since the law of enemy property itself died with the repeal of Ordinance No.1 of 1969 on 23 -3-1974 no further vested property case can be started thereafter on the basis of the law which is already dead. Accordingly, there is no basis at all to treat the case land as vested property upon started VP Case (58 DLR 2006 pp 177-185)

The Awami League Hindu lawmakers placed their other demands include a clear definition of vested property on the basis of Supreme Court's orders, return of all properties grabbed after 1974 and formation of tribunals at districts to dispose of the cases. This is the first time in the history of independent Bangladesh, member of Parliament of minority community belonging to the ruling Awami League placed their 7-point coconscious demand.

The VPA has long been criticized in Bangladesh and abroad as a major violation of the rights of citizens, especially minorities, who have had property seized in the past simply on leaving the country. It derives from the Enemy Property (Custody and Registration) Order II of 1965, promulgated in Pakistan following a brief war between India and Pakistan in 1965. This order was directed against those perceived as an enemy, and was used as an instrument for appropriating land belonging to Hindus accused of supporting India. After Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan, Order No-29 of 1972 changed the nomenclature to Vested Property Act without altering the content of the law. The previous Awami League government, just before its exit from power in 2001, tabled a new law, the Vested Property Return Act, fixing a 180-day time limit to prepare a list of properly documented vested property in order to take steps to restore falsely seized lands.

The previous Awami League government (1996-2001), just before its exit from power in 2001, tabled a new law, the Vested Property Return Act, fixing a 180-day time limit to prepare a list of properly documented vested property in order to take steps to restore falsely seized lands.

The subsequent BNP government by the end of 2001 amended the bill replacing the 180-day deadline with an 'indefinite period'. So, the list was never completed. Living with Vested Property in Bangladesh'. Politically powerful people grabbed most of the Hindu lands during the reign of Begum Khaleda Zia's BNP-led four-party alliance between 2001 and 2006. Forty-five per cent of the land grabbers were affiliated with the BNP, 31 per cent with the Awami League, eight per cent with Jamaat-e-Islami and six per cent with the Jatiya Party and other political organizations

It may be recalled that on 9 April 2001, the Parliament of Bangladesh passed the Vested Properties Return Act, 2001. In December 1998, the Government had set up a Parliamentary Sub-Committee under the Ministry of Land, to repeal the Vested Property Act and restore vested properties to original owners. The Draft Bill came under severe criticism by civil society. The ruling Awami League has passed the Bill in haste after it was tabled in the Parliament only on 29 March 2001. It was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Land for cursory scrutiny. As general elections approach, the ruling Awami League is only too aware that the votes of the Hindu minority could be decisive in a closely contested election. The law is an exercise in half-hearted political tokenism.

The remedial nature of the Act also confirms the reports of wrongdoing raised at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and concerns expressed by the Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance after his visit to Bangladesh in May 2000. Consider also the following statement of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, Mr. Abdelfattah Amor, in his Interim Report to the Millennium Session of the General Assembly after his visit to Bangladesh from 15-24 May 2000: “After Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan, the President of Bangladesh, in his Order No. 29 of 1972, changed the nomenclature to Vested Property Act, without altering the content of the law.” (A/55/280/Add.2, at para. 31, (9 Aug. 2000)).

Section 3(b)(i) of the “Enemy Property (Continuance of Emergency Provisions) (Repeal) Act, 1974 (Act XLV of 1974) defines “enemy property” and “enemy firms”: “enemy property and enemy firms shall have the same meaning as are respectively assigned to them in the Defence of Pakistan Rules continued in force by the said Ordinance”. Therefore, the definition of “enemy” as provided in the Defence of Pakistan Rules is applicable and “legally identified enemies” do exist in Bangladesh. The Government of Bangladesh also asserts that “No property of any bonafide Bangladeshi Hindu National has been enlisted as vested property since independence of Bangladesh till date”. The UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance has also confirmed this process of appropriation of the lands of the Hindus. The UN Special Rapporteur referred to “the insecurity felt by Hindus, due partly to the Vested Property Act, which was used for the illegal appropriation of their land, especially by Mafia-like groups enjoying political protection.” (A/55/280/Add.2, para. 67). The Vested Property Return Act does not adequately address the catastrophe.

Quantification of Impact

The forms of oppression of the religious minorities are manifold. Constitutionally, the Hindus have been downgraded by introduction of Islam as State religion of Bangladesh; economically, they have been crippled through systematic discriminatory laws like Enemy turned Vested Property Act and unequal application of laws and practices; politically, they have been segregated and alienated from the mainstream rather we become stooge of so-called secularism. The great Bengali Hindu race have been made a non-entity in different government institutions including army, police, judicial and administrative and non-government services like Bank and industries; The Hindus are under threat of conversion i.e. socially, culturally and observing religious rites, we are insecure.

Professor Barkat et al. used multiple data collection instruments to quantify the impact of VPA:

1 Abul Barkat, Shafique uz Zaman, Md. Shahnewaz Khan, Avijit Poddar, Saiful Hoque, and M. Taher Uddin, Deprivation of Hindu Minority of Bangladesh: Living with Vested Property, 2008, Dhaka: Pathak Shamabesh.

Human Rights in Bangladesh 2008

1. Population: Hindu population has dropped from 18% in 1961 to 9% in 2001. The total Hindu population in 2001 was 11.4 million, half the expected 22.8 million it should be as per growth estimates. The rate of decline was most pronounced in six districts: Chandpur, Feni, Jamalpur, Kishoreganj, Kushtia, Pabna and Narayanganj.

2. Households: 43% of all Hindu households (1.2 million) have been affected by EPA/VPA. 57% of households that lost land lost an average of 100 decimals.

3. Total Land Loss: Total area of land lost was 2.01 million acres, which is 5.5% of Bangladesh's total land mass but 45% of land owned by the Hindu community. Survey data showed 22% more land loss than was shown in official records. According to survey data, the total land lost wais 2.6 million acres. The type of land lost was typically agricultural (80% of total lost land), followed by homestead (11%), pond areas (1.2%), orchards (1.7%), fallow land (0.7%), commercial land (0.14%), religious institution land (0.02%), and others (3.2%).

4. Value: Assuming average market price of land as seen in the year 2007, total value of land lost is Taka 2,416,273 million. If we use the survey data, the total value of land lost is Taka 3,106,636 million. Even if land is lawfully sold, the price of Hindu-owned land is reported as Taka 900,000 per acre, as compared to Taka 1,500,000 for similar. Muslim-owned land.

5. Time Period: 53% of incidents of dispossession and 74% of total lost land occurred between 1965-1971. After lower rates from 1972-1975, dispossession rates accelerated again from 1975. Even after the "Repeal Act" was passed in 2001, 8% of dispossession incidents occurred between 2001-2006.

6. Methods: Influential parties grabbing in connivance with Tahsil and Thana Revenue Office, Tahsil and Thana Revenue Office themselves, death and/or out-migration of one of the members of the Hindu family used as an excuse to enlist the whole property, by force using violence and local thugs, using forged documents, etc.

7. Accompanying Harassment: Typical methods of intimidating Hindu households in order to acquire land include harassment (reported by 50% of households), obstruction in casting vote in 2001 election (27%), obstruction in harvesting crops (25%), workplace intimidation (20%), property destruction (14%), eve-teasing (13%), looting (10%), robbery (6%), obstruction in shopping (5%), extortion (5%).

Exodus

BBC reports on 29 Nov said: Hindu community leaders say that even after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 the law was still used to discriminate against them.

Human rights groups and civil society activists have long urged successive governments to repeal the act.

The governing Awami League made an electoral promise in 2008 that confiscated properties would be given back to the original owners.

Experts say that while the changes to the law are welcome, it will be impossible to return all the land because some of it was confiscated more than 40 years ago.

Most of it appears to have been taken over by Muslims with links to the main political parties.

The government says that it will soon publish a list of properties that were seized. It that any Hindus wanting to make a claim will have 90 days to do so.

It is estimated by one prominent academic that about 400 to 500 Hindu people are migrating daily from Bangladesh.

Professor Abul Barkat told the BBC that if the current rate continues, Bangladesh will no longer have a Hindu community in 25 years' time.

This is a key reason for the continuous migration of Hindus from the country. Therefore, what we are sincerely demanding is the restoration of the Constitution of 1972, a Minority Rights Commission, and freedom of religion with the removal of Islam as State Religion, and a crackdown on the incidents of human trafficking.

Dr Akbar Ali Khan opined: “If Islam is considered as an essential component of Bangladeshi Nationalism, the role of the minority community in the political life of Bangladesh needs to be delineated. Total Hindu population in Bangladesh exceeds the population of Muslim majority countries like Yemen Republic, Jordan, Tajikistan, Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, Oman etc. Politicians in Bangladesh must, therefore, come to grips with this inescapable reality.”(Dr Akbar Ali Khan, Discovery of Bangladesh: Explorations into Dynamics of a Hidden Nation, U P L, P151-52).

Bangladesh is second largest Hindu populated country in the world. They need reservation through Constitutional proviso. They want empowerment and social justice as equal citizens of the Republic. For this, representation of the minority communities in the registration of parties and voters must be ensured. The justice and electoral system must work equally for those in the mainstream as well as for those say for example, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. A failure to do so would result in making the same mistakes that we have been making since the birth of this nation i.e. failing to place justice at the core of our nation-building efforts.

-Asian Tribune-

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