Hindus of Bangladesh: the Enemy of the State
© Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Following creation of Pakistan on the basis of religious hatred and Islamist bigotry, a notorious law titled ‘Enemy Property Act’ was incorporated that allowed the Pakistani government to confiscate properties of Hindus by branding them as “enemy of the state”.
This law is the culmination of several successive discriminatory laws against non-Muslims passed while Bangladesh was part of Pakistan. Chronologically, they are:
- The East Bengal (Emergency) Requisition of Property Act (XIII of 1948),
- The East Bengal Evacuees (Administration of Property) Act (VIII of 1949),
- The East Bengal Evacuees (Restoration of Possession) Act (XXII of 1951),
- The East Bengal Evacuees (Administration of Immovable Property) Act (XXIV of 1951),
- The East Bengal Prevention of Transfer of Property and Removal of Documents and Records Act of 1952,
- The Pakistan (Administration of Evacuees Property) Act (XII of 1957),
- The East Pakistan Disturbed Persons (Rehabilitation) Ordinance (No 1 of 1964),
- The Defence of Pakistan Ordinance (No. XXIII of 6 September 1965),
- The Defence of Pakistan Rules of 1965,
- The Enemy Property (Custody and Registration) Order of 1965,
- The East Pakistan Enemy Property (Lands and Buildings Administration and Disposal Order of 1966),
- The Enemy Property (Continuance of Emergency Provision) Ordinance No. 1 of 1969,
- Bangladesh (Vesting of Property and Assets) President’s (Order No. 29 of 1972),
- The Enemy Property (Continuance of Emergency Provisions) (Repeal) Act (XLV of 1974),
- The Vested and Non-Resident Property (Administration) Act (XLVI of 1974),
- The vested and Non-Resident (Administration) (Repeal) Ordinance 1976 The Ordinance, (No. XCII of 1976),
- The Ordinance No. XCIII of 1976.
On November 6, 2008, the High Court division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh delivered its rule nisi upon the government on the Enemy Property (Continuance of Emergency Provision) (Repeal) Act 1974 and subsequently promulgated Arpita Sampatty Protapyan Ain 2001 and circulars, administrative orders.
The order called upon the respondent to show cause as to why instructions issued in the contents of presidential order 29 of 1972, act 45 and 46 of 1974, ordinance No. 92, 93 of 1976, Arpita Sampatty Protapyan Ain 2001 and circulars issued by government that are in contradiction with the fundamental rights and the charter of declaration of Independence of Bangladesh, April 10, 1971, should not be declared to be ultra vires the constitution. The Rule Nisi also stated why the properties so far incorporated in the list as Enemy (Vested) should not be returned to the title holder/successor/legal possession holders and or such other or further order or orders passed as to this Court may seem fit and proper. The Rule has been made returnable within 4 weeks from October 28, 2008.
Fifteen years have passed, and there are no visible signs of returning Hindu properties which were confiscated under the Enemy Property Act.
Though renamed as the Vested Property Act in 1974, the law still retains the fundamental ability to deprive a Bangladeshi citizen (read Hindus) of property simply by declaration of 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 (due to religious atrocities against Hindus, and economic as well as political reasons) have their entire property confiscated by labeling them as enemies of the country.
Much of the property of murdered Hindu politician Dhirendranath Datta was confiscated by the Bangladesh government 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 was brought forward that it could not be concluded that Datta had not voluntarily left the country.
The family property of Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen had been confiscated by the Pakistan government. In 1999, the Bangladesh government announced that it was investigating opportunities to return the property to Sen’s family.
A seminal book by Professor Abul Barkat of Dhaka University titled – ‘Inquiry into Causes and Consequences of Deprivation of Hindu Minorities in Bangladesh through the Vested Property Act’, was published in 2000. 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 (6,640 km2), which is equivalent to 53 percent of the total land owned by the Hindu community and 5.3 percent of the total land area of Bangladesh.
The survey also showed that the beneficiaries of the land grab through the act cut across all party lines. The political affiliation of direct beneficiaries of appropriated property was:
- Awami League 44.2 percent,
- Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) 31.7 percent,
- Jatiya Party 5.8 percent,
- Jamaat-e-Islami 4.8 percent,
- Others 13.5 percent.
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 rule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (1976-1980). Barkat’s work also showed that since 1948, 75 percent of the land of religious minorities in East Pakistan and subsequent Bangladesh had been confiscated through provisions of the act.
Barkat also emphasized 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.
The law in its implementation has been seen as a major driver behind the reduction of the Bangladeshi Hindu population, which has declined from an estimated 33 percent in 1947, to 22 percent in 1972 to 10.7 percent in 2015 and now less than 7.9 percent. Most of the Hindu population left for India, while the more affluent Bangladeshi Hindus leaving due to repressive acts have moved to the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia.
Vested Property Act- a Demon still alive
According to jurists, the Vested Property Act first appeared in 1965, when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan. It was at that time called the “Enemy Property Act”. In that year, war broke out between India and Pakistan. The law was directed primarily against the property of the Hindus who had temporarily fled to India in fear of their lives. The state was enabled to take their property into custody, with the rationale that a Hindu who went to India was an enemy.
After the Bangladesh War of Independence (1971) it was expected that the law would be repealed. India, far from being an enemy of Bangladesh, enjoyed excellent relations with the newly born state. However, all that happened was that the act was renamed the Vested Property Act. Hence, on paper, according to this law, India was actually still an enemy of Bangladesh. Even worse, whereas previously the state was only the custodian of the confiscated property, an amendment was passed in 1976, which made the state the outright owner of the property, which it could redistribute.
This was a cruel and callous move by the state. As a result of it millions of Bangladeshis who had fled to India from the Pakistani’s Army’s holocaust in which 3 million people were slain, in the prelude to the 1971 war, could no longer return and reclaim their ancestral homes in the newly found state of Bangladesh. It was a political move, which forced the refugees to stay in India, thus conveniently offloading millions of people (of whom 90 percent were Hindu), and acquiring huge amounts of property.
More so, the new amendment to the law encouraged a new long and slow repression of Hindus, particularly at the behest of hardline Islamic clerics who wanted an “infidel-free” Bangladesh, and greedy politicians, who could redistribute confiscated property amongst themselves. All that needed to be done to acquire Hindu owned property was to forcibly evict the Hindus, through violence, and make them flee. As per the Vested Property Act it was easy for the local government to gain ownership and redistribute the property at will.
My struggle for religious minorities in Bangladesh
Those who know me closely are aware of my continuous struggle for the past two decades for protecting rights of Hindus and religious minorities in Bangladesh. I was the first Muslim who had openly condemned religious conversion of Hindus in this country, while I had raised this issue during my interactions with the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). For years I have been demanding trashing the infamous and notorious Vested Property Act and returning wrongfully confiscated Hindu properties to them.
Unfortunately, when I am writing this article, hundreds and thousands of Hindu properties, including Hindu temple properties are being illegally grabbed by numerous miscreants. There are dozens of Hindu temple properties even in Dhaka city which are under illegal possession of Muslims. Such an evil act cannot be and should not be accepted by any sensible human being. As Bangladesh is heading towards another general election and as there are fears of Islamists returning to power with active collaboration of the US President Joe Biden and members of his administration, I am calling upon Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to repeal the Vested Property Act immediately and make necessary arrangements for returning those properties to Hindus.
About the Author:
(An internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, writer, research-scholar, counterterrorism specialist and editor of Blitz.. He regularly writes for local and international newspapers on diversified topics, including politics and counterterrorism)