Ten million Hindus forced to flee

DHAKA: Members of the Hindu community have lost 26 lakh acres of land from 1965 to 2006, while an estimated one crore Hindus were forced to leave the country from 1964 to 2001 because of communal conflicts and deprivation caused by the Enemy (Vested) Property Act, according to a study reports the Daily Star, Dhaka.

The price of the land and other moveable properties lost by 12 lakh Hindu families has been estimated at Tk 3,50,412 crore, said the study sponsored by the Association for Land Reform and Development (ALRD) and Nijera Kori. The study report was published in the form of a book titled Deprivation of Hindu Minority in Bangladesh: Living with Vested Property, which was launched at LGED auditorium in Dhaka on May 14.

Prof Abul Barakat, lead author of the book, said the government has identified only seven lakh acres of vested land, of which two lakh acres have been leased out and five lakh acres remain under the control of the grabbers.

Terming the identification of so small amount of vested land a failure of the administration, Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman, former chief adviser to a caretaker government, said the administration of the country is “impossibly inefficient.” “There is a direct link between right to property and democracy,” he said, adding that all should work to help establish the rights of those who lost their properties.

In the study, Prof Barakat said, “Only five lakh people who were in power grabbed the land. This problem needs an immediate solution.” People involved with BNP politics grabbed 17,49,500 acres, those involved with Awami League grabbed 3,61,400 acres, people involved with Jamaat-e-Islami grabbed 2,26,200 acres and those engaged with Jatiya Party looted 1,82,000 acres of vested land, said the study. Besides, 1820 acres of land was grabbed by people linked with Muslim League and 10,400 acres of land by people involved with other political parties, it added.

The study recommended establishing a vested property bank to maintain all statistics of such property and handing over the land to distressed and landless Hindus living in the country. Justice Golam Rabbani blamed the administration for having strong link with influential people in grabbing the enemy properties. “There will be no change without the change in attitude of the bureaucracy,” he said emphasising on strong Parliament and peoples’ democracy, the Daily Star added.

It may be mentioned that the census of 1951 reports that Muslims constituted only 19.90 per cent in West Bengal, but now in 2001 as reported, it is 25.25 per cent. Whereas the census of 1951 reports that Hindus constituted only 22 per cent in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), but now in 2001 it is 9.2 per cent. The consequences of operation of Enemy/Vested Property Act have been, simply, gross denial of freedom and liberty, and institutionalisation of systematic socio-cultural, economic and political deprivation of the Hindu minority in Bangladesh. The national disaster has been so huge that during the last four decades (1965-2006) approximately 1.2 million (out of total 2.7 million) households or six million people belonging to Hindu religion are directly affected by the Enemy turned Vested Property Act and have lost, in addition to land property, other immovable and movable property. According to the estimation of Professor Abul Barkat of Dhaka University: “The approximate money value of such loss (US $ 55 billion) would be equivalent to 75 per cent of GDP of Bangladesh (in 2007). (Deprivation of Hindu Minority in Bangladesh: Living With Vested Property by Abul Barakat and 5 others, (2008) Pathak Shamabesh, Dhaka)

Religious minorities, principally Hindu, Christian and Buddhist make up an estimated 11 per cent of the population. Although equal under the law, these minorities are, in practice, disadvantaged in such areas as access to government jobs and political office. Selection boards in the Government service are often without minority group representation. In the current Parliament there are 04 members from minority groups, out of a total of 330. Property ownership, particularly for Hindus, has been a contentious issue since Independence, when many Hindus lost land holdings due to unequal application of the law. Reported cases of violence directed against religious minority communities has resulted in loss of property, minority communities has resulted in loss of property.

These actions are a symptom of the communal tension that have prompted some people belonging to minority groups to leave Bangladesh, causing a slow but steady decline in the relative size of the country’s minority population, especially Hindus, says the US report in 1993.

It may be recalled that during the Gen. Ayub Khan and Gen. Yahya Khan regimes in Pakistan (1958-71), the Hindus suffered politically and economically. The Hindus as a political force, were suppressed to the extent of virtual non-existence. The rule of Martial Law, the Basic Democracy System, Enemy Property Act (Vested Property Act), pushed them out of the political arena. The biggest problem the community was facing was that of survival Hindus were reluctant to join any political process or politics The Hindu absence from the political scene can be explained by the fact that the community had suffered the loss of many of its prominent leaders either by death or by migration.

The remaining Hindus like us might have thought it wise to wait and extent tacit support to Sheikh Mujib’s political programmes .Thus the Hindus participate in the democratic movements of 1966, 1969 and 1970’s elections. Awami League got unqualified support from the Hindus. Hindus exerted influence in making the Muslim leadership more liberal-democratic, thereby safeguards the minority interests.

Thus the Hindus in particular were targets of Pakistan army’s campaign of genocide during the War of Liberation in 1971. During the post liberation period of Bangladesh; the Hindus were more compromising than before and consoled themselves that they are equal citizens of a People’s Republic under the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh framed in the Constituent Assembly in 1972.

The subsequent military regimes in Bangladesh after August 1975 however, reversed all the state principles of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh framed by the People’s Representatives in 1972. State principle secularism has been replaced with full trust in Almighty Allah and Islam the State religion. Socialism was replaced with social justice and Bengali nationalism with Bangladeshi nationalism, presumably, to highlight the Islamic identity of the nation. Bangladeshi Hindus become second-class citizens, as they were less than 1956 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Bangladesh under martial law regimes could not break away from the past and remained steeped in the legacy of her history of the 23-year existence as part of Pakistan. Hindu-Muslim relationship in Bangladesh was a natural corollary of the tendency to stay prisoner of the past. Hindus in Bangladesh become second-class citizens following the amendments of fifth and eighth to the Constitution of Bangladesh.

Over the last three decades, India has abandoned the minority Hindus at the behest of her Transshipment, Trade imbalance, Cross border insurgency and border skirmishes, Natural Gas import issues on the table with Bangladesh. Now India is facing cross border terrorism in Eastern states. Demographic characters of eastern states have been alarmingly changed. In West Bengal the Muslim population along with Bangladesh border has totally occupied and changed, but before1972 the proportion of the Muslims was insignificant in those areas around Bangladesh.

In the past year, Bangladesh’s unique democratic political system has undergone significant challenges and the upcoming elections continue to test the long-term viability of democracy in Bangladesh. Elections organised under the caretaker government that took power during the interim election period in late 2006 and early 2007, were severely criticised by many in the United States and international community. Criticism of the elections led to a military intervention by the army, which created a state of emergency and a military-backed caretaker government with elections postponed until December 2008.

The military-backed caretaker government, led by Chief Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed, has taken steps to rid the government of corruption and return Bangladesh to democracy. However, reports indicate that their success has been inconsistent with no guarantee that reforms they have implemented can be sustained in the long-term. Some now fear that the military-backed caretaker government may be undermining the very democratic system it is seeking to reform.

The last national election of October 2001 was marred by violence, particularly targeted at Hindus, and led to a coalition government that included religiously based parties, including Islamist parties that advocated for the adoption of Sharia law and reportedly had ties to terrorists. Since the 2001 elections, religious extremists have increased attacks on religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, and other human rights have deteriorated with government impunity.

In addition to concerns over democracy and human rights created by the military-backed caretaker government and rising Islamic extremism, the recent substantial increase in food prices has also contributed to greater political instability in Bangladesh. The current period of reform by the military-backed caretaker government and elections planned for December 2008 will serve as a litmus test for the sustainability of democracy and human rights for people of all faiths in Bangladesh.

Annual Report of USCIRF-2008 issued on May 2, 2008 on Bangladesh in Washington says: Since the declaration of a state of emergency in January 2007, Bangladesh has been in the throes of a political and constitutional crisis, the resolution of which will determine whether religious freedom and other universal human rights will be protected by democratic institutions and the rule of law, or whether the country will continue on a downward spiral toward authoritarianism, militarisation, and intolerance.

Since January 2007, previously scheduled national elections have been postponed, political freedoms severely curtailed and human rights abused with impunity by the security forces. These deviations from democratic norms under the current “caretaker government” raise troubling questions about the future prospects for respect for a range of freedoms, including potentially freedom of religion or belief. ……. This lack of accountability for anti-minority violence associated with the 2001 election led the Commission, minority advocates, and many others to be concerned that Bangladesh’s next national elections would also result in anti-minority violence. Some individuals with whom the Commission met during the February-March 2006 visit to Bangladesh were themselves experiencing difficulties in becoming registered. Others claimed that locations dominated by minority voters had not been visited by registration officials or, on the other hand, alleged that non-citizens believed to favour Islamist parties were being registered. Widespread concerns regarding the registration process were underscored by a U.S. National Democratic Institute study that found 13 million more individuals on the voter rolls than would be eligible according to Bangladesh’s census.

The USCIRF report further added: In addition to incidents of violence, the Vested Property Act (VPA), a pre-Independence law enacted in 1965 in the wake of the India-Pakistan war, continues to be used as justification by some Muslims to seize Hindu-owned land.

The 2007 report of the prominent Bangladeshi human rights organisation Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) stated that in 2006 there were 54 seizures by Muslim individuals of Hindu-owned land and 43 attacks against Hindu temples by Muslims. The VPA’s implicit presumption that Hindus do not really belong in Bangladesh contributes to the perception that Hindu-owned property can be seized with impunity.

The most serious and sustained conflict along ethnic and religious lines has been in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, located on Bangladesh’s eastern border with India and Burma. The varied but wholly non-Bengali/non-Muslim indigenous peoples in this formerly autonomous area (often referred to collectively as Adivasis or Paharis) had opposed inclusion in East Pakistan during the Partition of 1947, due to their identification with other tribal groups in northeast India.

Muslim Bengalis, once a tiny minority in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, now reportedly equal or outnumber members of indigenous groups. In 2007, Bangladesh human rights organisations reported a surge in Bengali settlements on tribal land in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

(The writer is a Retired Addl Secretary and former Press Secretary to the President of Bangladesh. (for Asian Tribune from Dhaka))

The price of the land and other moveable properties lost by 12 lakh Hindu families has been estimated at Tk 3,50,412 crore, said the study sponsored by the Association for Land Reform and Development (ALRD) and Nijera Kori. The study report was published in the form of a book titled Deprivation of Hindu Minority in Bangladesh: Living with Vested Property, which was launched at LGED auditorium in Dhaka on May 14.

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