Citizens, not enemies

Naeem Mohaiemen

Published in the Daily Star on 12 Dec 2008.

DEBATES around religious minorities, in election season and otherwise, focus on anecdotes and analogies — positive and negative. What is largely missing in this discussion is quantitative analysis of the religious minorities status in Bangladesh.

The one variation is Professor Abul Barkat, of the Dhaka University Department of Economics. Since the 1990s, Barkat along with his large team of researchers have been applying the methods of economic, statistics and survey research to compile a comprehensive picture of Hindu community status since independence of Bangladesh, especially as it has been impacted by the black law known as Enemy (Vested) Property Act.

The missing Hindus
In order to quantify the total loss of Hindu population through migration, voluntary and involuntary, the study looks at official population statistics as well as Tahsil office records. Hindu population, as share of total population, has dropped from 18% in 1961 to 12% in 1981 and finally to 9% in 2001. The rate of decline was most pronounced in six districts: Chandpur, Feni, Jamalpur, Kishoreganj, Kushtia, Pabna, and Narayanganj, In the districts which historically had high Hindu population, the average decline over forty years was 12%

Looking at the absolute number of Hindu population over forty years is not sufficient to calculate how many of them have left the country. It is also necessary to factor in birth rates. Looking at historic data of lower birth rates among Hindus, Barkat’s research assumed 13% lower fertility rate for Hindus compared to Muslims. Factoring this in, the Hindu population should have been 11.4 million in 1971, but it was reported as 9.6 million. By 2001 it should have been 19.5 million, but it was 11.4 million. Looking at the entire time period and doing the same calculation, Barkat estimates the total missing Hindu population from 1964-2001 as 8.1 million, i.e., 218,819 missing Hindus each year.

While there are many factors that may have contributed to this ongoing depletion of the Hindu population, the research team argues that the Vested Property Act is the single largest factor that leads to minority departure from the country.

Metamorphosis of Vested Property Act
The Vested Property Act started life as Requisition of Property Act (Act XIII of 1948), after 2 million Hindus left East Bengal in 1947-48. Giving the power for takeover of abandoned property “needful for the purposes of the state,” this act has evolved into something abused by citizen and state from Partition to today’s Bangladesh.

This law metamorphosed into East Bengal Evacuees Act (1951), East Pakistan Disturbed Persons Rehabilitation Ordinance (1964), Enemy Property Order (1965), Bangladesh Vesting of Property and Assets Order (1972), and finally Vested and Non-Resident Property Act (1974).

As a result of publication of Barkat’s first two studies, and major campaigning around this issue, the 22nd session of National Parliament under the Awami League government passed Vested Property Return Act 2001. While this was a first milestone, there were several major flaws: the act covered only land vested up to February 1969; the original owner or heir is required to have “continuously” resided in Bangladesh; and the owner had to submit claims within 90 days of publication of list of returnable properties.

In November 2002, the BNP-Jamaat alliance government passed an amendment to the 2001 act, which removed all enforcing power from this law. Especially harmful was the clause that gave the government “unlimited time” to publish the list and enforce return of property. Since the passage of this amendment, not a single list has been published, nor any return process initiated in the last six years.

Quantification of impact
As part of the multi-year study that led to Professor Barkat and his team’s new book, the following data collection instruments were used: primary data via panel studies of 16 districts, follow-up study on households surveyed in 1997 study, Population Census, Land Survey, Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics logs, Tahsil and Thana land revenue records, etc.

Below we present the key findings from the study:

1. 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. Survey data shows 33% of affluent Hindu families lost land due to EPA/VPA. 50% of affluent households had at least one close relative who lost land

2. Total area of land lost is 2.01 million acres, which is 5.5% of Bangladesh’s total land mass but 45% of land owned by the Hindu community. The survey data shows 22% more land loss than is shown in the official records. According to survey data, the total land lost is 2.6 million.

3. The type of land lost is typically agricultural (80% of total lost land), followed by homestead (11%), pond area (1.2%), orchard (1.7%), and fallow land (0.7%).

4. Assuming average market price of land as seen in the year 2007, total value of land lost is BDT 2,416,273 million.

5. 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. The most typical methods of land grabbing are influential parties grabbing land in connivance with Tahsil and Thana Revenue Office, death and/or out-migration of members of the Hindu family used as excuse to enlist the whole property, grabbing the land by force, occupying land using forged documents, etc.

Professor Barkat is an academic who has put hard statistics around a complex crisis for the nation’s minority community. In this election season, are there politicians out there who have the courage to make complete removal of this black law, and return of all land to dispossessed Hindu families, one of their election manifestos? We’re waiting for a politician with the courage to take that principled position. Rather than losing votes, it will gain many votes. Above all, from the nation’s millions of secular Muslims who look for a principled position regarding equal treatment for all citizens.

1. See, e.g. Deprivation of Hindu Minority in Bangladesh,” A Barakat et al. (Pathak Shamabesh, 2008).

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