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Rights of Religious Minorities


ASK Research Unit

Over the last decade, there has emerged both a pattern and predictability in reports of disenfranchisement of religious minorities in Bangladesh. A steady stream of news stories about land grabbing, violence (sexual and otherwise) and threats seem like background "white noise" in the volatile human rights context of Bangladesh. Only a few new issues (such as anti-Ahmadiya attacks) or particularly dramatic incidents (burning to death of a whole family), have provoked sustained protest in the national media.

This chapter argues that the Vested Property Act has been the most damaging law affecting the rights of minorities to enjoyment of their land and right to property. Their insecurity has been further enhanced with their relative exclusion from opportunities to education and employment.

The Vested Property Act

Of all the threats that face Bangladesh’s non-Muslims in the plains, [1] that resulting from operation of the Vested Property Act, 1974 is the longest running and most damaging. Although other forms of discrimination grab headlines, they pale in comparison to the impact of land-grabbing over the last thirty six years through abuse of this law. Since the return to an elected parliamentary system of governance in 1991, this law has been the subject of numerous public protests, editorials, seminars, research papers and political forays. Op-ed columnists have branded it as “state sanctioned communalism.” [2] Yet, in spite of a high level of debate, the law is still on the books (albeit in a significantly amended form), and continues to be used as a powerful weapon against minorities.

The Enemy Property Act was initially enacted in 1965 after the India-Pakistan war. It authorized the Government to confiscate properties belonging to those who had migrated from Pakistan to India (mostly Hindus from the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh). In 1974, the Vested Property Ordinance was promulgated, with the stated justification that it would allow ‘enemy’ property to vest in the Government. Since then, the law has stayed on the books and its provisions have been applied arbitrarily and repeatedly to grab large portions of land owned by both Hindus and Christians as well as Adibashis .

In typical cases, property is physically seized by local persons, often neighbours, usually affiliated with powerful politicians or landowners. A case is then filed showing the property to be ‘vested’ in the state. This is a fairly easy process with the complicity of corrupt, local officials. As long as a case is on, lease implementation can continue. Some cases brought under the VPA stay on court dockets for decades, turning minority litigants into landless paupers. Whether the cases are won or lost becomes irrelevant as eventually penniless former land owners have no choice but to give up their claims.

On 9 April 2001, towards the end of the Awami League’s term, Parliament finally enacted the Vested Property Return Act, 2001 but it could not be enforced and the Government has done little to enable the return of properties earlier treated as vested. Even if the law were implemented, it would only narrowly apply to properties appropriated between 1965-1969, although the law continued to be misused to seize properties in all the years since 1969.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance raised several criticisms of the Bill which ultimately became an amended Act: [3]

“According to the non-governmental sources, the bill provides that properties legally vested under the ownership of the Government and those declared to be enemy or vested property after 16 February 1969 will not be considered as vested property after the said period. Most Hindu property, however, was declared vested property after that date. The bill also states that the proprietorship status of the vested property will not be challenged if the property was transferred to the Government, a government institution, or to a private individual, has been sold or has been handed over permanently by the Government at the directives of a court. …The bill also provides that if the original owners do not submit their ownership documents to a court within 180 days following promulgation of the law, the Government will acquire their property. The Hindu community considers this time period too short. Lastly, the bill provides that in the event of the decease of the original owner, rights of inheritance shall apply in accordance with Hindu religious personal laws. Hindu women would therefore be automatically excluded from inheritance, since Hindu religious personal laws do not accord any rights of inheritance to women”

The year saw unabated land grabbing, including land belonging to Hindu temples, as well as individual plots. National newspapers reported 43 incidents of attacks on temples and 45 cases of land grabbing in diverse areas. In Joypurhat district, Kalai thana, 126 bighas (4,158 decimals) of land were reported to have been grabbed, [4] and temple land was occupied in Badarganj thana, [5] in Savar, BNP cadres were reported to have appropriated 16 bighas (about 528 decimals) of land belonging to a leader of a Hindu weaving community, [6] a local Jamat leader reportedly set up a shop on temple land, [7] a cremation ground was also occupied in Thakurgaon and in Manikganj a temple was under threat of occupation. [8]

Table XII.1: Reported Attacks on Temples and Land Grabbing, 2006 [9]

Division

Attacks on Temples

Land Grabbing

Dhaka

7

14

Chittagong

6

9

Rajshahi

13

14

Khulna

10

8

Barisal

5

6

Sylhet

2

3

Total

43

54

Even a high status in society gave no protection, as Sunamganj, reportedly, saw land belonging to 69 prominent individuals, including the former Member of Parliament, Barun Roy, appropriated. [10] Sometimes violent means, or threats of violence, were used to grab land. Following rumours of the desecration of the Holy Quran, 30 homes belonging to Hindus were burnt down in Gopalganj. [11] Sexual violence and harassment of women was also used as a means of grabbing land, reportedly, for example, in Angerdoha village, Dumoria thana, Khulna district [12] and Miton village, Savar thana, Dhaka district. [13]

There were several reports of violence on individuals including Chondon Rani Mondol (32 years) of village Outshashi, thana Tongibari, district Munshigonj, [14] Raza and Kishore Bashfore of Kacharipara, Pabna Town, district Pabna, [15] Tabita Marak (18 years), of Khwa Dokkhin Khanda Chistian Polli, thana Sripur, district Gazipur,, Bakul Rani Pal (75 years), of Rahomatpur village, Babugang thana, Barisal District, [16] Khoka of village Lobon Kotha, thana Raigonj, district Sirajgonj, [17] and Nikhil Ghosh of Angaria River Port, thana Sadar, district Shariatpur. [18]

While there is a need for more thorough investigation and documentation of such incidents, the challenge for rights’ defenders is to channel popular outrage and media attention about individual incidents towards the more difficult, long-term work of abolishing harmful laws, enacting new legislation and enforcing existing legal pro tection.

Frozen Out of Jobs

Less widely discussed, and complicated to articulate, is the ‘lock out’ of minority citizens from jobs in many sectors, especially in the Government. In a nation with over ten per cent minority population, their lack of representation in decision making is quite visible. For example there were only eight members of the minority communities out of 300 members in the Eighth Parliament.

There are indeed a few high profile appointments, but the numbers are missing at a mass level. The one notable exception is the Bangladesh Bank, where only ten per cent of senior positions are filled by minorities. [19] It is interesting to compare their presence in NGOs and the media, where there have more visibility. It may be that they were recruited through competitive hiring, but this contrasts strikingly with recruitment in the public sector.

Although the purpose is not to get into a number-counting exercise (and in fact, statistics are not maintained for employment in NGO and media sector either), anecdotal information suggests that minority citizens are being shut out of entire swathes of employment opportunities. Job applicants possibly understand exactly how the process works as well, as most applicants always include their religion in their CVs. Of course, even in the absence of such information on a CV, religion is relatively easy to detect through Bangla surname syntax, allowing a filter just by looking at the names of applicants.

But actual discrimination is hard to prove, and very few research studies exist. A rare exception was an investigation by The Daily Star [20] that revealed that policemen from Gopalganj were discriminated against in appointments or promotions over the last five years, and Hindu officers were systematically passed over, transferred and blocked from promotion. Simply by analyzing the records of officers above the rank of Superintendent, the reporters discovered that ten Hindu officers were repeatedly by-passed for promotion, and transferred to slow-track postings and locations, in spite of often being first or second in their graduating batch. The newspaper uncovered direct evidence of junior officers, who were Muslims, being appointed as Deputy Inspector Generals of Police before their senior Hindu officers. The scenario was complicated by the perception amongst some that Hindus were ‘loyal’ to the Awami League. This often acted as an incentive for parties opposed to AL to remove them from, or block their entrance to, sensitive positions, especially in the security services.

Missing in this conversation so far has been the idea of affirmative action programmes that could guarantee jobs for religious minorities in all sectors, including government, banks and civil service. The lack of comprehensive statistics has also made it difficult to articulate the story of systemic disenfranchisement without resorting to solely emotional appeals. In the US, such programmes made a tremendous difference to the integration of African Americans into the job force since the 1960s, but these programmes are now under attack by the neo-conservative lobby. The UK, though late to affirmative action, has recently made good progress in this area, especially targeting Asians.

Similar programmes in India aimed at affirmative action to address caste discrimination, such as those proposed by the Mandal Commission Report and the recent initiative to reserve seats in medical colleges for Dalits or low caste Hindus have, despite significant gains, provoked violent protests from upper caste Hindus, as well as regressive decisions by the Supreme Court. The success of these efforts can be gauged from the implementation of 50 per cent ceilings in education and, by way of example, the recent elevation of the first Dalit Chief Justice. Recent efforts to suggest job quotas for Muslims have faced stiff opposition from the Indian political parties. The chances of such efforts succeeding in Bangladesh seem even more distant, but the conversations must commence.

Muslim ‘Purity’ Struggles

For the last few years, the campaign to declare the Ahmadiya community as ‘non-Muslim’ has added a new dimension to the picture of religious tolerance in Bangladesh. The campaign scored a major victory in 2004 when the Government gave in to one of its demands and banned certain books published by the Ahmadiya community. Since then, however, the movement has been on the defensive as the Ahmadiya community, with the support of coalitions of lawyers, human rights defenders and cultural activists, has fought back and asserted their rights.

The year saw a further weakening of the anti-Ahmadiya movement due to the splintering of the main anti-Ahmadiya organization International Khatme Nabuwat Movement Bangladesh (Last Prophet movement) and the eclipse of Amra Dhakabashi (We Dhakaites). With the splintering, the group lost its momentum in pressing for its demands. But there were some reported incidents of assault on the community and its religious institutions, including rallies in Dhaka at Ashkonia, [21] Tejgaon, [22] Uttara; [23] strikes at Uttara, Turag, Khilkhet, Airport zone; [24] as well as rallies, threats and attacks in Ahmed Bazar Road, Barisal; [25] Harilait village, Phulbari thana, [26] Shahbazpur village, thana Nabinagar, Brahmanbaria, [27] and Kandipara, Brahmanbaria town, district Brahmanbaria. [28]

Preventive measures taken by the Government this year brought an improvement in the situation. Although there were large rallies, and incidents of attacks on Ahmadiya mosques, the Government response was measurably different from previous years, as police were sent repeatedly to protect Ahmadiya institutions, in deference, perhaps, to the growing national and international response. In some cases this was done through imposition of Section 144, which meant that the Ahmadiyas themselves were unable to hold their religious functions. As a result, Ahmadiya annual conventions had to be cancelled in Brahmanbaria [29] and Sharishabari. [30]

This appeared to prove the criticism that the Government always had the resources and ability to stop the anti-Ahmadiya movement, but did not do so earlier due to political calculations. The High Court order that stayed the Government’s book ban continued to provide some defense, although it is to be noted that the Government has not withdrawn the banning order to date.

The Ahmadiya case illustrates the need for greater strategizing on the protection of minority rights. The Ahmadiyas have displayed media savvy and self-confidence to extend their outreach. The presence of articulate spokespersons who were able to present the facts of their case, both in Bangla and English, meant the Ahmadiya situation reached audiences widely inside Bangladesh, as well as among global activists. Ahmadiya activists were able to present their own story, on the 24-hour global satellite channel (MTA), as well as disseminate footage related to their case. Their rhetoric and public position has been that of equal, unapologetic citizens.

Minority Votes

Although voting did not always take place according to religious blocs, there was some apprehension that the participation of Hindus and Christians would be reduced in the 2007 elections. According to the 2001 Population Census the proportion of the Hindu population had decreased to 9.2 per cent of the total from 10.50 per cent in 1991. [31] The post election attacks in 2001, on many Hindu villages and some Christian homes by BNP-allied local gangs, on the assumption that they had voted for the AL, could scare them off from participating in future elections. [32]

The voter list in 2006 reportedly had serious omissions of minority voters, both religious and ethnic minorities. The process of drawing up a fresh voter list for 2007 was already engulfed in controversy because of allegations of tampering and fictitious voter blocs. In addition, reporters uncovered evidence of vote registers which completely excluded many villages with sizable minority populations, especially in Chittagong. [33] In some cases, enumerators claimed to be amending lists to delete names of those who had died recently or who had left the country, but in many cases it was alleged that the names of those who were still alive were also being deleted.

Crisis of Secularism

The AL’s non-communal position may have been eroded by some of its expedient electoral alliances. In late 2006, as part of the pre-election campaign, the AL began forming coalitions with smaller Islamist parties, and gave nominations to Islamists known for provocative anti-minority statements. For example, in Sylhet the AL bypassed its former MP, known to be a progressive, and instead nominated Maulana Habibur Rahman, who at one time had demanded execution of Taslima Nasreen, Professor Zafar Iqbal and several cultural activists.

In December 2006, it suddenly announced a pre-election Memorandum of Understanding with a small Islamist party Khelafat Majlish . [34] The key points of the MoU included: i) No law to be enacted contradictory to Quranic values, Sunnah and Shariah , ii) qualifications issued by Kawmi madrassahs to be recognized for the purpose of recruitment to Government jobs, (iii) laws to be enacted (a) acknowledging the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as the final and greatest prophet, (b) allowing certified Hakkani Alems to issue fatwas , and (c) making any criticism of the Prophet and the Caliphs a punishable offence. [35]

This document was a repudiation of the AL’s pronounced adherence to non-communalism. The MoU was reportedly kept secret prior to its announcement and only known to a select group of leaders such as the party President Sheikh Hasina, Secretary General Abdul Jalil, Sheikh Hasina’s advisors and a few others. For most of the party’s top leadership, the announcement came apparently out of the blue and highlighted at its most extreme, the lack of internal democracy in the party. Senior leaders, and some of the presumed ‘next generation’ leadership were caught completely off guard. Only a few months earlier a senior leader had reiterated AL’s commitment to secularism in a globally televised BBC debate. [36] There were strong reactions from grassroots AL workers as well as from within the Fourteen Party Alliance. Many prominent AL-aligned cultural workers, intellectuals and political activists publicly publicly condemned the MoU.

In January 2007, Sheikh Hasina finally cancelled the MoU, but stopped short of acknowledging it as a mistake. She explaned that the cancellation of the elections had made the MoU irrelevant. The larger issue it highlighted for many committed to human rights principles was that the rights of the minorities and citizens right to freedom of belief might become hostage to electoral strategies.

The Global Link ‘Problem’

In a globalized world, issues inside Bangladesh are of concern to rights’ advocates everywhere, just as world issues are of concern to many people inside Bangladesh. However, since 2001, there is a tendency in many areas to view many human rights issues from within the prism of the ‘war on terror’ and ‘battle against radical Islam’ rhetoric. Bangladesh, identified as a ‘moderate Muslim’, and more recently ‘vulnerable frontline’ state, is particularly prone to this type of analysis.

The issue of minority rights has received special attention in the world media as it is seen as a litmus test for just how ‘moderate’ a Muslim nation remains. This added attention means that activists have more leverage on these issues on a global stage. This was seen, for example, in the efforts by British Bangalis to confront Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a Jamat MP during his visit to the UK where he was slated to give talks at various mosques and other institutions. A prominent report by Martin Bright, Political Editor of the weekly New Statesman , inclusion of relevant information on Sayeedi in a television documentary and Home Office intervention ultimately resulted in Sayeedi hastily cutting short his visit.

Conclusion

The challenge in coming years for Bangladeshi rights’ defenders is to move from a defensive, reactive mode where they ‘protect’ or ‘repair’ after an incident occurs, to a more assertive, proactive position. There is a demand from minority communities for necessary amendments in the Vested Property Return Act, 2001 to effect its implementation and to redress the financial loss of victims whose land has been appropriated after 1965.

It is crucial to start looking at pro-active affirmative action policies for fairer representation of minorities in all sectors of the job market and in educational institutions. Finally, human rights’ defenders must increasingly push for more holistic rights for all religious minorities.

Recommendations

Discrimination

  • Establish an autonomous Minority Rights Commission for redressal of complaints.

Vested Property Act

  • Make necessary amendments to the Vested Property Return Act, 2001.
  • Take administrative measures to ensure return of ‘vested property.’
  • Compensate all families whose land has been seized over last thirty-six years, in cases where land cannot be returned.

Voter List

  • Ensure the inclusion of all minority voters in voter lists.

Employment

  • Maintain data on employment by religion and ethnicity in government, private sector, media, NGOs and education.
  • Formulate affirmative action programmes for employment of minorities in public and private sector.

Freedom of Belief

  • Permanently withdraw the ban on books published by Ahmadiya Muslim Jamat.

Notes

[1] The CHT is discussed in a separate chapter.

[2] Sukhdev Sana, "Vested Property Act: Taking Away Minority Rights", Sangbad , 30 December, 2006.

[3] United Nations General Assembly, Interim report of the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights on the elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief , Addendum 2, Situation in Bangladesh, A/55/280/Add.2, at para. 33, 9 August, 2000 .

[4] Anwar Parvez, “Attempt to suppress news of grabbing of 126 Bigha of Vested Property in Kalai”, Prothom alo , 27 October, 2006.

[5] “Steps to Grab Temple”, Sangbad , 24 September, 2006.

[6] “BNP Cadres Grab 16 Bigha of Land belonging to Tanti Leader and another minority”, Janakantha , 2 September, 2006.

[7] “Thakurgaon Cremation Land Occupied; Jamat Leader’s Shop on Temple Land”, Sangbad , 21 October, 2006.

[8] “Threats of Occupying Village Temple in Manikganj”, Janakantha , 2 September, 2006.

[9] Prothom alo, Bhorer Kagoj, Sangbad, Ittefaq, Janakantha, Jugantor, Inqilab, Dinkal, Banglabazar, The Daily Star, New Age, Sangram and Shamokal .

[10] “Sunamganj Land Office’s Trickery: Land of 69 Distinguished Citizens, including Barun Roy, become Vested Property”, Shamokal, 1 September, 2006.

[11] “30 Minority Homes Torched after Allegation of Desecration of Pages of Quran”, Prothom alo, 8 October, 2006.

[12] Janakantha , 22 April, 2006.

[13] “Mirza Hafizur Rahman (relative of former State Minister Lutfuzzaman Babar) demolished 50 homes”, Bhorer Kagoj , 18 February, 2006.

[14] Janakantha, 13 February, 2006.

[15] Janakantha , 26 April, 2006.

[16] “Bakul Rani feels Hospital Safer than her own Home!”, Prothom alo , 8 July, 2006.

[17] “Minority family gets threat; two families on run for fear of their life”, Bangla Bazar , 22 August, 2006.

[18] “Angaria Minorities Terrorized, Nikhil Ghosh’s Family Flees Country after Threats by Terrorists”, Bhorer Kagoj , 3 June, 2006.

[19] “US State Department Report: Oppression of Minorities and Ahmadiyas in Bangladesh Continues”, Shamokal , 17 September, 2006.

[20] Zayadul Ahsan, “Pariahs in Police”, The Daily Star , 21 January, 2007.

[21] Janakantha , 23 June, 2006.

[22] “Khatme Nabuwat Demands Blasphemy Law”, Sangbad , 30 September, 2006; “Roads blocked for five hours for Khatme Nabuwat Anti-Ahmadiyya Rally”, Bhorer Kagoj , 7 October, 2006; “2 Wounded in Clashes Between Police and Khatme Nabuwat”, Prothom alo , 7 October, 2006; “Tejgaon Protests Demand Ahmadiyas Be Declared Non-Muslim”, Ittefaq , 7 October, 2006.

[23] “Militant Khatme Nabuwat Clash With Police”, Janakantha , 24 June, 2006.

[24] “48 Hour Strike in 5 Thanas in Capital, Zia Airport to be Surrounded Thursday”, Shamokal , 24 June, 2006; “Airport to be Surrounded 29”, Prothom alo , 24 June, 2006.

[25] Jugantor , 24 March, 2006.

[26] Shamokal , 17 November, 2006.

[27] Pijush Kanti Acharjya, “Ahmadiya Woman Not Allowed To Be Buried in Nabinagar, Local Committee Objects To ‘Heretic’”, Bhorer Kagoj , 19 January, 2006.

[28] Eleven Fresh Bombs Found in Ahmadiya Graveyard; Police Remove Bombs; Bhorer Kagoj , 25 January, 2007.

[29] “Section 144 bars Ahmadiyas from holding religious festival in Brahamanbaria”, The Daily Star , 21 May, 2006.

[30] “’Tauhidi People Attack Ahmadiya Jalsa in Sharishabari”, Sangbad , 17 June, 2006; “Ahmadiya Jalsa Attacked, Mass Camage, Section 144 Imposed”, Bhorer Kagoj , 17 June, 2006.

[31] Bangladesh Bureau of Statistic, Population Census 2001, National Report (Provisional), p 66.

[32] Amnesty International, “Attacks on members of the Hindu minority”, 12 January, 2001; BBC , “Bangladesh Hindus “will not go back”, 22 “Bangladeshi Court Acts to Protect Hindus” New York Times , 25 November, 2001.

[33] “Minority Names are being Deleted from Chittagong Voter List without Judgment”, Shamokal, 17 December, 2006; “Complaints Against Removal of Minority Names from Chittagong Voter List”, Janakantha, 24 December, 2006.

[34] “AL-bigots electoral deal stuns all, Party faces protest from within; allies threaten to split unless pact scrapped”, The Daily Star , 25 December 2006.

[35] See Chapter 11, Women’s Rights, p. 149.

[36] BBC , “Can Democracy Deliver in Bangladesh”, 2006.