Current Bangladesh Time: 5:34:14 PM (Wed)

Commentary: More empty words from the Bangladeshi government?

Dr. Richard L. Benkin from USA

On September 11, Weekly Blitz reported that at its 38th meeting, the Bangladeshi cabinet decided “to scrap the Vested Property Act.” If there is some reality to the government’s words, this will be a giant step in moving Bangladesh to its place among respectable nations. For what sort of nation supports a law that provides the fuel for a deliberate system of ethnic cleansing? We should, however, be skeptical about that reality for the history of successive Bangladeshi governments—including every Awami League government—would lead us to be doubtful that the decision is anything but a sham; a sham intended to secure the elusive trade benefits that government action have foreclosed to the Bangladesh people; a sham to prevent the United Nations from ending Bangladeshi participation in peacekeeping ventures; a sham intended to stall for time so that the Awami League can get away without taking action that might alienate the country’s radicals. The Awami League, in fact, bears a greater responsibility for the Vested Property Act [VPA] than any other party.

Although the VPA is a continuation of Pakistan’s Enemy Property Act, which was in force in East Pakistan prior to Bangladesh’s War of Independence; it did not become Bangladeshi law automatically—and did not have to become so. In 1974, however, the Awami League government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, enshrined the VPA into Bangladeshi law and initiated the decades of abuse and ethnic cleansing that followed as a result. He and the Awami League could have omitted the VPA from Bangladesh’s law but chose instead to make it part of it and harass millions of minorities. That is the legacy of the first Awami League government.

While the Awami took power again in 1996—in part on the backs of its minority supporters—it did nothing to weaken or repeal the act or to bring relief to beleaguered minorities until the eve of its exit from power when it passed the toothless and entirely inadequate Vested Property Return Act of 2001. Even its apologists have admitted that the Act was a cynical attempt to regain the pro-minority mantle, while recognizing that the act would not be implemented—and would not be effective even if it was. Nor has the Awami League ever adequately explained why it did nothing throughout its term of office. That is the legacy of the second Awami League government.

Since the Awami League’s return to power in December 2008—again in part because of minority support—the VPA has raged like never before in Bangladesh. Attacks on minorities have increased, and the attackers are often rewarded with the victims’ property—thanks to the VPA and a government and police force that is complicit in this crime. This spring, I reported that hundreds of Muslims attacked a primarily Dalit community in Dhaka, seized several parcels of property, burned several homes to the ground, destroyed a Hindu temple, and sent several of the poor residents to the hospital, all in the presence of police who accompanied the attackers into the community. They cited the Vested Property Act as the legal basis for the invasion and refused to pursue any case against the attackers even though they witnessed several crimes including beatings, arson, religious desecration, and land grabbing. An Awami League MP also refused to take any action when requested to by human rights organizations. Another Awami MP was also involved in a case of kidnapping and forced conversion of a young Hindu girl in northern Bangladesh. Attacked minorities—Bangladeshis all—continue to stream across the border into India, and I have interviewed many, including a teenage victim of ethnically-based rape. That is the legacy thus far of the third Awami League government.

As pointed out in the Weekly Blitz article, less than two months before the Awami League took power, the Bangladeshi Supreme Court ordered the government “to show cause as to why [the Vested Property Act, which is] in contradiction with the fundamental rights and the charter of declaration of Independence of Bangladesh, should not be declared” unconstitutional. It further asked the government to show cause why lands that were seized under the VPA should not be returned to their original owners. The interim government left it to its successor to respond, leaving the legal basis for immediate repeal of the act in the Awami League’s lap. Yet, it never acted upon it. And as Awami officials sat contentedly, more and more minority property was seized under Bangladesh’s most shameful law; a law responsible for the legal plunder of at least 75 percent of Hindu lands.

In the most authoritative study of the VPA to date, Professor Abul Barkat of Dhaka University showed that the Awami League has received as much of the spoils from looted minority party as has the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)—which exposes the Awami League’s dishonesty in claiming to be the savior of Bangladesh’s minorities and its rival their enemy. In fact, when the Awami League has been in power, it received a greater share of VPA spoils than did the BNP.

During the last election campaign and since then, Sheikh Hasina and others in her party have been promising to take action to end the oppression of minorities but have not taken a single step toward keeping those promises. It was widely reported this past spring that the Prime Minister told the visiting commander of Joint Forces in the Indian Ocean Region that Bangladesh would repeal all anti-minority laws; something it has not done. As a direct result of its inaction, anti-minority agitation is increasing, as is police and government tolerance of it. I investigated and verified 12 separate incidents of government collusion in anti-minority actions in January and February alone. That is one every week and a half, and included land grabbing, abduction, assault, murder, rape, forced conversion, arson, forced conversion, and religious desecration

There is only one measure by which the world can change its deteriorating opinion of the Awami League government and the situation for minorities in Bangladesh; and that is action. Thus far, the action of Sheikh Hasina’s government instills anything but confidence that it has the will or even desire to act. Everyday, law abiding Bangladeshis flee attacks carried out with police or government collusion, often in the name of the VPA or because that law offers the perpetrators material gain in exchange for their atrocities. If it acts, not only will minorities benefit, but it also will signal to the world that Bangladesh finally has turned its back on radical Islamists and has decided to re-enter the global society of civilized nations.

The biggest mistake minorities and human rights groups could make now is to content themselves with mere words and not press for immediate action—action that should have and could have been taken the day the Awami League entered office.