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Repeal Bangladesh’s Racist Vested Property Act Now!
[Sat, 28 Jun 2008 00:57:52 -0500]

By Dr. Richard L. Benkin

Bangladesh’s Vested Property Act (VPA) is a racist law. It provides the government—which really means the corrupt politicians in the ruling party—with the power to seize the homes and farms of innocent citizens and distribute them as graft to their cronies. The VPA has its roots in Pakistan’s Enemy Property Act. After another embarrassing defeat at Indian hands in 1965, the Pakistani government passed a retaliatory law that allowed it to declare citizens (read Hindu citizens) enemies and confiscate their property. The Pakistani law was openly anti-Hindu, which matched the national rhetoric at the time and national sentiment most of the time.

When Bangladesh passed the VPA three years after its independence, it had to be more circumspect in its description, even though the law was worded to make it clear that the VPA’s substance was no different from its Pakistani forebear. After all, the Awami League politicians who passed the VPA then and now tries to maintain a fiction that they care about Bangladesh’s non-Muslim minorities. Good politics, you know. Moreover, most people still appreciated the fact that Bangladeshi independence was possible about only with the help of Indian arms. But the effect was the same. While the act has been used against other religious and ethnic minorities, Hindus have been the real targets. Professor Abul Barkat of Dhaka University undertook the most authoritative study of the VPA and concluded that by 1997, 40 percent of Hindu families in Bangladesh had been affected by it and more than half of all Hindu-owned land already had been confiscated under the act. Much more land and many more Hindus have been affected in the eleven years since then. So, there is no doubt that the VPA is a critical ingredient in ethnic cleansing. The fact that the percent of Hindus in Bangladesh has been cut in half concurrent with the act is evidence of those even more sinister, ethnic cleansing, motives behind the law.

The VPA is so clearly racist and immoral that the question of its being an outrage to every decent human being should not even a legitimate topic for discussion among civilized individuals. There is no justification for it, and every Bangladeshi should be embarrassed by it. Trying to make a case for it is like trying to justify Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial is the racist attempt by people, including Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad—to say that the Nazi slaughter of Europe’s Jews never happened. Some appeasers in universities and elsewhere are now trying to say it is merely another point of view that is a legitimate topic for study. Nonsense! It is a racist lie; members of my family who survived the Holocaust can testify to that. Other members of my family who did not survive it would do the same if they could! Trying to justify the VPA is a racist lie, too.

According to Barkat, only about 0.4 percent of the Bangladeshi population shares in the spoils of the VPA, all of them connected to one political party or another. During the period of his original study, the time of Awami League control, Barkat found the following breakdown of who got the seized property:

Awami League 44%
BNP 32%
Jatiya Party 6%
Jamaat-e-Islami 5%
Others 13%

Barkat’s breakdown during BNP control was:

BNP 45%
Awami League 31%
Jamaat-e-Islami 8%
Jatiya Party 6%
Others 10%

Bangladesh has long been known for its massive corruption. These figures make it clear that this is not even a principled bigotry but nothing more than legalized plunder for dishonest politicians. The blood money seems the real reason why Bangladeshis refuse to repeal this racist law. For what other countries besides Bangladesh and Pakistan have such a law? Imagine the reaction if any nation where Muslims are a minority had a similar law directed at them! Various Bangladeshi officials like to call Israel “apartheid” and take a political position in which the government tries to pretend it is morally superior to the Jewish state. It even deprives its citizens of the chance to travel to Israel through its bigoted passport regulations. But Bangladesh’s politically connected few grow fat by stealing ancestral Hindu lands and expelling their Hindu citizens; yet, if the nation they so cynically and unjustly condemn ever tried to pass a similar law aimed at Arabs, the Israeli Supreme Court would strike it down before it ever had a chance to be implemented.

Defending an indefensible law like the VPA also makes Bangladeshi representatives look very foolish. Recently, one Bangladeshi official actually tried to convince me that the VPA was in force “to protect Hindus and other minorities.” I very genuinely advised him not to try that on others as it is an insult to the listener’s intelligence and only makes the Bangladeshi government appear tragically ridiculous. Another Bangladeshi leader told me not long ago that “the current government has no intention of addressing the Vested Property Act during its tenure,” as, he said, the matter was too complex. Complex? The Vested Property Act is undisguised racism and brings nothing but international disrepute on Bangladesh. Oh, and by the way, Awami League, no one—not even your toadies in the press—were taken in by your disingenuous Vested Properties Return Act, which was nothing more than a cheap stunt to win votes in an election year.

The VPA is so beyond the pale of what decent nations subscribe to that its continuation has other, serious consequences for the people of Bangladesh—almost none of whom derive even a single Taka from the VPA. For instance, Bangladesh has been struggling for years, and with no success, to obtain tariff relief and other trade benefits from the United States, its principle garment customer. To be sure, its failure has been due more than anything else to Bangladesh’s continued false persecution of journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, which the entire US Congress has condemned on the record. Yet, it is also quite possible that Bangladesh’s continued enforcement of the VPA could be at odds with US law regarding such treaties and agreements. The VPA could be a similar obstacle to agreements with Canada, the European Union, and other countries, as well as the World Trade Organization.

For over forty years, first as East Pakistan then as Bangladesh, the racist and Nazi-like nature of the VPA has not moved politicians to act in defense of human rights. One would think that if human decency cannot move Bangladeshi leaders to do the right thing, perhaps self-interest will. We do know that the current government has more flexibility to act than the previous, corrupt regimes ever did and a clearer perception of the realities facing Bangladesh. Whether they do act, however, remains a matter of speculation. What is not speculative, however, is that if they do not and the VPA remains, the losers will be all Bangladeshis—Muslims as well as Hindus and other minorities. And the world will remain silent no longer.

[Dr. Richard L. Benkin, an American Jew and independent human rights activist, secured the release of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury from imprisonment and torture and ahs continued to defend him against attacks from both government functionaries and others. He also is working with others in Bangladesh to stop anti-religious persecution. Currently, Dr. Benkin is also leading an effort to defend Bangladeshi Hindus both in Bangladesh and India. He is a correspondent for Weekly Blitz and Amador Shomoy and writes for numerous journals internationally.]

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