June 07, 2007

Our Real National Shame

For those who need more confirmation that our political parties do not care about our religious minorities, here is Professor Abul Barkat’s study on the Vested Property Act.

Following the 1965 war with India, the Ayub government in its infinite wisdom decided to constitute something called the "Enemy Property Act". It allowed them to declare any citizen an "enemy" and confiscate their property. How, when and why Hindus became enemies after living in Pakistan as citizens for 17 years was never really clarified. But then again, this was our thick-headed, Sandhurst educated friend (not master!) Ayub, so logic took a backseat as was usual.

Following Bangladesh’s independence, Mujib’s Awami League government- the Epitome of "Dhormoniropekhkhota", the Protector of the "Minorities" - reconstituted the act in 1974 calling it the Vested Property Act. Bravo! Needless to say political-economists would have had a lot to say about the reasons behind such a move. But also needless to mention, not many political economists among the Dhaka intelligentsia have bothered to investigate these reasons.

So the epithet (good to some, bad to others) of being "minority-friendly" stuck. Everything was fine and dandy till our villainous friend and master Zia came along, rehabilitated Jamaat and inserted "Bismillah" into the constitution. After that the REAL persecution of Hindus started. Or so goes the tale.

Yet, as Barkat shows, who the beneficiaries of such confiscations ("legal" till 2001) were depended solely on who was in power. During 2001-2006:

45% of the land grabbers were affiliated with the BNP,
31 % with the Awami League,
8% with Jamaat-e-Islami
6% with the Jatiya Party and other political organisations.

His ‘97 study showed the opposite trend:

44% with the Awami League
32 % with the BNP

(figures for Jamaat and JP not given)

And did I mention that the Awami League government repealed the act in 2001? Yeah, even New Age calls it an "act of tokenism". And rightly so! After all, they had 5 years to do so but chose to do it only right before elections, after five years of allowing supporters to plunder the property of the citizens of Bangladesh by labelling them "the enemy".

And before you BNP-supporters get too excited, let me point out that the study also finds that the violence faced by minority religious communities increased under the BNP-Jamaat government. After all, if the law was repealed but the confiscation still went on, it had to be done somehow right? Who’s on for a good old-fashioned pogrom to seize their property?

This brings me to the point I’ve been trying to make over and over again on these pages: that religious identity politics are driven more by the political-economy of control over scarce resources than by religion. But hey, who’s listening? Certainly not "secularists" who think that taking "Bismillah" out of the constitution is going to magically empower our Hindu citizens. And since most of our intelligentsia falls into this category, that should answer our question as to why they haven’t really looked into the reasons behind the Vested Property Act being instituted in the first place in 1974 in a Bangladesh supposedly built on a secular Bangali nationalism.

In conclusion, both parties stink. Jamaat would stink if it had more power as would JP. And because of them, we as a nation should hang our heads in shame. Because we stink too.

Oh and while we do that, the Indian media covers the story with its usual neutrality and balance, quoting only the 2001-2006 figures and not the 1997 figures. Kudos gentlemen, kudos! And you wonder why we don’t get along…


Anthony said...

Religious minorities are not the only minorities in Bangladesh. Mujib government didn't repel Enemy/Vested Property Act because the act allowed it to confiscate properties of Hindustani-speaking migrants from India (otherwise known as Biharis/stranded Pakistanis). Of course, these days it is usually the Hindu property that is confiscated.

asif said...

Hmmm, that makes sense. But it's still hard to believe that Hindus weren't also victims of this law even then. In any case, I take back part of my rant, focussing on the Dhaka intelligentsia's lack of skepticism.

Would you say the real persecution of Hindus started under Zia? Has anyone done any studies on that? I'd love to get a hold of the original Barkat report!

If one thing is clear, the picture in the late 90s-early 2000s are depressingly similar.

Anthony said...

I have no idea whether persecution of Hindus started under Zia. It is a common accusation against the Zia regime that he patronised communalism. But like much other accusations against him, evidence is quite thin - I definitely haven't seen any. As for the late 1990s and the current decade having similarly depressing stories, yes this is true. Supposedly secular AL's ground record is not that much better than the other side in this respect.

shamshir said...

Excellent post, Asif bhai.
I'm wondering, though, about the scale of land-grabbing from minority populations under the two regimes. Any difference?

asif said...

Thank you shamsir. I am almost 100% sure that the scale of land-grabbing was simply unprecedented under BNP-Jamaat 2001-2006. Once again, it would be really nice if I had the original Abul Barkat study. I might just ask someone to get it for me from Dhaka.

But here's the funny part. By itself that says nothing about which party is pro-minority. I have a feeling (nothing more) that the scale of confiscation was pretty similar during the two governments in the 90s. Like everything else, this situation too deteriorated under BNP-Jamaat.

But it does show that like everything else about our political discourse, we the people ask for superficial change and we get it. After all, the very "unsecular" Tareq Rahman went to Puja some year to show his solidarity with our Hindu citizens. Does that make him more pro-Hindu than me, who's never gone to a Puja back home but who's never supported land-grabbing from minorities either?

Also of interest to me is to see, as Anthony has pointed out, how this law has been applied to non-religious minorities as well. After all, taking land away from Aadibashis and Biharis is still holding fast to the principles of secular, ethno-linguistic nationalism isn't it?

Probashi said...


Take a look at the link below


It has the link to Barkat's 97 study. Believe it or not Ershad gets the highest point in this area of vested property act.

Intersting discussion in this thread http://www.drishtipat.org/blog/2006/09/30/got-religious-freedom/#comment-33316

great post.

asif said...


Thank you for the links! I couldn't find Barkat's original study linked there, just articles quoting it.

What I got from the articles was this: we're not too clear why the act was re-instituted after Independence, except for the reason given by Anthony. And it's simply tragic that it was tabled by a Hindu MP. Just goes to show, that a gun is a good weapon, but it can point both ways!

But yes, Zia has an incriminating role for expanding the scope of the law. Whether more Hindus were persecuted under his regime or not is of course open to question. Ershad gets the highest points? Must be a first!:)

I suppose I talk only of the AL and BNP that I've seen, growing up in the 90s. Whatever difference there was between them under Mujib and Zia have evaporated, leaving us with the equally smelly bags of $*** as shown in Barkat's study.

Fugstar said...

quick q about the research. which none of us have to hand!

how did he come up with the numbers. to 'ground truth' data would take ages, did he just take a small locality and then extrapolate (he's an economist right?).

how would a decent deshi govt go about resolving this situation with justice? what was the reciprocal situation with India?

Anthony said...

A decent Deshi government would repeal the law right away. The state should not confiscate legally acquired private property without compensation, period.

There is no equivalent law in India. An Indian Muslim's property cannot be appropriated by the Indian government.

Probashi said...

One of us asked Hasina in LSE about this law and she gave her standard reply. "We repealed it but they did not implement it". True on the face of it it but lacks sincerity.