Property rights remain elusive for many Bangladeshi minorities, particularly Hindus
After the Bangladeshi government repealed the much criticized Vested Property Act last year, minorities thought the law would finally be on their side in land dispute cases.
But Christians in the country say the law, which allowed the government to seize land from those deemed an "enemy of the state," still has a lingering effect.
“We have campaigned against this dark law for the past 40 years but we are sorry to see that minorities are still suffering even though the law has gone,” said lawyer Subrato Chowdhury, who led a campaign to repeal the Vested Property Act.
During a weekend meeting organized by the Dhaka Archdiocese's Justice and Peace Commission, Christians discussed ways to benefit from the repealing of the law, a measure imposed in 1965 during the war between India and Pakistan that was designed to seize land from people, especially Hindus, who fled to India.
Chowdhury said that minorities could only regain their property if they legally inherited it and were able to submit documents supporting their claims.
“My uncle was in India in 1966 and his property was confiscated,” said Lucas Gomes, a 48-year-old Catholic in Dhaka. “Later, it was occupied by a Muslim man.”
His family has since had problems claiming their right to six acres of land, he added, spending a great deal of money in the process.
Another Catholic, Thomas Rozario, said he had even tried paying bribes to land officials. “But nothing has worked so far,” he said.
Although all minorities in Bangladesh say they have suffered from the law, which became the Vested Property Act after the country’s independence from Pakistan in 1971, it is Hindus – who make up eight percent of the population – that have been especially affected over the years.
“In old parts of Dhaka many Hindu people sold their land cheaply as it was considered to be vested, and they left for India forever,” said Bipul Sarker, a Hindu gold trader in Dhaka. “They had been forced to do so as opportunist Muslims started to occupy their properties.”
Shyamol Karmoker, another businessman from southwestern Noakhali district, said rural Hindu people have suffered the worst.
“Even today many of them plan to leave the country forever,” he said.
This is despite a series of amendments to the country’s legislative framework regarding property.
In 2001, parliament passed the Vested Property Return Act, a precursor to a law amended last year which requires the government to prepare lists of returnable properties across the country.
According to the land ministry, about three-quarters of vested property affected by the law, or 643,136 acres, are not owned by the government.
In these cases, private Muslim land owners have proven reluctant to return land.
Father Albert Rozario says the total area of land belonging to Christians remains unknown, although 50 percent of land that belonged to Christian people in the Atharogram district of Dhaka is thought to be vested.
Despite claims of government inaction, Amrita Baroi, director of the Land Records and Survey Department, said authorities are working hard to solve Bangladesh’s complex land problem.
“We hope to resolve the issue within the tenure of the present government,” he said. “It will help people to establish absolute rights on their land and properties.”
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