The Bangladesh cabinet on Monday approved a proposed law to return Hindu properties which were confiscated during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, when the country was eastern wing of Pakistan, ending a major violation of the rights of minorities in the country.
“The cabinet meeting (chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina) approved the Vested Property Return (Amendment) Act 2009 . . . it (proposed law) will now be placed to parliament for enactment,” prime minister’s deputy press secretary Mahbubul Haque Shakil told reporters.
The proposed law is meant to redress the long-disputed law of the Pakistani era, which was widely criticised as a major violation of the minority rights. During the Pakistan period, the law was called as Enemy Property Act.
The then Pakistani regime enacted the law to confiscate the property of the Hindu families who fled the country when the India-Pakistan war broke out in 1965 while the post independent Bangladesh government renamed it as the Vested Property Act 1974.
The final cabinet approval for the law came after some amendments were made to it in line with the cabinet directives two months ago.
Officials familiar with the process said under the amended proposal, the government would publish lists of “returnable and non-returnable vested property” within a certain period of times while the claimants could also seek review about “non returnable” property.
Under the law, government committees at district and upazila or sub-district levels would settle disputes regarding the disputed property.
Awami League had enacted the law to return the minority property at the fag end of its previous 1996-2001 tenure setting a two-year implementation deadline but the subsequent Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) sat on it exposing it to a natural death.
The past military-backed interim government, however, enacted another ordinance under emergency rules with identical objectives of settling the long-standing issue but it too faced a natural death as the incumbent Awami League decided not to ratify it in parliament.
A parliamentary watchdog on March 11 this year asked the land ministry to draft the new Vested Property Return Act restoring the six-month deadline for local authorities to compile a list of land seized under the law.
Many Hindus were unable to recover landholdings lost because of discrimination under the now-defunct Vested Property Act, an East Pakistan-era law that allowed the Government to expropriate “enemy”, in practice Hindu, lands.
The then Pakistani government had seized approximately 2.5 million acres of land from Hindus, affecting nearly 10 million Hindus in the country until parliament scrapped it in April 2001.
The 2001 law stipulated that land that was seized under the be returned to its original owners, provided that the original owners or their heirs remained resident citizens.