June 2008 
Year 14    No.132
Global Minorities

Troublesome legacy

Legal and constitutional rights of minorities in Bangladesh and adherence to
UN charters and international law


The issue of “minority protection” or minority rights is not a new phenomenon. Its oldest roots can probably be found in the 17th century reforms regarding the protection of religious minorities.

Until only 50 years ago the most developed countries also did not acknowledge the existence of the minority problem. Even today some states that have declared themselves to be unitary ones fear to adopt a definition of the term minority.

In the absence of a precise definition of the concept of minority at the international level, it is up to each state to recognise a particular group of its citizens as a minority and provide for their protection, since it is a state comprising the majority population, not a national ‘mother state’, that bears the responsibility for minority rights realisation. Recognition of minorities within states is the precondition for their rights.

Like some other states, Bangladesh too does not acknowledge the existence of its minorities. As we have often heard top leaders in government saying, “Bangladesh being a democracy, there is no minority-majority within the state.” However, three types of minorities are clearly visible here: 1. Religious minorities; 2. Ethnic minorities; 3. Linguistic minorities.

International instruments obligatory upon Bangladesh

The principle of non-discrimination is recognised in all international human rights instruments. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities makes it obligatory on the part of states to encourage conditions for the promotion of communitarian identity. The ILO Convention No. 169 of 1989 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries calls for the recognition of collective land rights and rights over natural resources and rights in connection with the removal and relocation from lands of the indigenous and tribal peoples. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination addresses the issue of racial and religious discrimination more specifically. Bangladesh, as a signatory to the above instruments, is obligated to protect cultural identities, religious freedom and land rights of its minority communities. Most of the rights specified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are covered in the Constitution of Bangladesh as fundamental rights and the rights contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are recognised as fundamental principles of state policy. But, as a whole, the overall situation is not improving because of a serious shift in government policy.

Constitutional safeguard

The Constitution of Bangladesh is itself the safeguard of minority rights. Article 28(1) of the Constitution of 1972 affirms the fundamental right to equality irrespective of “religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth”. Originally, it enunciated secularism as a fundamental principle of state policy. All fundamental rights regarding right to life, property, food and security are fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Bangladesh.

Article 11 explicitly maintains that the state shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedom and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed. Article 15 entrusts the state with the responsibility to provide the basic necessities of life, including food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care, to its citizens. The right to work and social security is also guaranteed by the same provision. Article 19(1) ensures equality of opportunity to all its citizens; Article 20(1) establishes work as a right and duty. Article 27 provides for equality before law and Article 28(1), as already mentioned, prohibits any form of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Article 41 stipulates freedom of religion and Article 42 provides for the right to property.

Apart from the Constitution, the state is also bound by numerous international instruments, more specifically by the UN Charter, to respect and undertake measures to protect the human rights of its citizens. This recognition is owed to a history of the people’s struggle against Pakistan’s military bureaucracy which encouraged the politicisation of religion and promoted communalism. Article 12 had provided an interpretation of secularism that reflected Bangladesh’s multi-religious society and maintained the separation of state and religion. This was deleted in 1977 and a series of constitutional changes, introduced first in 1977, by General Ziaur Rahman, and later in 1988, by General HM Ershad, have explicitly eradicated the constitutional principle of secularism and thus contributed to religious intolerance.

The fifth amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1977, replaced the word “secularism” with “Absolute trust and faith in the almighty Allah” in Article 8(1) and amended Article 8(1A) to state, “Absolute trust and faith in the almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions.” In 1988 the eighth amendment declared Islam the state religion and in a new Article 2(A), also acknowledged that “other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in the republic.” Political and religious extremists used these amendments to weaken the principles of minority protection. Human rights continue to be violated in general but these violations are more acute and widespread in the case of the most vulnerable sections of society, which include women and the minorities, both ethnic and religious. The violations occur due to systemic and subsystemic factors.

The law that poses a serious threat to minorities in Bangladesh is the Vested Property Act. This has been the most damaging law, affecting the rights of minorities to enjoyment of their land and right to property. Their insecurity has been further enhanced with their relative exclusion from opportunities in education and employment.

The Vested Property Act

Of all threats faced by Bangladesh’s non-Muslims in the plains, that resulting from operation of the Vested Property Act 1974 is the longest running and most damaging. Although other forms of discrimination grab headlines, they pale in comparison to the impact of land grabbing over the last 34 years through the abuse of this law. Since the return to an elected parliamentary system of governance in 1991 this law has been the subject of numerous public protests, editorials, seminars, research papers and political forays. Op-ed columnists have branded it “state-sanctioned communalism”. Yet in spite of a high level of debate, the law is still on the books (albeit in a significantly amended form) and continues to be used as a powerful weapon against minorities.

The Enemy Property Act was initially enacted in 1965 after the India-Pakistan war. It authorised the government to confiscate properties belonging to those who had migrated from Pakistan to India (mostly Hindus from the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh). In 1974 the Vested Property Ordinance was promulgated, with the stated justification that it would allow ‘enemy’ property to vest in the government. Since then the law has stayed on the books and its provisions have been applied arbitrarily and repeatedly to grab large portions of land owned by Hindus and Christians as well as Adibashis.

The situation of minority women

Despite much talk about empowerment of women, they remain the most vulnerable sections of society. Minority women remain more vulnerable because an attack on them is regarded as an attack on the community, which is somehow accepted as normal. The idea behind this acceptance is that minority communities are destined to suffer the same fate the world over. Patriarchal values in society strengthen the hands of the dominant community and they find it easy to transgress the rights of the minority community. At the same time, patriarchy within the minorities makes women even more vulnerable and marginalised. Hindu women suffer not only as minorities but also from discriminatory family laws within their community. Violence within families often goes unreported and unaccounted for though the family itself may perpetrate violence. Divorce is not allowed under Hindu law while men can remarry.

Dowry is the root cause of violence against women of the Hindu community. Because, in practice, the gifts given to women as part of the marriage ceremony are not treated as “stridhana”, which should actually be the property of women. Women of the Hindu community are also not entitled to inherit property from their fathers or husbands.

Though Bangladesh has ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Government of Bangladesh has taken no initiatives to protect the rights of women belonging to minority communities in Bangladesh.

The vote as a weapon

The vote in itself is a threat to all minorities in Bangladesh. Although voting does not always take place according to religious blocs, there was some apprehension that the participation of Hindus and Christians would be affected and reduced in the 2007 elections. According to the 2001 population census, the proportion of the Hindu population has decreased to 9.2 per cent of the total from 10.5 per cent in 1991. Post-election attacks on many Hindu villages and some Christian homes by Bangladesh Nationalist Party-allied local gangs in 2001, on the assumption that they had voted for the Awami League, compelled many to actually leave the country and scared off the rest from participating in future elections.

The voter list in 2006 reportedly had serious omissions of minority voters, both religious and ethnic minorities. The process of drawing up a fresh voter list for 2007 was already engulfed in controversy because of allegations of tampering and fictitious voter blocs. In addition, reporters uncovered evidence of vote registers that completely excluded many villages with sizeable minority populations, especially in Chittagong. In some cases, enumerators claimed to be amending lists to delete the names of those who had died recently or who had left the country but in many cases it was alleged that the names of those who were still alive were also being deleted.

The present caretaker government and the Election Commission of Bangladesh have promised a free and fair election, which has raised the hopes of people from the minority communities.

Situation of Ahmadiyya

For the past few years the campaign to declare the Ahmadiyya community ‘non-Muslim’ has added a new dimension to the picture of religious intolerance in Bangladesh. The campaign scored a major victory in 2004 when the government gave in to one of its demands and banned some books published by the Ahmadiyya community. Since then however the movement has been on the defensive as the Ahmadiyya community, with the support of lawyers’ coalitions, human rights defenders and cultural activists, has fought back and asserted their rights.

Rights of ethnic minorities

Bangladesh is home to as many as 49 distinct ethnic Adibashi groups which constitute two per cent of the total population, according to the Bangladesh Adibashi Forum.1 Although their numbers are insignificant in proportion to the total population of Bangladesh, Adibashi populations are staggered across the country. Their largest concentration is in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) where 13 different Adibashi groups constitute a razor-thin majority over the ethnic Bengali population. In the plains, they are mostly concentrated in the greater Rajshahi, Mymensingh and Sylhet regions. There are also significant Adibashi populations in Ghazipur district, north of Dhaka, and in the coastal regions of southern Bangladesh.

Economic occupations

Most of the ethnic communities in Bangladesh are agriculturalists. The Khasis have traditionally been involved in cross-border trade as their main occupation while agriculture is a secondary occupation. The Manipuris are traditionally artisans or craftspersons like weavers, carpenters and jewellers. The Garos used to practise jhum (slash-and-burn) cultivation but due to government restrictions they have now switched to pineapple gardening. In the CHT, jhum was the main mode of cultivation but due to government restrictions on jhum and acquisition of this land these ethnic communities too have shifted to other systems which they do not find as suitable to their culture.

Non-recognition of the ethnic communities’ traditional rights to land is a major cause for land acquisition. It is important to bear in mind that the state’s attempts at acquisition of their land not only displaces them physically but culturally as well.

Chittagong Hill Tracts

The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord, signed in December 1997 between the Government of Bangladesh and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, raised hopes for a peaceful settlement of the two decade old conflict. The implementation of the accord was seen as critical for sustainable peace in the region. It was also a unique document, being the first since the foundation of Bangladesh to recognise the rights of the Adibashis (‘tribals’ in the original text).

There has however been a troublesome legacy of sporadic strife between the Adibashis and the Bengali ‘settlers’, which may have been exacerbated by the military presence in the region. According to the peace accord, the deployment of army personnel was supposed to be limited to half a dozen large garrisons and the remaining camps were to be closed. There is little or no official information in this regard but eyewitness reports from the region would testify that the task has not yet been completed.


Various human rights organisations and minority communities in Bangladesh, through demonstrations and through their publications, have voiced their demands for the implementation of the following recommendations. I would like to raise the demand for these recommendations globally on behalf of all types of Bangladeshi minorities:


Ø Establish an autonomous Minority Rights Commission for redressal of complaints.

Vested Property Act

Ø Make necessary amendments to the Vested Property Return Act 2001 and the Vested Property Return (Amendment) Act 2002 and make these amendments fruitful.

Ø Take administrative measures to ensure return of ‘vested property’.

Ø Compensate all families whose land has been seized over the last 34 years in cases where land cannot be returned.

Voter list

Ø Ensure the inclusion of all minority voters in voter lists and make all elections fear-free.


Ø Maintain data on employment according to religion and ethnicity in government, private sector, media, NGOs and education.

Ø Formulate affirmative action programmes for employment of minorities in the public and private sector.

Freedom of belief

Ø Withdraw the ban on books published by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat. n

(Nina Goswami is with the Ain o Shalish Kendra, Dhaka. Paper presented to the Global Minorities Meet, New Delhi, March 6-9, 2008.)


1. The communities are Garo, Kiang, Mro, Bawm, Chakma, Chak, Pangkhua, Lushai, Marma, Tripura, Tanchangya, Rakhaing, Khasi, Manipuri, Kuki, Ushal, Lauua, Khumi, Hajong, Banai, Koch, Dalu, Santal, Paharia, Munda, Mahato, Shing, Kharia, Khondo, Gorkha/Gurkha, Pahan, Rjuyar, Mushar, Hodi, Pall, Mikir, Rai, Bedia/Bede, Bagdi, Kol, Rajbongshi, Patro, Murer, Turi, Mahali, Malo, Khatria Barman, Gondo, Kachhari. There are a few Riyang in the CHT although recent legislations (e.g. the Hill District Council Acts 1989 and the Regional Council Act 1998) do not acknowledge these people.

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