Legal and constitutional rights of minorities in
Bangladesh and adherence to
UN charters and international law
BY NINA GOSWAMI
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.