Can you imagine that all on a sudden you could become a landless person that has been robbed of his family inheritance or property where you had lived for almost half a century? Not only have your parents bought the property legally with all the right legal documents and had the R.S., P.S. and B.S. records listed accordingly in their names, they have been paying all the taxes, revenues and utility bills ever since. It must be your worst nightmare to find that with no notice served against you from either the magistrate or the police, you found your premises attacked by more than a hundred miscreants while the police either won’t come to your rescue or are actually helping the land-grabbing criminals, and your old parents are evicted from their homes. Do these sound fictitious or mythic drawn from the Middle Ages when the only law was – “might is right”? No, if you are living in Bangladesh what I just described is a distinct probability.
My own family became victims of such a land-grabbing scheme in April 9, 2005 when a local land-grabbing criminal named Jaker Chowdhury (a.k.a. Jaker master), armed with more than a hundred miscreants, broke into our 4-acre compound in Khulshi, Chittagong damaging boundary walls, and beating up our guards. They harassed everyone inside including our tenants with threats of rape, torture and demolition unless they vacate our compound. Jaker was backed by a very powerful and influential politician – Salauddin Qader Chowdhury (BNP-MP) who was then Prime Minister’s Adviser on Parliament Affairs. For the next ten weeks, they terrorized my family living in a six-story house “Aranika”, while successfully evicting 16 tenant families, demolishing 11 one-story homes that were built in the early 1960s and cutting down hundreds of teak and Mahogany trees that my father had planted over the preceding 46 years. Unfortunately, we did not get any help from the law enforcing forces. They said, “Our hands are tied!”
My own pleas to Mahmudur Rahman, a favorite technocrat of Madam Khaleda Zia, to have her restrain SaQa were ignored. We could not even get an injunction order issued against the land-grabber! Later I was told by the Commissioner of Dhaka Division that everyone was afraid of SaQa (much like a Mafia Don), and that the only thing I could do to restore my family properties was to have a direct face to face meeting with the powerful politician.
The most saddening part for us was that my mother had a heart surgery only three weeks earlier, and she had to witness the eviction of our tenants in that fateful, rainy day of April. Some of those tenants had lived for more than 25 years. The whole experience was a traumatic experience for all of us, and still to this very day, I have nightmares.
It goes without saying that in today’s Bangladesh land-grabbing has become a big business, albeit a lucrative one, which is often aided by corrupt and greedy politicians. It is a Mafia like operation promising high returns with connections in the Land Deeds & Records Department that help to forge documents and stamps, plus a corrupt judiciary system where sometimes verdicts can be bought in favor of the criminal syndicate, and an equally corrupt police force who may show serious dereliction of duty and betray public trust to seal the immoral land-grab. This accusation should not overlook the fact that there are many honest officers in each of those government institutions and departments. To understand the motivation for a corrupt police officer, I was told by a Police Deputy Commissioner recently that if he could help a land-grabbing criminal dispossess someone from his land that is located in a posh area the monetary benefit promised by the criminal is sufficient for his life; he need not work any more!
The land-grabbing syndicate follows a typical pattern, which may include:
(1) Buy the so-called 'power of attorney', often through illegal money-laundering, from family members of a dead zamindar (who had moved to India after Partition of Pakistan) now living in India. [Note: During the British Raj, while most Muslims were peasants in the aftermath of the Permanent Settlement Act, most of the new zamindars were Hindus in the East Bengal. After partition of India, a large majority of them settled in India];
(2) In that so-called Deed of Power-of-Attorney, deliberately falsify information by showing the “raiyat” (peasant) properties -- tenanted (projabili) land of land-owners -- as part of the zamindari property so as to target such properties for potential land-grab. [Note: the zamindars under the British Raj were responsible for collection of revenues only from the projabili land; such properties never belonged to the zamindar as ‘khas-dakhali’ land. With the passage of the East Bengal Estate Acquisition and Tenancy Act of 1950, the entire Zamindari system itself was dissolved, all the raiyats were made owners and asked to pay their revenue directly to the Government, while former zamindars were paid adequate compensation by the government for loss of their income];
(3) If the previous two methods could not be employed, falsify land deeds in collaboration with the corrupt officers in the Land Deeds & Records Department to show that the property was bought by or sold to the land-grabbing. It is well known that an official falsified record could be obtained from these vital offices with a payment of approx. 1% of the actual property value;
(4) File 'Partition Suits' on behalf of the dead zamindar family member (who had become Indian citizens) without the knowledge of the real owners and get a verdict in their favor so as to prepare the groundwork for future land-grab with support of government agencies (Note: in these cases, the real owner is not made aware that his/her land is being contested by these attorneys, and as such, are often ill prepared to put up an injunction on time to stop such a court-decreed possession or land-grab by the criminal syndicate);
(5) Grab the property of the legal owner of the (erstwhile) ‘raiyat’ property by evicting him/her and/or his/her tenants with tens/hundreds of criminal cadre behind. In this scheme of things: the local thana is already managed by the land-grabbing syndicate, and the corrupt politician is engaged for his/her support so that the entire criminal project will move smoothly with no action expected to come from the law enforcing agencies; no court order is even served to the affected family who did not know that there was an old case, resurrected from the early Pakistan days, on its property and that the court, without an independent, unbiased inquiry, had already issued an execution case for possession of his/her legally owned and possessed land by the land-grabbing syndicate that had wielded its power of attorney;
(6) In the meantime, sell the property to tens of greedy buyers willing to buy land at prices significantly lower than actual market value, making them all a party to the criminal loot;
(7) Before the actual land-grab, sometimes the legal owner is threatened to pay extortion money (which may run into several crores of Taka), failing which he/she is threatened about the dire consequences of losing his/her entire property on which he/she had been living and paying taxes, revenues, bills, etc. for all these years;
(8) If the aforementioned methods had failed, bribe the judge to issue a favorable verdict in favor of the land-grabbing syndicate;
(9) Upon illegal land-grab, quickly change the face of the property by demolishing old structures/buildings and repopulate the properties with new buyers;
(10) Use connection with powerful, corrupt and greedy politicians, government officers, police and magistrates, etc. to control police and administrative actions against them. (Note: many a times all such people colluding with and aiding the criminal syndicate are promised and delivered a piece of the looted land/apartment/properties.)
Land with its scarcity has become more precious than gold, thus, having a very undesirable, corrupting impact in Bangladeshi society. Forgotten are old words of wisdom behind morality and hard labor. It is befitting here that I share what my father had said in a press conference on April 21, 2005 in the Dhaka Press Club: “It took me more than fifty years of my business life to enrich myself with wealth in a slow and steady way, unlike those few who are becoming or aspiring to become millionaires overnight these days. Forty-seven years ago, when I purchased this property, it had hilly slopes, bushes and jungles. There were no roads, no electricity and no water. For four decades, I improved the place and planted nearly 3000 trees with my own hands, out of which more than a third survived. Being 100% confident of my right-title-interest-and-possession, I could never imagine that within three hours I could be ousted from that same property. It is unfortunate that in our country there are many politically powerful billionaires who can do and undo anything to humble and non-political citizens like me. As a nation, where are we heading?”
I wish things had improved in the last four years. The new civilian government promises digital Bangladesh by 2020, which would require inputs from our talented expatriates. Are we ready for technology transfer? Truly, why should an expatriate return to his/her home and invest there when he/she cannot guarantee safety and security of his/her family or the property bought or inherited legally and the investment made? If it is that difficult for a genuine land-owner to hold onto his properties, with legal papers dating back to 1915, as a new investor, what chance do you have to be able to secure yours? If these be the ground realities of Bangladesh, is there anything we expatriates could do to protect our family properties in Bangladesh?
Our long bitter experience has taught us that it is not possible for a single family to fight against a powerful land-grabbing syndicate. They have the dirty money and the muscle, and a huge cadre of criminals to do their crime, while as a victim you are shorthanded. It is a small investment for them, while as a land-owner you risk everything. Often times you would be pushed to compromise with the criminals.
A concerted effort from the Ministry of Law and Ministry of Home Affairs plus Anti-Corruption Commission is necessary to go after these land-grabbing criminals. Legislators must also enact laws that effectively stop such crimes at the root and punish severely all those linked with such crimes.