In the early twentieth century, when Calcutta's political and social elites were protesting against the formation of a university in East Bengal, which would educate the “uncouth, working class”, the Nawabs of East Bengal came forward. Dhaka's Nawab Khwaja Salimullah donated 600 acres of land to establish necessary buildings for the university. The property also included Nawab's gardens and court buildings (now Madhur canteen and Shahbagh area). Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury of the Nawab family of Dhonbari, Tangail even mortgaged a part of their estate to collect funds for the university.
Thanks to their selfless charity and donations in the form of estate and funds, today Bangladesh has their three top institutions of higher education, the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and Dhaka Medical College. Although Bangladesh's national history and identity is indebted to these endowments, Bangladeshi people have largely forgotten this culture of charity and social welfare which once salvaged the nation's honour and identity.
Like these Nawabs, once upon a time, it was actually customary among rich Muslims to donate a significant portion of their property for the sole purpose of social welfare. This practice is called waqf: an endowment made by a Muslim for a religious, educational or charitable cause. Inspired by Quranic verses and Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) words, rich Muslims donated huge amounts of their property. Some even donated their entire property for charitable causes to get blessings in the life thereafter.
However, due to corrupt practices of our society and negligence by our government, most of their endowments have completely disappeared. Land developers, corrupt government officials and political leaders have illegally occupied and sold off the properties which were meant to be used for religious or educational purposes.
One of the most valuable waqf (endowed) estates of Dhaka is Ainuddin Haider-Faizunnesa waqf estate which comprises of 12,500 acres of land in Dhaka metropolitan city. In 1864, an influential magistrate Ainuddin Hiader, endowed most of his property (around 8000 acres of land) for religious and charitable causes from his death bed. A few years later, his wife Faizunnesa donated the rest of his property (i.e. the entire property of 12,500 acres of land) for religious purposes. After the promulgation of Mussalman Wakf Validating Act, 1913, the then Waqf Board registered the estate as waqf property. However, after the partition of 1947, this massive waqf estate became completely dispossessed. At present, many important government establishments such as Bangladesh Secretariat, Bangabhaban (President's House), Railway Headquarters, House building Research Institute, Headquarters of Dhaka South City Corporation have been established on the properties of this estate.
Md Shahidul Islam, administrator of Waqfs explains, “Many of these estates were acquired by the government after the promulgation of the State Acquisition and Tenancy Act, 1950. The government acquired zamindar estates for the state establishment and some were distributed among citizens. Again, deeds and papers of some were preserved in Calcutta which took a long time to retrieve.”
However, the State Acquisition and Tenancy Act entitled the government to acquire only private estates of the zamindars which were not endowed for charitable causes. But, the government somehow also acquired those waqf estates as its deeds and papers were still in India. However, after the promulgation of Waqf Ordinance, 1962, the trustees of the waqf property filed cases to restore their control from this illegal acquisition. “Some of these cases are still pending after 50 years and some of these cases have been solved. But by this time, the government has surveyed and developed these lands and distributed among its subjects. They further transferred these properties to others and all of them are paying regular taxes. Although after 40 to 50 years, in some cases the court has restored the property under waqf estate, we cannot evict the citizens as they also have proper papers,” argues waqf administrator Md Shahidul Islam.“You have to face that reality that it is not possible to recover the entire estate. Most of the biggest waqf estates in Bangladesh now exist only in papers,” he states.
According to the Waqfs (Amendment) Act, 2013 a waqf property can never be sold, developed or transferred without full consent of the entitled trustees and for any cause except which is essential for the better welfare of the beneficiaries. And, the handover process of the property has to be executed through a special committee of 14 members which will be headed by the Administrator of Waqfs. And in the Waqf Ordinance of 1962, there was a strict bar on transfer or illicit development of waqf property. Barrister Mohammad Shazzadul Islam, advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh, argues “If it is proved that if the waqf property was acquired without following due legal procedure, the government will have to pay three times of the current market price of the property or donate an equal amount of land elsewhere as compensation which will be utilised for the causes mentioned in the deeds of the original waqf.”
However, most of the endowed estates in Bangladesh have been occupied by land-grabbers and not by the state. The waqf administration could do little to prevent this widespread malpractice. Such was the fate of Bangladesh's biggest waqf estate called “Shahzadi Begum Waqf Estate” which is comprised of vast swathes of land in Gazipur, Narayanganj and Munshiganj districts. This 72,000-acre estate is the biggest endowed estate in Bangladesh and unfortunately the entire estate is now under illegal occupation. Due to lack of supervision from the government, the dishonest trustees of this estate, with the help of corrupt government officials and political leaders, registered those properties under their own names, sold those off and made fortunes.
In Dhaka division alone, Bangladesh's Waqf administration has lost control over 85,000 acres of land in this way. Besides, 6,683 acres of waqf property in Chittagong division, 22,947 acres of property in Rajshahi division, 674 acres in Rangpur division, 755 acres in Khulna division, 1,406 acres in Barisal division and 5,162 acres of property in Sylhet division are now under illegal occupation. However, the waqf administration could not even register and enlist many waqf properties scattered all over the country. According to land records, there are at least 1,39,256 more waqf properties of different sizes which are not registered and maintained by Bangladesh's waqf administration.
The centralised, weakly manned and neglected Waqf administration can do little to maintain such a huge number of estates spread all over the country. Currently, the office of the waqf administrator supervises 70,955 acres of registered waqf assets with only 111 officers and office staff. They don't have any office in the district or even at the divisional level. If any property is transferred, developed or sold off illegally by someone, they cannot get any information unless a beneficiary informs them by filing an appeal. Again, they have to come to the administration office in Dhaka to file an appeal. Needless to say, very few people want to take on this hassle. For the dishonest trustees (Mutawallis) of the waqf property and corrupt political leaders, this shortcoming has turned out to be a blessing.
Najibur Rahman, trustee of a waqf estate in Satkhira district's Kaliganj upazila says, “Our waqf estate includes a mosque, a madrasa building and some agricultural lands in a prime roadside location. But local political leaders of the ruling party have occupied most of the land using sheer muscle power. At first, I informed the waqf administration and then I was threatened by our chairman and I didn't proceed anymore.”
“Except the mosque and madrasa building, the entire estate has been grabbed by the local chairman and his relatives. The Waqf administration did nothing and they don't give us any protection,” says Rahman. When referred this case, Waqf administrator Md Shahidul Islam says, “We have 421 such cases pending in different civil courts. Whenever we take any eviction drive, the occupants file a case in a civil court and it takes a long time to solve such cases.”
Najib's case is representative of most cases which lead to illegal occupation of waqf property and reveals how helpless the Waqf Administration is. However, the administration earns quite a lot of revenue from the registered waqf estates as subscription fees. Every year, they collect five percent of the annual income of each estate as a subscription fee. In the fiscal year, 2015-16, the office collected BDT 5,86, 62,287 from 21,588 registered waqf estates. However, the fund is not spent for charitable causes at all. With this fund, the waqf administration pays the salary of its staff and all other establishment costs, loans, expenditure for running cases in the courts etc.
Besides, corruption is also rife in the office of the Waqf administration and the Waqf administrator himself confessed this. He says, “Our manpower is so scarce that we could not enforce transparency and accountability in the office. We don't have any officer to cross-check and monitor performance of the inspectors, other staffs and mutawallis.”
According to legal and religious experts, the entire system and the existing legal framework need to be overhauled to break the deadlock. “The law is outdated and does not describe how the rights of the waqf property will be protected. It only describes how the waqf administration will perform. We need a substantive law which will describe how the cases under the law can be handled and how crimes are to be charged,” asserts Barrister Islam,
The government amended the Waqf Ordinance, 1962 and passed the Waqf Act (Amendment), 2013 but that initiative brought little change. The religious scholars still have countless objections against the law and the decaying system. Maulana Mokhter Ahmed, assistant professor, International Islamic University, Chittagong explains, “There is no concrete policy of the waqf administration to survey, identify, enlist and audit the waqf properties in Bangladesh. Particularly, it has minimal or no supervision on family waqf property. The most significant issue is there is no sharia board for investigating, regulating or advising the administration for its activities. The waqf administration is basically run by the civil servants who don't have any knowledge about Islamic law.”
Due to weak legal framework, weak administration and widespread corruption, potentially one of Bangladesh's greatest instruments of social service has completely crumbled. A huge amount of assets which were meant to be utilised for public service, fell into the clutches of illegal occupants. If the government can still recover even a small percentage of these lost assets and utilise it for charitable causes, a massive socially responsible investment can be made in the country's service sector. Reforming the existing law and the administration system will also encourage more people to revive the practice of waqf which can once again shape the nation by establishing institutions such as DU, BUET and Dhaka Medical College.
The writer can be contacted at email@example.com