Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Dr. Richard L. Benkin

I am sure if you suggested to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia that their two parties (the Awami League or AL and Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP) were two sides of the same coin; they would recoil and indignantly point to differences between the two.  Yet, regardless of the two Begums’ intentions, whether for good or bad, their supposed differences make no difference to their victims.  One could make a strong case that the Bangladeshi nation has been their victim and that of what the United States Institute of Peace labeled their “zero-sum politics.”  For purposes of this article, however, their victims will be only that nation’s Hindu citizens.

The steady decline of Bangladesh’s Hindu population from almost a fifth to around one in 15 kept the same pace whether the BNP or AL was ruling.  The steady stream of anti-Hindu atrocities and the government’s refusal to do anything about them did not vary between the two parties.  And according to the classic studies of Dhaka University Professor Abul Barkat those who stole Hindu land seized under the racist Vested Property Act did not vary by party per se but by which party was in power.  When the BNP ruled, its minions got more of it; whem the AL was in charge, it stole more.  With a growing awareness of this in foreign capitals, including Washington, the strongest argument I hear for the current rulers goes like this:  ‘Well yes, we know Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League are bad, but isn’t the alternative worse?’  Hardly a strong endorsement from the international community if this is the best they can muster.

Their tepid and almost apologetic argument stems from the fact that they remember how Khaleda Zia and the BNP brought the Islamist Jamaat e-Islami into their coalition, the anti-Hindu violence instigated by their allies, and the divisive statements made by BNP activists including the former Prime Minister, such as her 1996 public statement that if things did not change, sounds of the Hindu uludhhwani would replace the Muslim call to prayer.  Yet while those blatantly anti-Hindu actions are despicable, the Awami League has been no better and refuses to consider the protection of Bangladesh’s Hindu citizens their responsibility—so long as protecting their victimization is more politically helpful.

When the Awami League swept into office in 2008, Hindu groups asked me to advise them, and I urged that they seize the momentum and make sure that their votes for the Awami League went to securing their people’s protection.  After all, the AL was not hampered by coalition partners and so could take these actions—if it wanted to do so.  It did not.  During each of the Awami League’s first three years in office, major anti-Hindu incidents occurred at the rate of almost one per week.  Then, in 2012, it increased to 1.25 per week, including a nine day period in May with an abduction, a murder in broad daylight, and two gang rapes, one of a child on her way to a Hindu festival:  four horrific crimes in nine days and no action against known perpetrators.  The rate and intensity of anti-Hindu atrocities that the AL allows to occur continues unabated during its second term in office.

Yet, the BNP has not even tried to seize the initiative on this political and more importantly moral matter.  The problem is that I am still waiting for some action on their part.  If all we look at is what they do, they are no better than they have been in the past.  I have offered a number of suggestions to Khaleda Zia and other BNP activist subsequent to their contacting me, yet never received any response or even a desire to dialogue.  I know exactly what Khaleda Zia or Sheikh Hasina can do to gain international legitimacy as a true leader of her people and get the resources the people of Bangladesh need.  Whoever shows us (not tells us but shows us) that they will make a difference will get our support with the international community and in specific capitals that can offer help to the people of Bangladesh.  Until then, I see no better future for Bangladeshi Hindus under the BNP or Awami League.  The empty words I hear again and again from Bangladeshi leaders mean nothing.  The next step is up to them.

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