Ethnic Cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh, Why We All Should be Worried, and What We Can and Must Do about It
Hindu Mahasabha of America (Hindu Congress of America)
Dr. Richard L. Benkin
August 11, 2012
I have been asked to explain how I—a non-Hindu became so passionately devoted to the cause of saving Hindus from ethnic cleansing in Bangladesh. Several years ago, I was able to free a Bangladeshi political prisoner—actually a Muslim journalist—who was arrested and tortured for exposing the rise of radical Islam in Bangladesh and urging Bangladesh to open relations with Israel. I was in Bangladesh in 2007, and when I returned I received a fax. It said roughly, ‘My name is Bikash, and I live near Kolkata. I am a Bengali Hindu. My parents fled Bangladesh when I was eleven. My people in Bangladesh are dying. Please save us.’
Well, you cannot just turn away, and I had heard some things about anti-Hindu persecution in Bangladesh but determined to really learn about it after receiving Bikash’s fax. And once I did, I knew that I had to do everything in my power to stop the atrocities.
In short, why did I become involved? Because someone asked. Because Bikash could not stand by and do nothing in the face of these atrocities against his brothers and sisters. So because I had gotten the Bangladeshi government to do things it did not want to do, he was hoping I could do it again for his people. He asked. He took action. He did not remain passive.
And his action is a good segue into two stories that say a lot about what we have to do and why we have to do it.
Here’s the first. Before publishing my book about the Bangladeshi Hindus, I spoke with a New York literary agent who was very taken by the material I presented; so taken, in fact, that she wanted to help get the information to others. As someone who knows the American publishing and book buying world very well, she found it very compelling and said that all the elements were there for a successful project—all the elements except one, that is. And remember this person is a friend, an ally, one of the “good guys,” someone who does care and wants to help. The problem, she said is that ‘I just don’t see people getting real excited over a bunch of Hindus being killed.’ Think about that for a moment and substitute words like “Jews,” “Blacks,” or “Women” for Hindus. Would people get “excited” about their murders? Why not Hindus? This should make everyone in this room furious; and if it does not make you furious, you better ask yourself why; because it hit me—a non-Hindu—immediately. Now, hold that thought as you hear the second story.
I do a lot of traveling and was in India this past February talking about the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh. While I had the chance to do this at several universities, much of the time, I spoke to groups calling themselves “pro-Hindu.” But they must have been calling themselves pro-Hindu in private because in public they always did the same thing. In every case, I would begin my address by indicating the banner behind me and saying that contrary to what it said, “I did not come here to speak about ‘Ethnic Cleansing in South Asia.’ I came here to talk about the ethnic cleansing of Hindus.” Unfortunately, it seems that I was the only person in the room willing to say that, to use the word Hindu. Do other groups suffer from this same ailment?
One more thing: after I returned to America, I received several communications from colleagues in India who were “visited” by individuals from the local police, asking them about me and the purpose of my visit. One of them even wanted to know my passport number, and my colleague emailed me for it. My response? “You can tell the officer that if he wants my passport number, he will have to fly to Chicago for it because I do not give out that information over the internet.” And that was the end of it.
I understand why the Bangladeshi refugees I know are intimidated; they have reason to be. But I cannot fathom why citizens of a free society do not have the balls (yes, I did use that word), to simply exercise their right to free speech or tell a petty official to get lost.
So my question to you is: Do you really think these things are unrelated?
This is not an academic question. Just last month, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) in the United States Congress held hearings on “Human Rights in Bangladesh.” They talked a little about “minorities,” they talked more about labor unions; but they did not talk about Hindus; they did not even address the issue under some other name. And why should they? If India—the Hindu nation—doesn’t care why should they? If Hindu Americans do not care, why should they? In fact, when I raise the issue, I am often confronted with those very questions.
So, I want us all to think about our personal responsibility for allowing Hindus to be brutalized in Bangladesh and elsewhere, for shrugging our shoulders when Hindu children are abducted and forced to convert to Islam, for looking the other way when Hindu girls are gang raped, for not feeling personally affected when gangs of Muslims desecrate Mandirs and destroy deities; for the fact that even if we are outraged, it seems we’re willing to hold on to that anger without really doing anything to stop these things from happening. I don’t know. Maybe people are too busy watching the Olympics or attending seminars. Well, I can't let that stand, and I hope you can’t either.
I’d like us all to keep these things in mind as we move forward with my talk here, which I have broken into three sections: the first about what’s happening to Hindus in Bangladesh; the second about why it should scare the pants off everyone here; and the third about what we can and must do about it.
Hindus in Bangladesh
Some of you have heard me say this before, but I’m going to say it again and again and again until people start taking action: After India’s partition, according to the Pakistani census, Hindus made up about a third of East Pakistan’s population. When East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, they were less than a fifth; thirty years later less than a tenth; and according to reliable estimates a bit over seven percent today. According to Professor Sachi Dastidar of the State University of New York, over 49 million Hindus in Bangladesh are missing. If anyone is having trouble figuring out where this is headed, just take a look at Pakistan where Hindus are down to one percent or Kashmir where they are almost gone. Not only has no one explained that, but no one has even tried to explain it; at least not credibly.
Let me give you an example. On May 25 of this year, I met with Bangladeshi Ambassador Akramul Qader at his country's embassy in Washington. It was not my first trip to the embassy, but it was my first conversation with Mr. Qader. I went there to remind the Bangladeshis of their request for my help; that I can provide what they need, but that I will not do so as long as Bangladesh refuses to protect all its citizens and specifically its Hindus. (See, I have no problem using that word.)
The meeting went pretty much as I expected, with the man representing 150 million Bangladeshis answering my charges with the most ridiculous denials. Reality be damned, he insisted again and again that there was “no persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh,” the same thing a cabinet minister nervously said to me in Dhaka a year earlier. First, Qader denied that there had ever been any problems since 1971. Then, he admitted that, yes, there "were some incidents at the time of [the 2001] elections"; but he said that "all the perpetrators had been punished [and that] I know of no other incidents since then." Can you believe he said that? Usually, participants in ethnic cleansing at least try to make their denials seem credible; evidently, the Bangladeshis see no need for that.
“Well then let me enlighten you,” I said and started hitting him with evidence to the contrary. Okay, okay, he relented. He told me he could think of “one incident” that occurred but dismissed it as the work of a few "religious fanatics.” He was referring to riots in Satkhira earlier this year, which were well publicized in the Bangladeshi media and sent hundreds of protesting students into the streets of Dhaka. So I told him he did not get much credit for admitting that. His mantra, however, was that if there are incidents, we should blame a small number of extremists who are not supported by the Bangladeshi government. That is simply untrue, and I told him that. His supposedly “moderate” Awami League government is as much in bed with Islamist radicals as was the previous BNP government; and their support is what allows them to operate.
I told him that his denials did not even make any sense. “Look,” I said, “you don't go from a third of the population in 1965, to a fifth in 1971, to between seven and eight percent today simply through 'voluntary emigration,'" which is what he was claiming; but he persisted. “Oh, yes,” he said. “This is happening because they [Bangladeshi Hindus] cannot find suitable matches for their children, so they go to India where there are more Hindus."
"You're kidding, right?" I said
No, he insisted; and he expected me to believe that he was serious. Would anyone buy that nonsense if he was trying to explain why a Muslim population was disappearing; or a Christian one? And it became clear that the Ambassador was ready to say pretty much anything, no matter how ridiculous. He knew that the absence of even the semblance of credibility would not stop people from giving him a pass and allowing Bangladesh's ethnic cleansing of Hindus to continue because no one was going to object—or even care.
Ambassador Qader can say such things in part, because it is an article of faith among diplomats, the international human rights industry, media, and other so-called experts and elites that the current left-center Awami League government under Sheikh Hasina Wajed represents some sort of real break from its BNP and military-backed predecessors; that its self-billing as “pro-minority” reflects a commitment to actually being pro-minority. To make matters worse, Hindu leaders trumpet this fiction.
Shortly after the Awami League was swept into office, I was asked to advise minority groups there on how they should approach the new government, which I did on January 9, 2009. My opening advice was: “The worst thing you can do right now is to go back to sleep.” Yet, that is exactly the course that these community leaders had charted. The overwhelming consensus was that the Awami League would recognize the role of religious minorities in crafting its landslide victory and secure their protection and rights. I tried to present them with evidence of Awami League lies—for instance, that it continues to benefit no less so than its BNP rivals did from the Vested Property Act, which has enabled more than 75 percent of all Hindu land to be seized by the government and distributed to Muslims; or it alliance just prior to the aborted 2007 elections with one of the most radical Islamist parties. They still felt that the best policy was not to upset the new leaders.”
“I would not be as optimistic as some of the other callers,” I said. “Ending the persecution of minorities must be considered one of the first priorities. What is more important than that? [And besides] this attitude of passivity and let's give them a chance; how well has that worked for the minorities and the victims in the past? Not well. We are sitting by while people are being killed and tortured! So, yes, we must give them some time—but not much or we will see that their words are nothing more than words.”
Let’s look at the record and see who was right.
The first thing you have to recognize is that the Bangladeshis are full of crap. That is, when negotiating with or assessing them, you cannot focus on their words, on what they say. Whether it is the Islamist-friendly BNP or the make-pretend liberal Awami League, Bangladeshi leaders will say almost anything to get whatever goodies they are looking for you to give them. If you focus on what they say, you will be lulled into a stupor in which you can believe that up is down and let me know, because there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you. Focus instead on what they do.
Take this example of our “moderate Muslim” nation. On April 30, 2009, Sheikh Hasina told the visiting French Vice Admiral Gerard Valin, Joint Commander of Indian Ocean forces, that her government would repeal all of the country’s “anti-minority” laws. That is documented fact that you could have read about it in Dhaka’s major dailies. The statement’s most striking aspect is that she admitted openly that her nation in fact has anti-minority laws—a pretty big admission for a country that depends on its image as a “moderate Muslim nation.” Why did she say that without it seems a care in the world? First, she felt she was really trashing her BNP and military-backed predecessors rather than her country because Bangladesh has what many have called a “zero sum political climate” in which the two major parties (and especially their two leaders) will do almost anything to sabotage the other. I saw this for myself in 2007. When I arrived in Dhaka on January 7, I was greeted with the sight of widespread unrest in the streets of the capital and soon the sound of Sheikh Hasina enjoining her followers to “close down the country,” completely ruling out a peaceful resolution to the nation’s electoral crisis. Three days later, she got her wish when the military stepped in and shut down Bangladesh’s ersatz democracy for two years.
The more important reason she was okay with her admission—which is a deadly one for Bangladeshi Hindus—is that she knew she would not be held to her bravado. She could repeal those laws or not; either way, it would not change her nation in the eyes of the world. And, of course, she has not been true to her word. Today, the laws still stand. Again, focus on what they do, not on what they say.
Were that the only example, there might still be hope for the Bangladeshis; but there is more evidence of the Awami League’s Islamist base. You remember my earlier mention of the Vested Property Act (VPA)? Just before the 2008 elections, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court issued a rule nisi, asking the government to explain why that racist law was not contrary to the Bangladeshi constitution. The military leaders at the time told me that they were not going to provide a response as it exceeded their mandate to do so, and because a newly elected government would soon take power. So when the Awami League took office, they had the ability to tell the Supreme Court that the VPA contradicted the constitution, and that would have been the end of it—no political repercussions and a tremendous blow for the cause of justice at the same time. Is that what they did? Of course not; they not only let it pass, but they also have allowed their minions to use it to continue dispossessing Hindus, and they have strengthened it as the economic engine that drives ethnic cleansing.
Then in 2011, the Supreme Court tried again to move the country forward by identifying several constitutional amendments passed during the Ershad dictatorship of the 1980s, and asking the government to submit replacements that were in line with basic notions about justice. The government complied, submitting substitutes for all of the elements the Supreme Court identified except one: the notorious Eighth Amendment. The Eighth Amendment was passed to declare Islam the official state religion. It also mandated that no law begin without homage to Allah, and it awarded special privileges and funding to Islamic institutions, while providing disabilities to those of other religions.
These things all support ethnic cleansing, but we also have verified actions of ethnic cleansing, terrible atrocities, for which the Awami League gives its tacit support. We know that minorities face attacks pretty much everywhere. The critical question is whether or not the government supports these actions. Does it prosecute the perpetrators making it clear that such things are intolerable; or does it send a message that attacks on minorities can proceed with impunity? Every single Bangladeshi government has sent the latter message. This is how, by the way, you respond to the dodge that ‘minorities were attacked in the United States. Don’t single out Bangladesh.’ When minorities are attacked here, it is prosecuted as a crime, unlike the situation prevailing in Bangladesh.
Because of the Awami League’s phony pro-minority image, I decided to uncover its role in the ethnic cleansing of Hindus. There I go using that word again. In order to appear in my book and subsequent writings, all of these incidents had to meet four criteria:
• They had to occurred under the current, Awami League government
• They were not prosecuted by that government. In fact, we uncovered many cases in which government agents actually participated in the attacks and subsequent covers-up
• They had to be verified by two or more independent sources
• They had to be specifically anti-Hindu and not random
Let us also be clear that these are incidents that I have been able to confirm with my limited resources; many more have been reported that probably meet the above four criteria. Samir Kalra, Director and Senior Fellow for Human Rights of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), noted “nearly 1,200 incidents of violence directed against religious minorities (mostly Hindus) between 2008 and 2011.” The HAF’s annual reports have consistently cited a clear pattern of anti-Hindu actions going unpunished in Bangladesh.
Here is some of what we have verified:
• As documented in my book, A Quiet Case of Ethnic Cleansing: The Murder of Bangladesh’s Hindus, which is available here; during the Awami League’s first year in office, major anti-Hindu incidents occurred at the rate of almost one per week. They included murder, rape, child abduction, forced conversion to Islam, physical attacks, land grabs, religious desecration; and at least one three-day pogrom that occurred immediately behind a Dhaka police station.
• My book also documents one 26 day period in 2010, when there were seven major anti-Hindu actions or almost one every three days.
• Since then, I have confirmed at least 15 similar incidents during the first quarter of 2012; almost one and a quarter every single week. In at least two cases, local or other officials subsequently warned human rights activists that they better stop investigating the matter or face serious consequences. And I have the latter’s testimony regarding that.
And since then, I have received allegations of more incidents; for instance:
• According to the Daily Purbaanchal and my own sources, several Muslim males repeatedly raped a child on her way to a Hindu festival on May 25.
• As reported in the Daily Kaler Kantha and confirmed by my associates, Muslims murdered Samrity Rani in Vingravo village on May 20 while her husband was away. This involved a home invasion in broad daylight, which indicates how safe the Muslim attackers felt; and according to video testimony, Hindus have been threatened not to continue their demands for prosecution, even though the police have taken no action.
• As confirmed by Bangladesh Minority Watch, Sanju Rani Dev (28) was gang raped on May 27 at night in Golapgonj Upazila of Sylhet.
• Julie Sinha (23) was abducted on May 18 at about 11am as she was on her way to class at Sha Jalal University in Sylhet, and has not been seen or heard from since.
These four incidents took place within a nine day period in late May, and the police have done nothing to capture the known perpetrators. Then just one week ago today, according to Bangladesh Minority Watch and a fact finding team that included a former cabinet minister, thousands of Muslims attacked Hindus in Dinajpur when a Hindu landowner opposed their attempt to forcibly erect a mosque on his land. A number of women were raped, others humiliated by being unclothed publicly; 50 homes were destroyed; hundreds of livestock were looted, and scores of Hindus were sent to the hospital. Dinajur is an area from which so many of the victims that I meet flee; and we have evidence that the entire attack was instigated by a local government official. Do you think you will be seeing that on CNN any time?
I could regale you all day with examples like these, but you probably get them through the mass emails we all receive. We know what is happening; and there is no use ranting about it and shaking our fists if we are not going to stop it, which is the real aim of this talk.
But before moving on, I want to relate one final incident, that perhaps because I am a father, it hit me particularly hard. In 2009, I was in Northern Bengal and was told about a family of Bangladeshi Hindus who had crossed into India only 22 days earlier. When I went to meet with them, they told me how their little patch of family land was overrun by Muslims and how they were thrown off their property while the invaders enjoyed the few creature comforts they had in their home. They told me about the father being beaten, an uncle killed; but the part that got me was about their 14-year-old daughter. She kept trying to speak but her mother kept pushing her away. Finally, she was able to start talking—only after I agreed to point my camera toward the ground so she could not be identified. She kept telling me that “the Muslims chased [her],” all the while looking away, not wanting to meet my eyes, when I asked her what she meant by that and did they catch up to her. Only when I turned off my camera did she tell me that they caught here and “did bad things to me.” Do I need to be any more specific?
Since then, I have met with many Hindu women who were gang raped—heard the most horrible things—but that girl in particular continues to haunt me.
Is Moderate Muslim and Oxymoron?
This is a serious question that plagues us as members of a free society. On the whole, we have a tough time condemning all members of any group; and the suggestion that there is a problem with the group itself brings cries of “bigot,” “racist,” and “Islamaphobe.” Even if that is nonsense, it is a reality we have to acknowledge; and it stops us from speaking the truth, even if going along with the fiction means allowing the death of millions. So, let’s talk specifics. That 14 year-old rape victim I interviewed in northern Bengal was not raped by random miscreants and, oh yes, she happened to be a Hindu. She was raped because she is a Hindu. And the rapists did not savage that child and, oh yes, they happened to be Muslim. They savaged her because they are Muslim and recognized their legally favored position in Bangladesh. The perpetrators’ and victims’ religion should be an inconsequential matter that does not concern us. Their religion should not be important, but the perpetrators—not we—have made it important. And again let’s be clear. She was not raped by members of al Qaeda or Jamaat, but by her neighbors—ordinary, everyday Muslims, the same sort who carried out that three day pogrom in Dhaka under the protection of the local police.
Any attempt to understand and stop what is happening in Bangladesh—and what is spreading from it—without talking about Islam is destined to be incomplete and ineffective. The fact is that no matter how much they dress it up, Islam divides the world into two distinctive categories: dar al Islam (the abode of Islam) and dar al Harb (the abode of war). Dar al Islam refers to all places where Islam thrives, most frequently defined as places under Muslim rule, preferably Sharia; that Islam reserves the term abode of war for everywhere else gives us a pretty good idea of what Islam enjoins Muslims to do. Moreover, the dichotomy also has been explained as land where there is submission to Islam vs. land destined to submit to Islam. No matter how you slice it, the distinction is premised on the belief that Islam and Muslims are superior to other faiths and non-Muslims; and the belief that it is a Muslim’s duty to bring the others under Islam’s rule. There have been those apologists who try to obscure that by alleging that that as long as Muslims can practice their religion in peace, where they live is not dar al Harb, regardless of who rules it. That is also absolute nonsense. Just ask the Israelis whose Muslim citizens enjoy full freedom of religion and more rights than Muslims living in “Muslim” countries. Islam is thriving so much in Israel that the Muslim agency which administers al Aqsa mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount had to carve out additional mosques under the Mount to accommodate the large number of free worshippers—something it never needed to do when the Mount was ruled by Muslim Jordan or Muslim Turkey.
And we continue to obscure the real issue of what we face by calling places like Bangladesh “moderate Muslim” countries with very deadly consequences. Take this example. Bangladesh has recently arrested a Muslim author, Salam Azad, and charged him with blasphemy for a book he wrote in another country nine years ago. His life is in danger, and the government refuses to provide him with any sort of protection. Now, does any of that sound like the actions of a “moderate” country?
As we just saw, Bangladesh maintains Islam as its official religion, begins every law with “in the name of Allah the Beneficent,” and funds madrassas and other Muslim institutions, but not those of any other faith. What intellectual gymnastics make that moderate? And while this “moderate Muslim” nation helps build Muslim madrassas, it supports the destruction of Hindu Mandirs by not prosecuting the perpetrators. My God, the country has a law that enshrines the seizure of Hindu property and its transfer to Muslims—a law that this allegedly moderate government could have annulled when it took office!
What sort of topsy-turvy world is this when nations can do these things and smile while the rest of us call them moderate? What sort of upside down place is this when Muslims are allowed to carry on by one set of standards that the rest of us would find objectionable in ourselves, let alone in those who steal our children and our history?
And that’s why it should scare the pants off us; not because of them, but because of us; because of this blindness we carry around like it is some sort of badge of honor. The fact is that no one with the slightest bit of discernment could possibly believe that if we keep letting these things happen that they would stop at the borders of Bangladeshi. They are already making their way through India’s northeast. My colleague in Kolkata, Bimal Primanik, has tracked this for decades and has documented not only the population shift but also its deliberate nature.
An exhaustive study by the South Asian Research Society noted that “In the days of Pakistan, nearly all refugees coming to West Bengal were members of the minority communities in East Bengal….In the Bangladesh era, however, in addition to the forced migration of members of minority community (the overwhelming majority being Hindus) to West Bengal, there has been large-scale voluntary infiltration of Bangladeshi Muslims… to West Bengal and other parts of India.”
Primanik’s own study from 1951 to 2001 showed that in Bangladesh, the Hindu population grew from about nine to eleven million, or 23.16 percent; while the Muslim population grew from 32 to 111 million, or 244.68 percent. Some of the academics and government officials with whom I have discussed this disparity have attempted to explain it by saying that many Hindus simply decided to move to India as it is a Hindu-majority country with greater economic prospects than Bangladesh; in other words, that the population shift has been driven by “economic refugees.” Even if we accept their premise, however, the Hindus’ economic dislocation was in many cases brought about deliberately through illicit seizure of assets under the Vested Property Act, religious discrimination, persecution, and so forth. Perhaps they might then move to Ambassador Qader’s mind numbingly stupid theory that Hindus are leaving Bangladesh to find matches for their children.
Moreover, if this was simply a voluntary population transfer, we would expect it to be reflected in population figures for the Indian state closest to Bangladesh and whose population is composed of the same ethnic group, namely West Bengal. So what do we see? West Bengal had about 19 million Hindus in 1951 and 58 million in 2001, an increase of 198.54 percent. Its 1951 Muslim population of approximately five million Muslims grew to more than 20 million in 2001 or by 310.13 percent. Moreover, Pramanik’s study indicates that during this period the Muslim growth rate exceeded that of Hindus in each individual district of West Bengal, even those that receive the lion’s share of Bangladeshi Hindu refugees.
I saw the results of this in the Deganga region where three days of anti-Hindu violence raged in September 2010, only 40 kilometers north of the West Bengal capital. And contrary to what you might have read in the media, people were attacked, and many fled their homes and huddled in terror. I know; I spoke with too many of them for them all to be making up the same story. Beyond that, with my own eyes, I saw how terrified the Hindu population is, how women and girls are not allowed to go anywhere unaccompanied now because of what will happen to them if they do; and I saw several Mandirs destroyed or desecrated. West Bengal BJP member Tathagata Roy visited the area twice since the violence began and noted, "This was a well-thought-out, well-executed pogrom whose objective was to terrorize the Hindus no end….The ultimate intention can only be to cleanse the area of Hindus with a view to totally Islamize the area." While Indian troops ultimately stationed themselves on the area’s main road, they did not follow pogromists into the nearby Hindu villages and settlements that I visited and where they were able to do a great deal of damage with impunity.
I saw them again in the village of Norit, also in West Bengal, where a mother plaintively begged me to help retrieve her daughter who was abducted by Muslims some weeks before and not seen since.
I saw them in a tiny village further north, where Muslim men and boys from the area have set up perches where they watch the Hindu women while they bathe undressed. And when confronted, they said that all Hindu women are “there for our amusement.” When elders from the Hindu community asked the police to help, they said that it was up to the two communities to resolve the matter. Any guess how that turned out?
And all of us are still seeing the consequences of this in Assam.
So what is it about these blatant atrocities that people still like to pretend that there is no human rights crisis for the Hindus of Bangladesh? I have a theory. Even if the world turns away when we talk about anti-Hindu actions in Pakistan, they still react, ‘well, you know, Pakistan is one of those radical Muslim countries.’ Or if we raise the issue of Saudi Arabia, people will shrug their shoulders and say, “oh, those nasty Wahabis!” But when we make them face the facts of ethnic cleansing in Bangladesh and its support by every one of its governments, we are attacking their cherished assumptions and their world view. They cannot admit that Bangladesh could be doing these things because the more we investigate the more we see that the only thing moderate about Bangladesh is that people call it moderate.
If Bangladesh is engaging in the ethnic cleansing of non-Muslims, if it maintains laws meant to discriminate against Hindus and others, if it refuses to do anything about it, and if it supports radical Islamists; can it be called moderate? And if Bangladesh is not moderate, is any Muslim country? Acknowledging that might force them to wake up and stop leading us all into the next Dark Ages! Acknowledging that might cause them to wonder if there is anything to this silly dichotomy of moderate and radical Islam. Dar al Islam and dar al harb—now that’s a useful dichotomy; but moderate vs. radical means nothing, our hanging on to that fiction certainly will doom Hindus in Bangladesh.
While people can advance several good reasons for the lack of action to stop the ethnic cleaning of Hindus in Bangladesh, I believe that is the biggest one.
Just to be clear, many of us know moderate Muslim individuals; I can think of two who have been arrested for blasphemy and put their lives in danger. They’re not only moderate, they are heroes. While that might be true, however, as applied to countries, the phrase “moderate Muslim” is indeed an oxymoron—impossible to maintain outside the world of theorists, ideologues, and ostriches with their heads in the sand.
And as long as people like us sit quietly while this deadly lie is perpetrated, we better be scared, and we might fit our daughters for a burqa while we’re at it.
What we must do
So what do we do about it?
If something is done to save Bangladesh’s Hindus, it will come from here, the United States of America. Bangladesh will not change; they have shown themselves immune to cries for justice and appeals to decency. Europe? Don’t make me laugh. And India? While I love that country, political correctness and pseudo-secularism rule out that country unless it can be motivated differently. So, it is up to us.
First of all, I cannot be the only one angry enough to do something. All of us should be furious—with the same furor our troops have as they fight tyranny. I mean, really angry; angry enough so we cannot stand it and cannot sleep soundly at night knowing what could be happening to a Hindu child as we lay comfortably in our warm beds. Let the images attack you every time you decide to relax and watch TV. Because remember what the Dalai Lama said: “It is not enough to be compassionate. You must ACT.”
Secondly, we have to call out our religious and community leaders who always run away from controversy; who tell us that they do not want “to be political.” No matter who delivers the message, this is not political. It is moral; it is, in fact, a moral imperative. If some self-styled leader stands in the way of saving lives, call that person out as a moral coward, for being more concerned with his or her own image than those Hindu women and children who were raped. And, by the way, why is this not an issue that the feminist movement is all over?
Temples should take the lead and lend their moral authority to community outrage and action. Those of us who were around in the 1970s and 1980s will remember that back then, you could not pass a synagogue without seeing a large banner proclaiming, “Save Soviet Jewry.” Our people were being persecuted in the Soviet Union, whose leaders wanted to eradicate their Jewish religion and identity. A few, like Natan Sharansky who later became an Israeli Cabinet Minister, got some attention, but most suffered silently. The American Jewish community saw their persecuted brothers and sisters and recognized their obligation to save them. Moreover, it acted on that obligation.
We lobbied Washington and our local officials; prevailed upon other religious bodies to recognize the atrocity and let Washington know their position.
Average Jews who you might see at the office or in the supermarket—people just like you—went to Russia at their own expense to smuggle in religious books and other Jewish artifacts at considerable peril to themselves. Jewish children reaching their Bar and Bat Mitzvah were “twinned” with Soviet children who did not have the freedom to celebrate this most important rite of passage; we did it for them. And before it was over, we helped get 1.2 million Jews out of that communist hell. It strengthened our identity, and every Jewish child who was part of that effort never forgot it or their own sense of Jewishness. We also realized that we could in fact stand strong for our people, that the only thing that could stop us is ourselves.
Let the Bangladeshi Hindus be your Soviet Jews. Recognize what is at stake and mobilize around your Mandirs.
Bangladesh is a pretty lame country. It is not like we have to force a change in China or Iran. This is Bangladesh, a country known for two things: overcrowding and natural disasters. If we cannot do something about Bangladesh, what hope have we against countries like China and Iran, or even North Korea and Venezuela?
Bangladesh is also a country inordinately dependent on two things for its economic viability: exporting readymade garments and providing peacekeeping troops for the United Nations. That’s right; Bangladesh and Pakistan keep trading places for the most and second most UN peace keeping troops—even while neither can keep the peace at home.
In fact, while in Bangladesh during the 2007 coup, I was told by impeccable sources that concern over the UN pulling these peacekeeping troops is what finally caused the military to move. Besides losing the money, they also had to think about having thousands of angry, unemployed, and armed young men flooding their already volatile country. Can you blame them?
Also, the only significant lobbying group in Bangladesh is the BGMEA or the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. They have influence on the government, and what happens to their industry will affect the lives of most of those 150 million people. A drop in exports of only several percent points means millions out of work—also angry and in need of government assistance.
Now, guess who is their second largest customer? The US. And guess who funds those UN peacekeepers to a large degree? US again. If we get our elected leaders to act, Bangladesh will have to stop the ethnic cleansing of Hindus and get rid of their terrible laws; or face disaster. About a year and a half ago, by the way, the current government told me how bad they need to make a good showing for their people if they want to get re-elected in 2014. We have a terrific opportunity to put them in a bind whereby they have to stop the atrocities or lose the election and a lot more.
So let’s start thinking strategically.
In 2010, I began working with the Hindu community in the Chicago area to support a few specific candidates for Congress and the Senate. While no one would suggest that we were responsible for their victories, the candidates and their staffs knew that we at least contributed to them. Our goal was to show our elected officials that the Hindu community here is a significant electoral force whose concerns need to be taken seriously. And I think that worked.
These were good people; people who supported us before and whom we would want to see elected. But we might want to take just a little pride in the fact that one of the individuals we supported in 2010 and are working to elect again is Congressman Robert Dold who very early in his first term raised the issue of the Bangladeshi Hindus from the floor of the United States Congress—and did so without burying it in words like minorities. He identified it clearly as anti-Hindu and demanded we do something to stop it. I know Bob well and can tell you that he really feels the pain of the Bangladeshi Hindus and will do everything he can do to help us stop that pain.
Now we are in another election cycle, and several people are engaged in this sort of effort. I understand you are seizing the initiative as well. Quite a few Congressional candidates have come to recognize the importance of the Hindu vote. While our modest effort focused on three candidates in the Chicago area, Representatives and would be Representatives nationwide now are courting the Hindu vote.
Consider the following. There are perhaps a million less Hindus in the United States than Muslims, and in many districts the Hindu population outstrips the Muslim. But think of how our lawmakers react to CAIR, the Congress on American Islamic Relations, compared to how they would react to the Hindu American Foundation. Or think of how many Washingtonians who were silent about the anti-Hindu stereotypes in schoolbooks and elsewhere would make outraged speeches if they were made aware of similar anti-Muslim stereotypes. Shalli Kumar, who founded the National Indian American Coalition, has been doing this sort of thing longer than I have and is having a real impact now. He often points out that the Hindu population is about half that of the American Jewish community and that Hindu Americans should be active enough to command half the attention of our elected leaders that my own Jewish community does. With that sort of political power, we can accomplish a great deal in the next Congress.
And that’s one big key: once we get people to recognize that we cannot be ignored, what do we do with that power. Well, there’s a lot we can do; and the limits of that depend on us and us alone. We can contribute to electoral success and then go back in our shell, the way those Bangladeshi Hindu groups did after they helped elect the Awami League; or we can press our advantage with a Congress (and perhaps an administration) that recognizes the justice of our claims, large and small. For instance, if you are a Muslim and your child receives a school lunch, you can get a halal meal; if you are an Orthodox Jew, you can get a kosher one. But if you are a Hindu requesting a vegetarian meal, you might be told to just take the hamburger that is, beef, off the plate with no understanding of the offense that is being committed. So recently, we began working with Congressman Dold to change that in Illinois schools. It’s a matter of civil rights and justice; a small victory but one that recognizes Hindu power in this society.
We also can push for real human rights hearings about the Bangladeshi Hindus, not the sort of hearings by the TLHRC that have been flaccid at best, anti-Hindu at worst; and we can lobby (with facts) to have the US Commission on International Religious Freedom downgrade Bangladesh’s status to a nation we identify as one that does not support its citizens’ religious freedom. Many of the Congressmen we know are on committees that have power over trade and tariffs. That would be an incredibly productive area to work on next year. Let’s see how many elected officials want to go on the record of supporting ethnic cleansing and the gang rape of young girls! If we have the will, we can make it that sort of choice.
The other big key is to make people realize that ultimately, this is a problem for us—all of us Americans—not something that is just a faraway problem. When you start talking to people about Bangladesh, they start looking at their watches; but if they hear about what we are seeing already in India, we will indeed grab their attention; and if they see this as part of a larger problem threatening all of us, they will take action. At least a lot of people will.
Again, make it clear that this is an American problem, not something remote and unrelated to us.
Right now, there is a lot of anti-UN sentiment in this country—and for good reason as it so often seems that the UN represents interests in direct conflict with those that we hold dear—like ethnic cleansing. I do not think we would have too much trouble conditioning some of our taxpayer dollars on keeping Bangladesh off peacekeeping missions.
In other words, if we are recognized as having the power of the vote, our human rights arguments become things that can no longer be ignored. The question is how we make the most of it in each district. We’re working non-stop in Illinois. And we can push our agenda forward tonight when we have dinner with the Member of Congress whose district has the nation’s highest percentage of Indian Americans. And I promise you that I will make sure Congressman Pete Olson leaves with an understanding of what is happening to Hindus in Bangladesh.
There is so much more we can do even without the government: tell companies who buy Bangladeshi goods that they are supporting the rape of children and the murder of innocents. I do not like the word boycott and believe they are in the end self-defeating; but everyone knows it is not good business to associate oneself with ethnic cleansing and gang rape. Some of Bangladesh’s biggest customers in the US include Wal-Mart, Hanes, GAP, J.C. Penney, Nike, Levis, and Tommy Hilfiger. The thing to remember is that there are a lot of countries that sell the same products, and if Bangladeshi goods become too expensive—whether through higher tariffs or bad publicity—there are several countries standing in line to gobble up the market. And the Bangladeshis know from experience that once that market segment is lost, they are unlikely to get it back when they later decide to join the community of decent nations.
There are ways to publicize that, to start letter writing campaigns, meet with executives, and if necessary, demonstrate in front of the stores. We also can organize monthly, weekly, or even daily demonstrations in front of the Bangladeshi embassy in Washington, charging those inside with murder. I ask Mahasabha leaders to work with me and help us get numbers of people for these efforts. We have contacts ready to move nationwide, and the Houston community should be one of the leaders. Street theater, legal cases, protests, and on and on.
When all is said and done, however, it all comes back to that 14-year-old girl I met in North Bengal and the millions of other victims. Every day we delay, every excuse we make brings Hindus in Bangladesh that much closer to extinction; and it brings their murderers that much closer to our own homes, our streets, and our children.
I’ll be fighting this fight in Washington and anywhere else I have to regardless, but we will have a better chance of succeeding in time if we are hundreds strong. And if we do not act, if we are content to allow these things to continue can we really call ourselves decent human beings?