Stop the destruction of Bangladesh’s Hindus—or let them die:
It’s YOUR choice.
Address by Dr. Richard L. Benkin
February 25, 2014
[This is an expanded version of my address to students at Delhi University, which I truncated to allow for a more interactive and expansive discussion.]
In 1951, Hindus represented almost a third of East Pakistan’s population. When East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, they were less than one in five; thirty years later fewer than one in ten; and according to reliable estimates, only one in 15 today. If anyone is still having trouble understanding where this is going, take a look at Pakistan where Hindus are down to one percent; or at Afghanistan or Kashmir, where once thriving Hindu communities are all but gone.
The difference between those two places and Bangladesh is that we have a chance to prevent the total destruction of the Hindu community there; and each of us has a moral imperative NOT to sit by idly. Let us begin today to act like moral individuals and stop sitting by idly; stop hiding behind our fear of loud ideologues; stop hiding behind a topsy-turvy world view in which their ideology is more important than people’s lives; stop hiding behind the studied non-involvement of others; stop hiding behind the excuse that everyone has to do something before any one of us does; stop hiding behind the let’s-pretend-world in which ethnic cleansing is all right as long as we cover our eyes.
There is no question that Bangladesh’s Hindu population is dying; that is not in dispute; neither is the fact that Hindus face ongoing attacks in Bangladesh. There are, however, several comforting myths to which people cling rather than face the rest of the truth. Unless we grow up and cast them aside with other childhood myths; then, you can take it from me that Hinduism in Bangladesh will be nothing more than a memory and WE will be as shameful as those Europeans who closed their shutters in the 1940s while their Jewish neighbors were being carried off to their deaths. So, what are those deadly myths that must be cast aside?
1. Myth #1: That somehow identifying the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in a Muslim-majority country is “communal” or anti-Islam. What a deadly bit of nonsense that is. It somehow comforts the cowardly into believing that standing still while others die is the moral thing to do. Fighting this evil is not the province of any religious community. It is a human rights atrocity that should move all decent people to action, regardless of their religious community. I have stood shoulder to shoulder with Muslims who have been beaten by Bangladeshi police and by Islamists because they protested the ethnic cleansing of Hindus. I have spent time with Muslim police who on their own guard a Hindu village from Muslim attackers because, they told me, the government will do nothing. In a short time, I will meet with a group of Fundamentalist Muslims, who also stand against the persecution of Hindus; and, not incidentally, for Bangladesh-Israel relations.
2. Myth #2: That Bangladesh is a “moderate” Muslim country. The word, moderate, has been misapplied so frequently that I really do not know what it means anymore. I DO know, however, what it is supposed to mean. Is a country that permits the ongoing persecution of its non-Muslim population “moderate”? How about one with a radical Islamist party that is the third most powerful and a former and possibly future member of the ruling coalition? What about a country that silences journalists and authors by charging them with blasphemy, a capital offense (and I have been involved in defending at least two of them)? Is a country with laws that make blasphemy a capital offense and governments that enforce it “moderate”? Is it even civilized? And what about a country that prohibits its citizens from simply visiting Israel (and you can see it right on the Bangladeshi passport) and jails those who try? Does that sound “moderate” to you? I could go on, but no need. Clearly, calling Bangladesh moderate is about as accurate as calling a cat a dog.
3. Myth #3: That the Awami League is any different from other parties in Bangladesh or that Hindus could expect justice under its rule. I want to address this one head-on; and I just hope someone in this room wants to take me on about it later.
Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League have had numerous opportunities to change their country’s anti-Hindu laws and practice; and in each case decided that Hindus just were not worth their support. In May 2009, for instance, she told French naval commander Gerard Valin that her government would repeal the country’s anti-minority laws—which probably made her the first sitting Prime Minister in modern times to admit that her country has anti-minority laws. True to form, she made those promises with no thought of keeping them.
Just before she took office, for example, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court issued a rule nisi asking the government to show cause why Bangladesh’s racist Vested Property Act should not be declared contrary to the constitution and ruled null and void. Bangladesh’s Vested Property Act, as many of you know, was taken in whole cloth from Pakistan by the current Prime Minister’s father and the man Bangladeshis affectionately call Sheikh Mujib. It legalizes official theft of Hindu property and its use to fill the coffers of whatever party is in power. The military leaders in charge at the time of the rule nisi told me that the matter exceeded their charter as caretakers. Besides, they said, elections were about to be held so they were leaving it to the next government to comply with the Supreme Court’s demand and put an end to this terrible law that has allowed all but a small amount of Hindu owned land to be confiscated. Despite its landslide victory and rule without coalition partners, however, the Awami League ignored the court and left the law to remain the economic engine driving ethnic cleansing of Hindus.
In 2011, the Supreme Court again tried to civilize the Awami League, asking that the Jatiya Sangsad (or Bangladeshi parliament) submit substitutes for a series of constitutional amendments passed under the Ershad dictatorship in the 1980s. And it did—for all except one: the Eighth Amendment, which made Islam the official state religion and provided government support for that majority religion with comparative disabilities for minority faiths. Many Hindus—and other minorities—have complained that this makes them feel like second-class citizens in their own country. Imagine Bangladesh’s official reaction if India declared Hinduism the official state religion and favored it over Islam; or if America declared a Christian country. But of course, we do not do that sort of thing.
All of that, however, pales in comparison with Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League’s support for deadly attacks on Hindus.
In January 2009, a consortium of Bangladeshi Hindu groups asked me to advise them on what to do now that the Awami League was in control. “The last thing you should do,” I said, “is to go back to sleep.” I urged them to act; to push the Awami League to live up to its posturing as a “pro-minority” party, which won it the vast majority of Hindu votes. If you don’t, I said, “we will see that their words are nothing more than words.”
Unfortunately, most of the Hindu leaders placed their trust in the new government rather than in themselves: a very bad decision.
• During the Awami League’s first year in office, major anti-Hindu incidents occurred at the rate of almost one per week.
• The number and intensity of anti-Hindu atrocities did not drop the next year, which included one period with anti-Hindu actions every three days.
• The Hindu American Foundation, Bangladesh Minority Watch, and others document a similar level of atrocities in the third year, 2011.
• As 2012 began, there were at least 1.25 similar incidents a week in the first quarter; as it ended, one a week during the fourth. In between, there was 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.
Human rights activist Rabindra Ghosh, my own associates, and I investigated and confirmed these incidents. They were reported in local media, yet major media ignored them. Each of those incidents, by the way, met all of the following criteria:
1. They were major crimes: murder, rape, child abduction, forced conversion, physical attacks, land grabs, religious desecration, and more.
2. They occurred under Awami League rule.
3. They were anti-Hindu and not just random.
4. The government neither prosecuted the crimes nor helped retrieve victims, and actually participated in some actions or their cover-ups.
5. And they were confirmed by at least two independent sources.
Life under the Awami League is better for Hindus?
· In 2009, there was a three-day attack on a poor Hindu community right behind a Dhaka police station. Police accompanied the attackers and supported their actions. Many of the poor Hindus they made homeless still roam the street of Dhaka.
· In 2012, angry mobs stormed a tiny Hindu village in a remote part of Dinajpur in northern Bangladesh, destroying homes and farms, looting possessions, and abusing women.
· The government did not punish criminals in either case. It participated in cover-ups and threatened human rights activists investigating the incidents. I went to both places to see for myself, met with victims, and confirmed the attacks and the government’s complicity.
· In December 2012, 21-year old Eti Biswas was abducted by local thugs and government officials after her family defied threats and would not abandon their land. Her family met me in Dhaka and asked me to help bring back their young daughter. In this case, though, not only local officials but also people as high up as the Bangladeshi Home Minister (who promised me he would investigate any incidents I brought to his attention) and perhaps even Sheikh Hasina herself were aware of what happened, including the government’s tacit approval. Young Eti Biswas remains missing to this day, and the family remains devastated.
· Koli Goswami (21), Pradip Das (22), and many other young Hindu women—taken and still missing, months or even years after their abduction. Or 17 year-old Subarna Biswas, abducted just last month and forcibly converted to Islam. Refusing to help recover the girl, police claim it was “voluntary.”
· Roti Bala Biswas (15) and too many Hindu women and girls raped because the rape of Hindus almost never gets prosecuted by this government. In this case, this young girl’s victimizer made no secret of what he did to her and was never punished for it. In Bangladesh, the rape of Hindu women and girls is allowed if not encouraged.
· This is not even to mention the scores of women who described being gang raped, often as minors, often with husbands and fathers forced to watch before being killed. There was the 14-year-old girl who described being gang raped just 22 days after she and her family escaped to India.
And all of this was done to the victims because they are Hindus—that’s all, Hindus.
Now let me tell you just how horrible the situation is. Despite the egregiousness of these atrocities and the government’s open support for them, the Bangladeshis are so confident of our cowardice that they do not see the need to even appear credible. In May 2012, I met with Bangladesh’s ambassador in Washington, Akramul Qader, and confronted him with evidence I have gathered. It was an interesting encounter in which he issued successive denials after which I would provide evidence that rendered him either an ignorant fool or a liar. Each time that happened, he would act as if he just remembered the well-documented incident or atrocity. At one point, I pointed out that demographers have said that the precipitous population drop in Bangladesh’s Hindu population could not have come about through demographic processes like birth rates or through voluntary emigration. Here was his response. He did not dispute the objective facts but asserted that it is voluntary: that they “cannot find suitable matches for their children, so they go to India where there are more Hindus.” His comments were so insultingly stupid that they bear repeating: Hindus leave Bangladesh to find suitable matches for their children. I have interviewed scores of Hindu refugees and not one said they left Bangladesh to find their children marriage partners
He is not the only idiot in Sheikh Hasina’s government. Last year in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi Home Minister, Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir, responded to the overwhelming evidence of atrocities against Hindus by saying that “union membership has declined in the US” and that “33 people were killed in Connecticut.” Is he really that much of a fool or does he think I am? Other Bangladeshi officials admitted the problem, but only if I kept it anonymous as they feared the worst reprisals if I did not
What Bangladesh must do
So, what must Bangladesh do to re-join the community of civilized nations? And we cannot let them off the hook until they actually do these things, not just promise them as Sheikh Hasina did in 2009.
1. It needs to admit its problem and stop denying it. Any drug addict knows that the first step on the road to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. Is there any doubt that Bangladesh has a problem?
2. Once it does, it can call on all forms of international help—from the UN, from individual countries, and from its own citizens.
3. It needs to announce that henceforth, it will have zero-tolerance for any communal actions of the sort we noted; and that officials who tolerate them or, worse, participate in them or in their cover-up will be dismissed and prosecuted.
4. It needs to go beyond words and announce a string of prosecutions for the worst of these crimes and for government officials who took part in them or obstructed justice. And it needs to prosecute them vigorously.
5. It needs to introduce in Parliament use its political muscle to pass an immediate and final repeal of the Vested Property Act, including a panel composed of independent academics, activists, and others including international authorities who will return seized property to their rightful owners or, if the latter prefer, provide just compensation for their losses.
6. It must also extend official and effective protection to human rights activists attacked for their work, and prosecute their attackers.
For any item promised but not enforced, Bangladesh needs to be held to a tight and specific deadline or face the consequences of non-action.
Other things, not directly related to the ethnic cleansing of Hindus that Bangladesh can do to put the brakes on its march toward radicalism:
· Repeal the Eight Amendment to the Constitution.
· Drop all charges of blasphemy against writers, journalists and others.
· Repeal anti-blasphemy laws.
· Drop the ban on its citizens’ travel to Israel, as it did for other countries.
All of this is within the Awami League’s power. It either does it or exposes itself for what it is and put to rest its phony posturing as the pro-minority party.
What we must do
The biggest obstacles we face are:
1. Ignorance: most people do not now about this, and the lack of coverage by major media and others leads them to question how it can be true.
2. Our own good intentions: our tendency to accept the Bangladeshis’ empty words, to hang on desperately to the wish that they are moderate and so would never allow such a thing if they could stop it; and the rather pathetic belief that the Awami League somehow would act any better than its rivals.
We have not gotten it into our heads that the Bangladeshis will never stop the ethnic cleansing of Hindus because it is the right thing to do. We must make it in their interests to do so. And let me start with what I am doing in the United States to bring that about.
While most people in my country remain uninformed about what is happening to Hindus in Bangladesh that is changing. While major media still ignore the problem, more local and online media do not. Then, on October 1, 2013, we achieved a real breakthrough when the Chicago suburb of Mount Prospect, Illinois, became the first US locality to issue a formal proclamation that recognized the persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh and the lack of attention this serious issue receives. Citizens of localities all across America are working slowly but steadily to make Mount Prospect the first of many to do so.
Starting last year two major US NGOs involved with the genocide issue began recognizing Bangladesh’s actions as something that deserves their attention. One of them, the Simon Wiesenthal Center mentioned of Bangladesh’s ethnic cleansing of Hindus in an article published in a major Washington daily.
The time when Bangladesh could count on our silence has come to an end.
But knowledge without action is sterile and self-serving. It is worthwhile only if we build on it to end the atrocities; and how do we do that? Know our adversaries’ weaknesses, the most important of which from our point of view is that the Bangladeshi economy is inordinately dependent on one thing: the export of textiles and garments to foreign markers—and the United States is one of its top customers. Just since this decade began (2010-2013), the United States has imported almost $20 billion in Bangladeshi goods, almost all of it textiles and apparel. Several other Asian and Latin American countries, including India, export garments to the US and would love to grab a bigger piece of that market; countries that would move in quickly if the Bangladeshis were no longer competitive; countries that would not cede their new market share if the Bangladeshis one day decide to do the right thing. If discussions going on in Washington now bear fruit, Bangladeshi garments will be more expensive and harder to get unless that country stops its ethnic cleansing of Hindus. And I can guarantee you that Wal-Mart and other US companies will decide that it is not such a good idea to do business with a nation guilty of ethnic cleansing, especially when their purchases help fund it.
Here are some of our current initiatives in Washington
1. Last summer, representatives of two Congressmen approached the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) about Bangladesh’s persecution of Hindus. They were concerned, and so is USCIRF. They are working with me on follow up, which might result in downgrading Bangladesh’s status, affecting trade and other legislation.
2. The United States Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs has approached me about public hearings on Bangladesh’s persecution of Hindus later this year. I have been working with committee staff and actually am structuring some of this trip in consultation with them.
3. Within the past months, the number of Congressmen/women who have raised the issue of the Bangladeshi Hindus has tripled.
4. Together, we are making this an issue in Washington, and using our voting power, are making it particularly critical in this election year.
Please forgive my bluntness, but how shameful would it be for India if the United States made a big noise about the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh; and India—the country most closely associate with Hinduism remained silent. Though the crimes are happening right next door and we are halfway across the world, India’s government did not think things were that bad.
India must wake up about its responsibilities, save millions of people not condemn them, and stand up for justice. For instance:
· Host an international human rights event that focuses on what is happening to Hindus in Bangladesh. It is almost certain that if you do, there will be those talking heads who try to tell you that you cannot do such a thing without including other persecuted people no doubt of their choosing. Resist those efforts whatever you do. Whether they are doing so consciously or not, they will distract your attention and once again leave this matter as a nothing more than a footnote. Besides, the notion that you cannot identify any human rights atrocities unless you identify all of them is a fatuous one. Ask them how many human rights events they were involved in that left out the Bangladeshi Hindus. Tell them that there might be a time and place for their pet issues; but not now. Ask them to work with you to plan and fund one after this one. See what they say then. So to repeat: host an international human rights event solely about the Bangladeshi Hindus. I am happy to help.
· Raise the issue at every international forum involving India and Bangladesh: World Trade Organization, SAARC, UN Human Rights Council; put the destruction of Mandirs there on UNESCO’s agenda. If every session of these organizations is about the Bangladeshi Hindus, then it is not about other issues Bangladesh might prefer. Do not let them breathe; make it an issue wherever Bangladesh raises its head.
· Last year, the idea of by-passing Bangladesh with the Myanmar-India gas pipeline was raised. Use that as leverage.
· How would Bangladesh react if you closed the border between your countries? What about the water resources you control? What would Bangladesh do without the 500 megawatts or power you sell them? Or what if you made it more expensive? Bangladeshis are still angry at their government for undependable power.
· Tie the Free Trade Agreement that they want so badly to their stopping the ethnic cleansing of Hindus.
· Most of all, make sure Indians let their elected officials know that they will not stand for governments that put votes ahead of people’s lives; that are too fearful to stand up to Bangladesh—because if it does not have the strength to stand up to Bangladesh, it will not have the strength to stand as a world leader; or governments that refuse to defend Hindus.
In the end, it is up to each of us: face the truth or make excuses; act or let them die.