A QUIET CASE OF ETHNIC CLEANSING

PART THREE:  RIGHTLESS AND VULNERABLE

Dr. Richard L. Benkin

http://www.interfaithstrength.com/

drrbenkin@comcast.net

 

This is the third installment of a four-part series about the ongoing persecution and ethnic cleansing of the millions-strong Bangladeshi Hindus.  Previous installments established the historical roots of this relentless and racist attack, as well as the deadly combination of the Islamists’ incessant attacks and government’s tacit agreement.  These persecuted Hindus sought refuse in neighboring India but were not received as one would expect they would from the largest Hindu nation in the world.  Despite their often shocking conditions and continued persecution, the recently-passed Indian budget did not even address their plight—although it did include funds to pay for Muslim pilgrimages to Jerusalem’s al Aqsa mosque.  Part Three explores this and other aspects of India’s hostile reaction.

 

Though Hindus were being harried and persecuted in their own country of Bangladesh, it seemed them that at least there was a safe haven for them if necessary just across the border. India is the largest Hindu majority country in the world and the nation that 80 to 85 percent of the world’s Hindus call home.  Unfortunately for the victims, it did not work out that way.  To be sure, India was the country to which they fled, and the Indians did not station troops on the border to keep them out; but their reception has offered them anything but succor and protection.  The Indian state that borders Bangladesh to the West and Northwest is West Bengal.  West Bengal is their logical destination not only because of proximity, not only because of its Hindu majority, but because of their common Bengali ethnicity as well.  In fact, all of Bengal was a single entity until 1905.  Acting in the role of a colonial Solomon, that year the British cut the baby (Bengal) into two.  Both chunks even to this day are well over 90 percent Bengali; that is, composed overwhelmingly of a single ethnic population.  Still, the refugees were not welcomed by the West Bengali or the Indian government.  More to the point, their legal status was and to this day largely remains tenuous.  This makes them extremely vulnerable to the machinations of corrupt and anti-democratic Bengali leaders.

 

Since 1971, the state of West Bengal has had a communist government.  Though elected democratically, the CPI/M (Communist Party of India/Marxist) has consolidated power over the years and assured continuous re-election by decidedly undemocratic means.  This has included election rigging and other means of out and out fraud, intimidation, beatings, and even murder.  (This, too, has been well-documented by several authors and journalists.)  That means trying to predict or analyze West Bengali government actions premised on democratic principles will lead one down a fruitless path.  The CPI/M stays in power by whatever means it can acquire.  One problem for the refugees is that many of the people advocating for them are openly anti-Communist.  For instance, a local Congress Party official accompanied me to many of the refugee camps—though somewhat unofficially. On the other hand, we often found our potential informants warned ahead of our arrival not to discuss any matters that would reflect poorly on West Bengali leaders and even current leaders in Bangladesh.  In one camp, a man identifying himself as a local CPI/M official confronted me and essentially told me I had no business going to these camps and seeking to help the refugees.  “Only the CPI/M has a right to solve our problems,” he told me.  I suggested that any decent government would care more about solving people’s problems than about who solves them.  In another camp, the refugees were hesitant to answer when I asked about ongoing cross-border raids by Bangladeshi Islamists, reports of which continued to come to me.  Finally, one elderly woman stood up and said, “I’m not afraid of anyone,” and she began talking about the ongoing violence in West Bengal.

 

Throughout South Asia, the specter of cooperation between Communists and Islamists has been growing steadily.  Dubbed by me the Red-Green Alliance, it has been responsible for strengthening anti-democratic forces throughout the region.  In one example, Maoist insurgents in Nepal provided safe haven for Al Qaeda forces on the run from coalition troops.  In exchange, Pakistani intelligence (the ISI) engineered an agreement that brought the Maoists into the new Nepalese government.  Prior to that, they were hunted outlaws, insurgents on the margins of Nepalese society.  But just this past April, they parlayed their newly found legitimacy into an election victory that swept them into power.  After the elderly woman above opened up, others came forward to testify that the West Bengal government has turned a blind eye to cross-border attacks by Bangladeshi Islamists.  But it gets worse.  The border between Bangladesh and West Bengal is a porous one, made even more so by the penchant for local police to look the other way when contraband and unauthorized individuals cross into India.  The communist have not acted to oppose the progressive denuding of many border area villages of their Hindu population.  Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh continuously augment the number of Muslims in these villages.  Many of the infiltrators are involved with Islamist groups and are provided with support and comfort among the villages’ Muslim political leaders.  In many cases, these are the villages surrounding the camps I visited, and refugees tell of attacks by villagers accompanying Bangladeshi Islamists.  Again, all of this is done without interference or reaction from the West Bengali rulers.  More and more Bangladeshi Muslims have been slipping into West Bengal and finding a warm reception.  Several student volunteers from West Bengal and Assam have made periodic inspections of the border areas and have confirmed the infiltration.  Their actions have been the subject of a Hindi-language documentary as well.

 

I spent much of my time in the so-called “Chicken’s Neck” area, also known as the Siliguri corridor, a stretch of Indian territory that separates Nepal and Bhutan.  Its southern point connects with the rest of West Bengal and touches the border with Bangladesh.  Its north is capped by Sikkim, bringing it close to the Chinese (i.e., Tibetan) frontier.  It also connects the Indian state of Assam (and hence other northeast states) with the rest of India.  This has been a high traffic area for smuggling arms, drugs, and a variety of contraband; it is also notorious for the movement of both Maoist and Islamist terrorists and wanted insurgents across the various borders.  I was able to observe smuggling first-hand.  People crossed unmolested into India freely at official and unofficial points, coming from Nepal and Bangladesh.  During the dry season (which is when I was there), the area is characterized by dry or nearly-dry river beds that often form international borders.  They provide interlopers with miles of unpatrolled border crossings.  Many people even set up camp in them.

 

Those who would allege that border integrity is intact often point to the fact that several contingents of Indian and Bengali police and military are stationed in the area; for instance, the Assam Rifles, Border Security Force (BSF), Indian army divisions, and West Bengal police.  The infamy of the area for smuggling exposes the disingenuous nature of this defense.  Additionally, I personally observed the ineffectiveness of these forces.  Many of them remain in their barracks or traveling the road seemingly without end.  I also watched people cross freely between India and Nepal—many in large covered trucks or with large covered bundles.  The BSF took no action.  Well, actually they did at one border point in the town of Panibankhi.  While the unmolested crossing was taking place, they stopped me and threatened to confiscate my video camera if I did not put it away.  At first, I was not sure why they were insistent that I stop taking videos of the area until I watched the open smuggling of goods from now-communist Nepal.  I was perplexed as to why the BSF took no action and asked several West Bengali and Assamese colleagues and acquaintances.  They made a point of saying that the Indian forces in the area are not corrupt; but they claim that the responsibility for interdicting smugglers is that of the local police and so take no action.  The local police in West Bengal are thoroughly corrupt and do nothing to stop the illicit movement.  This is the case along much of the unpatrolled India-Bangladeshi border, which facilitates easy infiltration as well as the cross border attacks on refugees living in the border areas.

 

Although several of the longer term Bangladeshi or East Pakistani (depending on the time of their flight) Hindus living in these areas have found a path to legitimacy or semi-legitimacy; most have not.  The people I met inhabit various ersatz dwellings along the border area.  They include abandoned railway stations, roadside huts, and other makeshift communities.  Some appear more stable; many do not.  But even the best dwellings seem secure enough only for the dry season and vulnerable to the elements during seasonal monsoons.  But more than their dwellings, their lack of legal standing makes them quite vulnerable to manipulation by many forces in the area, especially by the West Bengali government and the ruling CPI/M.  According to several witnesses, the authorities are aware of the illegal communities and tell the residents that they will not be evicted but only if they do as they are told.  In some cases, refugees testified, they are ordered to attend pro-CPI/M rallies.  In others, they said, they were told that a number of them would be given “voter cards,” but they would be filled out by the CPI/M.  Any objections by the refugees would result in severe reprisals.  Similarly, many of the refugee children are allowed to attend local schools—again, only insofar as the community cooperates with the authorities.  At times, however, the land on which they are squatting simply becomes desirable to someone else, whether one of the authorities or others, a relative, or someone who is willing to give local officials more than the refugees can afford.  When that happens, the refugees are told they have to leave and find other dwellings on their own.  I visited one group of refugees, living in a cluster of huts by one roadside in northern Bengal, who had recently been told to vacate their dwellings.  They were not sure where they would end up, but commented that there are many areas of abandoned huts alongside Bengali roads.  They believed they would find something—until someone else desired that plot of land.  When I asked about appealing to local authorities about this, they shrugged that their lack of legal status makes such appeals fruitless.

 

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Dr. Richard L. Benkin is an independent human rights activist who first gained notoriety for his successful fight to free Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury from imprisonment and torture in 2005.  Since then, he has continued to advocate for Mr. Choudhury’s rights—are constantly under attack by the government of Bangladesh—and for other human rights issues.  Most recently, he took a fact finding trip to West Bengal and other areas in India to confirm the ethnic cleansing of Bangladeshi Hindus and the severity of their current situation even in India.

Dr. Benkin is available for talks and seminars:



Part I: The Roots of Ethnic Cleansing
Part II: Islamist Attacks and Government Collusion
Part IV: What Must be Done

 

http://www.InterfaithStrength.com