These crimes grabbed the world’s attention – albeit too late and only after the bodies were piled too high to ignore. The United Nations issued proclamations and sent aid through its human rights and refugee organizations. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others loudly condemned the perpetrators, documenting the atrocities and raising money for their aid programs. Several international celebrities took on highly visible roles and massive protests worldwide gave vent to peoples’ outrage.
Yet there is another case of ethnic cleansing in numbers that dwarf these crimes, a-genocide-in-the-making, that has been proceeding for decades with little more than the occasional whimper. When Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in 1971, Hindus made up almost one in five of its citizens. Today, they are less than one in ten. Demographers and others estimate that approximately 20 million Bangladeshi Hindus have disappeared.
Twenty million people are missing, and many more are at risk – but no George Clooney or Angelina Jolie has stood up; no declaration has come from the United Nations, despite its mandate to stop such atrocities. Even the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has done nothing to help the victims, though several organizations have documented their suffering.
The international human rights industry, too, has been silent. Amnesty International has devoted pages upon Web pages to the United States and Guantanamo and spends a high percentage of its resources criticizing Israeli democracy. Its current cover story is about Shia Muslims being “treated like second class citizens.” But to date it has shown no stomach to oppose what could be the worst case of ethnic cleansing in our time. The last time AI or Human Rights Watch gave the Bangladeshi Hindus even passing mention was in 2006.
This is not the first time the world has ignored mass murder in South Asia. Toward the end of the Bangladeshi war of independence, Pakistani troops and their Islamist allies slaughtered between 2 and 3 million mostly Hindu Bangladeshis – noncombatants, women, children and the elderly. All manner of brutality from mutilation to ritualized gang rape accompanied the carnage, but the world still remains silent even when the victims’ descendants cry out for justice.
NATO sent troops into Kosovo when thousands were at risk but did nothing to save millions in East Bengal. Hindu refugees flood West Bengal, India, and live in semi-legal squalor, but the UNHCR refuses to recognize them as refugees. Earlier this year I visited almost two dozen extra-legal camps in West Bengal and saw these people’s need for help.
Several refugees and others attribute this disparity to religious bias. Fear of terrorist reprisals, the lure of petrodollars, and a rigid political correctness prevent many from taking a stand against Islamists, according to one Indian activist. But he and others blame “our own nature” that mitigates against activism and tolerates corruption.
As I told Indian journalists, “Everyone in India seems to know about the Bangladeshi Hindus, but no one is doing anything about it.” The actions of Bangladeshi Islamists, while atrocious, are not unexpected. However, their treatment by Indian Hindus is surprising.
Imagine refugees barely escaping with their lives, leaving murdered loved ones behind. They described crossing into the largest Hindu nation in the world, but found no welcome in the arms of their co-religionists. Instead, they were “treated like trespassers,” and given no aid or shelter. They reported being forced into camps, where their captors took advantage of then no less than did their Islamist tormentors.
In West Bengal, refugees testified that locals let them squat on the land, but in exchange they were forced to attend communist rallies. They received voter’s cards only to be told that officials of the Communist Party of India/Marxist would fill them in for them. But if anyone else desired the land, the refugees would be ejected; something I observed firsthand.
Today an economic and military powerhouse, India has yet to advocate for the thousands of victims streaming across its borders. It has never pressed the case of the Bangladeshi Hindus before any international body. If it has protested the ethnic cleansing to Bangladesh, it has done so meekly.
Moreover, this great nation seems content to cede the integrity of its borders. Several refugees testified that even now Islamists from surrounding villages and from Bangladesh attack them with the knowledge of West Bengal officials.
Once the CPIM got wind of my visits to the camps, we would alter our itinerary to arrive before the local commissar intimidated refugees into silence about anything that might embarrass the communist government. In one camp their tactic appeared to work. We were about to leave when one elderly woman stood up, with a commissar looking on, and said, “I’m not afraid of anybody,” and began to talk about the ongoing attacks.
Is the Indian government’s silence little more than a ploy to keep votes, a reflection of its pseudo-secularist policy? If it is, that does not explain the silence of those parties that have no chance of gaining significant numbers of Muslim or communist votes, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party and other rightwing parties. Why are they not championing the Bangladeshi Hindus, and using this as a rallying point for all Indians who recognize the immorality of remaining silent while others are oppressed?
In my travels in West Bengal, when I offered to act with others to protest what is happening there, the response was almost always, “People are afraid.” That made sense when we were speaking with refugees who have known nothing in the way of protection or the law. But this was the answer of Indian citizens, often people whose organizations claim to be working for the refugees.
In my advocacy for the refugees in the West, I encounter skepticism from those who question India’s silence if things are so dire; who question why there are few public protests; who ask, after hearing about attacks inside India, why none of the 800 million Indian Hindus have traveled to these camps to defend the victims against Islamist aggression.
(Dr. Richard L. Benkin is vice president of Gallagher Bassett Services in Chicago, Illinois. He is also U.S. correspondent for the “Weekly Blitz,” published in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and special advisor on Bangladeshi affairs to the Washington D.C.-based Intelligence Summit. He has written numerous essays and commentaries on the Middle East, Bangladesh and South Asia. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. ©Copyright Richard L. Benkin)