Bangladesh’s Hindus are dying. Are we okay with letting it happen?
Dr. Richard L. Benkin
Human Rights Center for Bangladesh (HRCB)
January 19, 2013
People want to know how a non-Hindu—me—became so passionately devoted to the cause of saving Hindus in Bangladesh. The answer’s simple: because someone asked. Several years ago, I successfully freed a political prisoner—actually a Muslim journalist—who was arrested and tortured for exposing the rise of radical Islam in Bangladesh and urging relations with Israel. When I returned home, there was a fax for me that said roughly, ‘My name is Bikash. I am a Bengali Hindu. My parents fled Bangladesh when I was eleven, and I now live near Kolkata, India. My people in Bangladesh are dying. Please save us.’
Well, you just cannot turn away from something like that. I had heard about anti-Hindu persecution in Bangladesh but after getting Bikash’s fax, I determined to really learn about it; and I was SHOCKED: SHOCKED at how long it had been going on; SHOCKED at many millions of people were involved; and especially SHOCKED AND OUTRAGED that hardly anyone seemed to know about it, and almost no one was trying to stop it. I thought about the Holocaust of my own people, the Jews, and how the rest of the world was content to let that happen. And of course, I knew immediately that I had to do everything in my power to stop this atrocity.
Why did I become involved? I became involved because someone asked; because one simple man, Bikash Halder, could not stand by and do nothing in the face of these atrocities against his brothers and sisters. And because I had gotten the Bangladeshi government to do things it did not want to do, Bikash took a chance that I could do it again for his people. He asked. He took action. He did not remain passive. And that’s the first lesson we have to learn.
Bikash’s story was probably not very different from that of so many others. He knew he was not going to lead a mass movement or bring the Islamists to their knees; but he recognized his personal responsibility to fight the power that threatens to destroy Hinduism in Bangladesh and now India as well. He seized the opportunity to do something; and his people are better off for it. He took action; he did what he could do and did it with the utmost strength he could muster.
If that is the first lesson then the second is this: it has not been easy, and you have to remain strong even as the opposition and especially the doubts try and dissuade you from doing what you know is right. We romanticize the lone individual who keeps fighting for a cause against all odds, but the truth is that the world militates against it. I cannot tell you the number of times people—credible people—have challenged the very notion that there is something serious happening to Hindus in Bangladesh; and if there was why have they heard nothing about it. I cannot tell you the number of times I have asked myself what sort of effrontery I must have to insist that something so terrible is happening when all of the “respected” organizations say otherwise: Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; the UN; my own United States including its State Department, CIA, and the President be he Democrat or Republican, Obama or Bush; India; CNN, Reuters, the BBC, New York Times, Times of India, Times of London, the left-wing media, the right-wing media, and pretty much every other major “media” you want to cite. It would be one thing if they denied the problem and I could crawl into a cocoon and yell, “Conspiracy!” But we do not even get that; all we do get is silence, which is why in the title of my book and elsewhere, I refer to it as “a quiet case of ethnic cleansing.”
But then I think of the victims—victims I’ve seen with my own eyes, spoken with as one person to another—and any lingering doubt turns into more outrage. And that outrage strengthens the moral imperative fight and fight and fight until we win. There are no other options.
And here comes lesson three. I have spent enough time with the community here and in India to know that people who are morally outraged and want to do something are frustrated. There are 1.1 billion Hindus, and we can almost count the number of them who are ready to act with us. Well over a billion of them live in free countries where the law is on their side as regards speaking out and taking action. There are over 100,000 in Dallas County alone—and how many are here today? So here comes the third lesson: we can act effectively without.
There is an expression: Success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan.
Start with what we have, be strategic in the actions we take, and people will join us. It will take time (I know, it already has), but when the children and grandchildren of today’s young people ask what they were doing when 15-20 million Hindu lives were saved; they do not want to say ‘watching television.’
A Model of Action Courtesy of a Friend
Those of us who were around in the 1970s and 1980s, will remember that back then, you could not pass a synagogue anywhere 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 future Israeli cabinet minister Anatole Sharansky, got some attention, but most suffered silently. The American Jewish community, however, saw our persecuted brothers and sisters and recognized our obligation to save them. More important, we acted on that obligation.
Here is what we did. We lobbied Washington and our local officials; prevailed upon other religious bodies to recognize the atrocity and make sure Washington knew their position as well. 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 here and in the USSR became pen pals, and when the latter were prevented from celebrating their Bar and Bat Mitzvah, we “twinned” them with Jewish children here and did it for them. 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, and that the only thing that could stop us is ourselves.
The greater our success, the more people wanted to be part of it. Some people wrote checks; some people lobbied Congress; some people flooded the streets; and some people risked their lives. Everyone who acted found something that they felt empowered to do so when their children asked them what they were doing when we saved 1.2 million Jews, they did not have to say “nothing.”
And remember: this was the mighty Soviet Union. We only have to face Bangladesh, and if we do not have the balls to overcome them, what chance have we with adversaries like Iran or North Korea.
If any of you are thinking, ‘Well, okay, but you Jews are strong and we Hindus are passive,’ think again. It was not that long ago when we Jews were passive, when everybody with a shoe felt that they could kick us around. That changed, though not for every Jew; but it did not have to. We still have our share of Jews who think it better to “keep their heads down” and not “make waves.” But it changed for enough of us, and it changed for us as a people. It changed for Jews and it can change for Hindus. After all, if history has shown us anything, it has shown that both groups—Hindus and Jews—have survivability; that no outside force wanting to eradicate us—and there have been many—has been able to do so.
And lesson four is: we survive because of ourselves and not because we put our fate in the hands of some outside power.
Hindus in Bangladesh: Denial
Let’s briefly review the facts that people are not willing to acknowledge—facts that are rock solid evidence that something terrible is going on, something so terrible that if we do not stop it, we will wake up one day to find that Hindus in Bangladesh are nothing more than a memory; and we will be sitting with the rest of the world wringing our hands and wondering how it could have happened. Well, let’s give everyone here a head start on the answer: It happened because right here and right now, we let it happen. It happened because those who knew what was going on did nothing.
Remember the quote attributed to Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
After India’s partition, 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.
One third, one fifth, less than one tenth; and 49million. And no one’s ever tried to explain numbers as powerful as that? No one’s ever made a stink about them?
Let me show you what sort of nonsense “keeping your head down” can cause. Last May, I met with Bangladeshi Ambassador Akramul Qader at his country's embassy in Washington. I went there to remind the Bangladeshis of their request for my help; my ability to provide it; and my refusal to do so as long as it refuses to stop allowing its Hindu citizens to be brutalized or worse.
The meeting went pretty much as I expected, with the man representing 150 million Bangladeshis answering my charges with the stupidest denials I have heard to date; in fact, comments that make me wonder where the Bangladeshis found this guy. Reality be damned, he insisted again and again that there was “no persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh,” though he changed his story with every lie I exposed. First, he denied that there had been any problems after 1971. Then, admitted after some discussion that 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; but evidently, the Bangladeshis see no need for that.
“Well then let me enlighten you,” I said provided evidence refuting his denial. 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”; when then became his refrain: 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, even more so than the BNP’s, is what allows Islamists to operate.
I said, “Your denials do not even make any sense. You don't go from a third of the population to between seven and eight percent simply through 'voluntary emigration,'" which is what he was claiming; but he persisted; and here is where things got really bizarre. “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.
Why is this significant?
The Ambassador’s “explanation” could have been the product of his assumption that Americans are naïve, get their information from Google, and will deferentially buy any crap that comes from people defining themselves as victims of western colonialism, which is our track record, at least as regards the last point. But consider: Would anyone buy that nonsense if he was trying to explain why a Muslim population was disappearing; or a Christian one? Yet, Bangladesh’s top representative in Washington was ready to say pretty much anything, no matter how ridiculous, confident that without even the semblance of credibility, we would continue giving him a pass and allow Bangladesh's ethnic cleansing of Hindus to continue because no one was going to object—or even care.
Another reason why Ambassador Qader can say such things is 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. This also means that we can expect resistance from that larger group of “experts” if we speak the truth to that convenient falsehood.
All are part of an overall attempt to pawn off responsibility for this and other problems on “a few religious radicals.” We hear it about 9/11; we hear it about Pakistan; and 70 years ago we heard about all the good Germans who could never have been part of the Holocaust. It appeals to our sensibilities not to blame all Muslims, all Pakistanis, or all Germans; and it both correct and important that we do not. If we did, we would be like the people we are fighting.
As wrong as it would be to blame all Muslims or all Germans, however, it is equally naïve to believe that only a small number are culpable. Though not all Arabs are terrorists, the terrorists among them could not thrive without the ideological cover and tacit complicity of “the Arab street.” Radical true believers did not provide the bulk of Nazi concentration camp guards; their numbers came from the same mass of German citizens who voted Hitler into office then turned away when his henchmen took their neighbors away never to be seen again. And the vast majority of Bangladeshi Muslims who rape their Hindu neighbors or engage in other atrocities are not al Qaeda or Jamaat. These atrocities will never end until we acknowledge that reality, and oppose it as vehemently as our adversaries promote it.
And if you call me “Islamaphobic” for saying so, I don’t care.
Hindus in Bangladesh: Reality
Minorities are attacked everywhere; the key is whether the government and society support it. And that is what makes Bangladeshis culpable for these anti-Hindu attacks. When Hindus students were attacked in Australia a few years ago, the people rose up and the government prosecuted the criminals as they would any others. Not so for Bangladesh.
Several months after taking office, Sheikh Hasina told visiting French naval commander, Gerard Valin, that her government would repeal the nation’s “anti-minority laws”; and by doing so, admitted that her country has anti-minority laws. Of course, she never did and all of these “anti-minority laws” remain in effect. In May 2011, the Awami League passed on an opportunity to repeal the notorious 8th amendment to the constitution that enshrines Islam as the official state religion and carries discriminatory consequences. In fact, they did not even have to repeal it but just follow the directions of the Supreme Court. Shortly before it took office, the Supreme Court issued a “rule nisi” that set the table for the new government to repeal the Vested Property Act, which is the economic engine of ethnic cleansing. It passed. If we do not educate people who make decisions about aid and trade about this, no one else will.
Whether through ignorance or otherwise, the world is content to let the current Bangladeshi government posture itself as pro-minority without actually being pro-minority. So, I provided lawmakers and others with evidence to the contrary in the form of ongoing ethnic cleansing of Hindus and the Awami League’s complicity.
• 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.
• Things were no better the second year. The number and intensity of anti-Hindu atrocities did not drop, and in my book, I document one 26 day period in 2010, when there were seven major anti-Hindu actions or almost one every three days. The Hindu American Foundation, Bangladesh Minority Watch, and others document the same level of atrocities in the third year, 2011.
• As we moved into 2012, I confirmed at least 15 similar incidents in first quarter alone—almost 1.25 every single week—and as we were moving out, almost one major incident a week during the fourth quarter. In at least two cases, Bangladeshi officials warned human rights activists that they better stop investigating the matter or face serious consequences.
• In between, there was a nine day period in May that saw an abduction, a murder in broad daylight, and two gang rapes, one of a child on her way to a Hindu festival: four horrific incidents taking place within a nine day period and no police actions against the known perpetrators. These were reported in local media, investigated and confirmed by Rabindra Ghosh and by my own associates as well.
• Then just a few months later, 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. Women were raped, others humiliated by being unclothed publicly; 50 homes destroyed; hundreds of livestock looted, and scores of Hindus sent to the hospital. We have evidence that the entire attack was instigated by a local government official whose authority remains intact. I personally have met scores of Hindu refugees from Dinajpur, who report similar, ongoing atrocities that are carried out with tacit government approval.
So, thousands of attackers and a government official involved; an incident serious enough for a former cabinet minister to investigate: Do you think you will be seeing anything about that on CNN any time soon?
All of these incidents occurred under this Awami League government; were not prosecuted by that government, which often participated in their cover-up; have been verified by two or more independent sources; and were specifically anti-Hindu and not random. Moreover, they are incidents that I have been able to confirm with my limited resources. 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.”
Week after week, month after month, year after year; we know what is happening; and there is no use shaking our fists if we are not going to stop it. But before moving on, I want to relate one final incident that hit me particularly hard. It took place in 2009 when I was in Northern Bengal. Locals told about a family of Bangladeshi Hindus nearby who had crossed into India only 22 days earlier. Unlike so many Hindu refugees I meet, who have been scared into silence, this family wanted to talk about what happened to them. They told me how their little patch of 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 talked about the father being beaten, an uncle killed; but the one who got me was their 14-year-old daughter. She kept trying to speak but her mother kept pushing her away. Finally she started talking and kept repeating that “the Muslims chased [her].” I asked her what she meant by that and if they caught up to her. After a pause, she told me that they caught her 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. Her rapists were not some group of “religious fanatics”; they were her Muslim neighbors. They believed that as Muslims they were entitled to have their way with the girl and her family and knew that they would not be prosecuted for it.
Let’s stop shaking our fists and DO SOMETHING
So what are
we doing about it? Are the world’s 1.1 billion
Hindus rising up in protest? Are we demanding
that our governments act? How many times
have we insisted that the UN Human Rights Commission take up the matter? Has any Hindu victim of the Vested Property
Act sued the Bangladeshi government for compensation in national or
That inaction must change. I will continue doing what I do, as will several others like Rabindra Ghosh in Bangladesh and Tapan Ghosh in West Bengal. But we are mere individuals doing what we can. You will make the difference. So, as we look at things we can do, each person needs to consider it as if I were speaking to you personally and that if you do not act, it will lead to the death of Hindus in Bangladesh and now West Bengal as well.
First, we must seize control of the narrative. I am not sure if we ever had it, but we certainly do not have it now; and the consequences of that are deadly.
Sociologists of the last century used the phrase “definition of the situation” to refer to the way people use the elements surrounding them (both physical and otherwise) to understand what is expected of them and others and how to behave. Let’s take a situation everyone should be familiar with: the cartoons that depicted a picture of Mohammed. How people defined that determined how they acted and into which camp they fell. Was it an exercise of free speech that is enshrined as an essential value in liberal, western culture? Or was it an offense against one of the world’s great religion and its 1.6 billion followers? Was 911 a great blow against westerners who have been degrading non-western people and the values that have guided them for millennia? Or was it a heinous act of terror? How you answer the question determines how you understand your own appropriate response and understand why others behave as they do.
Let’s take one more because it is germane to our subject today. When, in India, I talk about the oppression of Hindus in Bangladesh, I believe I am promoting an important human rights issue and helping to save lives; that it is a moral imperative for us to speak out and identify both victims and victimizers so we can take effective action. Others, however, define what I am saying as “communal” because it emphasizes one of the nation’s religious communities and, they believe, causes division among them. Whoever controls the definition controls the dialogue with all of its consequences.
This issue is one that decent people of all communities everywhere should get behind. It should not cause division but unity. Yet, as long as we allow others to control its definition, they will determine how people react—or don’t.
Last year, for instance, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which is a major human rights arm of the US 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 Hindu Americans do not think there is anything wrong, why should they? We need to change that, which I will get to in a moment.
US Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) once told me that my success in Washington was due to the fact that I came at things from a purely human rights perspective; no axe to grind, no political goals, just simple good vs. evil. Is there any question that the gang rape of that 14-year-old girl is precisely that? Then we need to say it again and again until others get it. It sometimes makes you tedious to others; people might even roll their eyes in a “here he goes again motion”; but is that enough for us to let these terrible things continue to happen?
Next, who needs to accept our definition of this situation?
First and foremost, each of us; and we have to be clear that we are talking about a human rights travesty that has reduced the Hindu population in Bangladesh from one in three to one in 15, a travesty that still threatens 15-20million people. When I talk about what is happening to the Bangladeshi Hindus and someone calls me “communal” or “Islamaphobic,” neither of which I am; I respond: “What in the hell does whether or not I am have to do with those atrocities? Does what you think of me do one blessed thing for that 14-year-old gang rape victim?
My response is similar when someone says, ‘what about what Israel is doing to the Palestinians,’ or ‘what about US actions in Afghanistan.’ I would enjoy destroying their arguments, but that would play right into their hands. If I am talking about the Middle East, or why I am not communal; what am I not talking about? The answer is the Bangladeshi Hindus; and it means that the terrible things being done to them are again being ignored.
Every one of those interruptions is designed to do one thing: hijack the agenda by changing that definition of the situation. They are trying to define any human rights argument as insufficient because it does not address every potential human rights issue. If I want to talk about the Bangladeshi Hindus, do I also have to talk about Darfur and Myanmar? Of course not, but that is the definition they want to impose. They want to define the situation to keep issues that make them uncomfortable from being discussed. Of course, they demand no such thing if the issue fits their political narrative. It is the same distraction that forces people to load their comments with self-evident qualifiers like “not all Muslims are bad.”
When Arabs rant about Israel, do we challenge them about ‘what Muslims are doing to Hindus in Bangladesh”? Perhaps we should.
Our next audience is other religious groups; groups with some moral authority and followings who will listen to them. Remember how we did this to gain support for saving Jews in the Soviet Union. So, think about those religious bodies in your area, especially those who would respond to the idea of interfaith events. My synagogue in the Chicago area, for instance, devoted an entire year to teaching congregants to understand other faiths, and one of our efforts was with a Hindu Mandir. You will find Jews particularly sympathetic to the plight of the Bangladeshi Hindus since we have faced similar things throughout our history.
Can one person here take responsibility not only for starting it but also for the content of whatever comes of it? Whoever that is can see me today so we can start that interfaith outreach immediately.
It never fails to surprise me how few people know about Hinduism or what an important an part of America Hindus are becoming. According to recent census data, Muslims make up about 0.6 percent of the country, Hindus 0.4; and according to one authoritative survey, the difference is only about 400,000. But think about the different reactions by politicians to both groups by the media.
For instance, this year saw the nation’s first Hindu-American in Congress, Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI). I searched the major network and cable news channels for any mention of that historic event, or the fact that Congresswoman Gabbard took the oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita. Not a word about it. Yet, recall when Keith Ellison became the nation’s first Muslim Congressman. That historic event was trumpeted all over the news, as was the fact that he took the oath of office on the Quran.
You must become politically savvy—just as other religious groups in the United States are. My intention is to return from India and Bangladesh this year with the most compelling evidence yet that Hindus are being persecuted with impunity. People in Washington are waiting for it, but if they believe I am the only person asking that they do something about it, the road will be much more difficult—and as we wait, more Hindus will die. To be sure, I am working with groups like the Hindu American Foundation, but we need a groundswell of popular support for our initiatives.
Former Congressman (now Indiana Governor) Mike Pence said that any Member of Congress who receives ten calls from constituents about any issue or legislation will sit up and take notice; will consider it something important to the people he or she serves. Are there at least then people in this room? How many people here know who their representatives in the Senate and the House are? [Pause for answers.] I do. Your US Senators are Jon Cornyn and Ted Cruz. US House Members from Dallas County are: Jeb Hensarling (5th), Kenny Marchant (24th), Michael Burgess (26th), Eddie Johnson (30th), Pete Sessions (32nd), and Marc Veasey (33rd). Not only do you need to know whom to contact, but we cannot expect them to know about Hinduism—about the faith and the growing and voting population. Get to their offices. Invite them to local Hindu events and when they—eventually—come make sure there are a lot of people there. Help me access their support when I push my initiatives in Congress later this year. Know that their time is tight and they really might have that scheduling conflict. But keep at it. Be persistent.
Get to know their staffs both in the district and in DC. If they believe you are good for their boss, they will open doors for you; if they believe you are not, they will shut them. Invite them to events. Give them that level of respect.
I ask that someone here—and I am looking at HRCB leaders—see me so we can coordinate our efforts.
Start small with specific actions. I can help but you must organize and work with me; and if things seem difficult, always return to why we are doing this. Think about the victims. Think about 16-year-old Basana Chakravorty, who was abducted in the final days of 2012 and forcibly converted to Islam. Think about her parents. Sometimes picturing individuals helps motivate us. I think about that 14-year-old gang rape victim I met.
And in all that you do, be positive. Do not demonize others. It provides downside for political leaders who are being asked to support the cause. Neither can you pretend that everyone in the world has the same goodwill as you do. Recognize that if something is going to get done, it must come from us; and if it does not come from us, it probably will not happen and we will have allowed those continued atrocities.
Heed the words of Dr. Subramanian Swamy who wrote, “Hindus must collectively respond as Hindus against the terrorist and not feel individually isolated or worse, be complacent because he or she is not personally affected. If one Hindu dies merely because he or she was a Hindu, then a bit of every Hindu also dies.”
Let the Bangladeshi Hindus be your Soviet Jews. Hindus have the strength, but more important, Hindus have justice on their side if we join this struggle.