Bangladesh's Hindus:  They don't need our compassion--they need our action

Address by Dr. Richard L. Benkin on Hindu Memorial Day

Hindu Mahasabha of America

Houston, Texas

August 13, 2016

 

Namaste.

 

On July 12 of this year, a remarkable thing occurred; something that never happened before; and something that gives us the ability to provide Bangladeshi Hindus with help as well as hope.  I’ll get to that in a moment.

 

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama once said, “It is not enough to be compassionate.  You must act.”  As we are here to honor the Hindu victims of human rights violations, we need to stop a moment and think about what the Dalai Lama said.  Because when we’re done here today and go back to our homes in suburban Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles; go back to our relatively safe lives where we don’t have to worry about an angry mob destroying our homes, committing gang rape, or abducting our children; it should be seared in our minds that every day we sit in those homes and do nothing, is another day that one more Hindu life is cut short, or turned upside down through violence; another day that a Hindu woman or child is raped, abducted, or forced to convert to Islam.  Every day we sit, we consign another human being to that.  And I say “we,” because we cannot pretend we don’t know anymore.  If my struggle over the past nine years has accomplished anything, it is bringing to light the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh and the Bangladeshi government’s complicity in it.  And so I ask everyone here a question that we all must answer through our actions—or lack thereof:  Do you care?  Do you care enough to do something about it?  That’s a question whose answer is not as simple as you might think.

 

When I started my struggle for the Bangladeshi Hindus, people—including Hindu leaders—told me not to bother.  ‘No one cares,’ they said; ‘no one will ever care.”  And I believe they included themselves in that category—or at least it would seem that way given their lack of action and blasé acceptance of these atrocities; given the fact that in all my time in the villages and border areas of Bangladesh and West Bengal, I’ve never seen any of them with the people.  Other human rights activists have said the same thing.  So, for almost a decade, people tried to tell me that I was wrong, that Bangladesh is the “good” Islamic state in South Asia.  Or they would warn me not to listen to what I hear since, as Bangladesh’s ambassador recently told me, these people “spin tales.”  You see, people like him think Americans like me are naïve and that we get all our information from TV and the movies or maybe Google; which is why I knew that if I was going to be of any value, I had to go there myself. 

 

And just in case we need a reminder of what it is we’re supposed to care about, here it is:  Pakistan’s 1951 census counted Hindus as almost a third of East Pakistan’s population.  When East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, they were just under a fifth; thirty years later, less than a tenth; and today, less than one in 15.  Throughout that entire time, Bangladesh has seen an unbroken stream of anti-Hindu atrocities; few of them prosecuted by the government and even fewer actually punished.  And let’s dispose of one pleasant fiction:  Hindus faced the same treatment regardless of the party in power.  In turning a blind eye to atrocities against Hindus, the Awami League is no better than the BNP or even Jamaat.  So do the math:  one third to one fifth to one tenth to one fifteenth.  We don’t have to guess what comes next.

 

When numbers seem impersonal, I think of people like Eti Biswas, whose family traveled from Barisat to Dhaka a few years ago to ask me for help in recovering their 22 year old daughter.  She was abducted after her family refused to abandon their small plot of land, which would enable it to be seized under the Vested Property Act.  More than three and a half years later, she’s still missing, even though I placed the matter before the Bangladeshi Home Minister and other high officials.  I think of Koli Goswami, an honors student, who’s been missing since 2009.  Police refused to take any action, calling her abduction “a love affair,” even though the “lover” had to ransack her home in the middle of the night and needed the help of others to carry her away screaming.  That cover up went as high as an Awami League MP.  And I think of the ten Hindus facing a death sentence for defending their mandir and the women there; ten Bangladeshi citizens who have been deprived due process of law simply because they’re Hindu; and whose attorney, human rights giant and my friend Rabindra Ghosh, was beaten in the courtroom when he tried to represent them.  These and other anti-Hindu atrocities all were committed under the Awami League and confirmed by eyewitnesses, including my own team of investigators.  I could go on and on, but why bother.  Time is limited, and we have to do something before Hinduism in East Bengal is just a memory—and not just East Bengal; it’s happening in West Bengal, too, where Jamaat operates with the approval of Chief Minister Momata Banerjee, and where I have encountered a growing ISIS cell.

 

Okay, so let’s first review what we’re up against.  Four years ago, I met with the Bangladeshi ambassador in Washington to try and resolve his nation’s ethnic cleansing of Hindus.  I presented the overwhelming facts, including the disappearance of five crore Hindus, and noted how demographers have said that this massive decline could not have occurred without the sort of deadly actions I brought to his attention. Do you know how he responded?  “No, no, no,” he said. “Hindus in Bangladesh cannot find suitable matches for their children.  So they go to India where there are more Hindus.”  He must have figured I was one of those “naïve Americans,” or just an idiot.  Put aside the fact that of the hundreds of Bangladeshi Hindus I’ve met, not one said they fled to India to find matches for their children.  The important point for us is that the Bangladeshis feel so confident that we’ll never call them to account, that they don’t even try to come up with credible denials.

 

And why should they be concerned?  This May, I was in the Washington office of a US Senator and was told that some months earlier, he was visited by a delegation of Hindus from his state.  They talked about H1B1 visa issues and the like, and he wanted to help.  Then, they started talking about how Hindus were being persecuted in Bangladesh; and again, he wanted to help.  So he asked them to put things in writing with facts and evidence so he could take action.  He’s still waiting.  They were great at shaking their fists but at little else.

           

Some things have changed for the better, though, which brings me back to what I alluded to at the beginning of my address.  What remarkable thing happened on July 12?  On that day, the Bangladeshi government finally admitted that its Hindu citizens were being persecuted; something it had been denying for years.

           

I’ve mentioned Congressman Bob Dold (R-IL) before.  He’s the first person to address the ethnic cleansing of Bangladesh’s Hindus from the floor of the US Congress; he has also worked with me over the years to help victims of human rights abuses.  A few months ago, I told him I needed a champion on Capitol Hill if I was going to take things to the next level, and I asked if he would be that person.  A man of high moral principles and a longtime friend of the Hindu community, he said yes; and in less than two months, we were sitting with Bangladesh’s ambassador in a meeting room connected to the House Ways and Means Committee—which shows you how strategically Bob thinks.  Ways and Means is probably the most powerful committee in Washington because it controls much of our government’s money.  Bob’s a member of it, and I’m sure that was not lost on the Bangladeshi ambassador.  It also controls tariffs, additional fees imposed upon imports—and we’ll see in a bit why that’s especially important to Bangladesh.

 

            So, we started talking.  At first, the Ambassador reacted the way other Awami League officials have:  denying that any of these things happened—I corrected him; then, then saying they were done under the opposition—I corrected him again. But Ambassador Ziauddin impressed me as someone a cut above his predecessors; a career diplomat, even while being an Awami League partisan.  So we continued debating the matter without acrimony and provocative allegations; and I continued pressing our case with facts to counter his generalities.  Then Bob looked at him and said, “So you admit that you have a problem with what’s happening to Hindus in your country.”  And the Ambassador said “yes.”  Then, he started saying that Bangladesh is such a poor country with so many problems to battle; and attacks on Hindus even if one per week (the figure I provided) is such a small proportion of the population.  At which point I said, so you admit you have a problem that you’re unable to solve yourself—which opened the door for foreign intervention.  Then Bob said, “We want to know how we can help you solve your problem.  We have had several interactions since, which I believe will lead to something concrete for Bangladesh’s Hindus and perhaps as a result Hindus in West Bengal as well.

 

            So how can we make that happen?  First understand that the only way Bangladesh’s leaders are going to do something about this is if we make it in their interests to do so; and we can.  The Bangladeshi economy is inordinately dependent on the export of readymade garments, and guess who their biggest customer is.  That’s right, us.  I’m passing out cards and would like you all to write your name, email address, and mailing address on them.  If you know your Congressional district or Representative, include that, too.  Over the next several months, I’ll be emailing you a set of instructions with an easy way to inform Bangladesh’s major buyers (Wal-Mart, Target, and others) that they are supporting ethnic cleansing.  We will have even more power if you each get others to do the same thing.  I can tell you from personal experience, the Bangladeshis will do almost anything if they believe their exports are in jeopardy, which means extending the full protection of the law to their Hindu neighbors.

 

            You can do one more thing.  You have a Congressman in the Houston area, Ted Poe.  Not only is he a friend of the Hindu community, he also chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that can play havoc with those tariffs I mentioned earlier; and if the tariffs are raised, so will the cost of their goods; and we know that others will be happy to undercut them and take away their share of the market.  So, you can do two things:

 

·      First, support Ted Poe’s re-election, and let him know what the Hindu community wants from him once he’s back in Washington.

 

·      Second, after the election let’s together set up a time for a group to meet him personally and make our issues known; I did this with a Hindu group in California with Congressman Ed Royce, and it’s worked out well.  We can meet him in his Washington office or his local one; if Washington, I suggest we use the time to see others, like Pete Olson and Louis Gohmert.  We can talk about it.  I know how to structure these things, what to emphasize, what to avoid, and how to do it.  I’m especially counting on the leaders of the community here.

 

One final point to keep in mind.  Earlier this year, Amrit Nehru and I were part of another seminar that brought together several groups facing the same sort of oppression both in Bangladesh and Pakistan; groups that others might expect to be at loggerheads, but they were not.  Do not assume who will stand with us and who will not.  We have more allies than we think, and it’s time we all acted as one.  We are closer to victory than we ever have been.  If we join together, we’ll get there.