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.’They must have meant themselves, too, because they knew what was happening but failed to do anything about it. And in all my years 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. People also tried to tell me that I was wrong, that Bangladesh is the “good” Islamic state in South Asia; and after the 2008 elections they told me that the Awami League would stop the persecution, that it was all the doing of their political rivals. Last month a Bangladeshi leader tried to tell me the same thing and blamed the opposition. Evidently, those Hindu leaders have more in common with the Bangladeshi government than with their persecuted co-religionists.
Regrettably, since those 2008 elections, in which Hindus supported the Awami League, things have not improved. The assault on them continues with impunity; with that supposedly friendly Bangladeshi government taking no action on their behalf. The Awami League had multiple chances to repeal the anti-Hindu Vested Property Act but never did. It could have made Bangladesh a real secular state by dropping Islam as the official state religion; but it never took advantage of its opportunities to do so. Late last year, UN special Rapporteur Hans Bielefeldt, said that maintaining the “principle of secularism while at the same time proclaiming Islam as the official State religion gives rise to ambiguities that have a direct impact on human rights in the country, including the protection of religious minorities.”The Bangladeshis still rabidly defend the secular label, even as their “religious imperialism” continues to encroach on West Bengal. Oh really? How would the Bangladeshis to react if India called itself secular and declared Hinduism the official state religion? And so we don’t forget about the war by this “secular” on Hinduism, recall that Hindus were just under a fifth of the population after Bangladesh became independent in 1971; thirty years later, they were 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.
Things, however, are changing. Whereas it once took me lecture after lecture to educate people that this was even a problem; it has now become a recognized fact in many world capitals and elsewhere—everywhere, it seems, with the exception of West Bengal. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken openly about it, and on a personal note, I can say that he is personally aggrieved by it. To be sure, the Prime Minister has to balance that personal angst with his effort to build positive relationships with his neighbors as he defines India as an international superpower. Anti-Hindu activity in Bangladesh—and the government’s refusal to stop it—was highlighted this summer in The Times of India, about as mainstream as media gets. There have been protests at and from inside the United Nations, and after years of silence on the topic, Amnesty International called for Bangladeshi government action to protect Hindus in 2013. Calls for Bangladeshi actions have come from The Hague, seat of the International Criminal Court, and from the Hindu Council UK.
Significantly, those call are growing louder and more militant from the United States. From years of fighting walls of inaction, I now find ready audiences in the US Congress and Senate. Five years ago, Congressman Robert Dold became the first person to address the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh from the floor of the US Congress; several have followed suit within the past year, including Congressman Ed Royce, Chairman of the powerful House Committee on Foreign Affairs. This summer, Dold held a meeting with Bangladeshi Ambassador Mohammad Ziauddin and me. As the discussion became more open and frank, it became clear that the matter was serious and our concerns were not going away. After some time, Dold finally asked Ambassador Ziauddin, “So you admit that you have a problem [with the persecution of Hindus]?” The ambassador answered, “Yes.” A short time later I got him to admit that it was a problem they’re incapable of fixing themselves. That opened the door for US involvement, which has been proceeding quietly and cooperatively since.
Hindus are also taking a strong position. US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has raised the issue and also started a petition for action. University of Pennsylvania professor Saswati Sarkar has been active in raising the issue; as has the Hindu American Foundation both in Washington and throughout the community. More and more local Hindu paper are covering the matter; another change.
Yet, in West Bengal, whose leaders and residents should have been taking the lead on this for decades, things seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Any mention of actions against Hindus is labeled “communal,” for which people can face fines and prison. The West Bengal militia remains inactive in effectively patrolling the borders or keeping out illegal infiltrators, who have been changing the state’s demography with assistance from corrupt officials. Its Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee appeared together publicly with Jamaat e-Islami, a top source of anti-Hindu attacks in Bangladesh and now in West Bengal. And its police continue to allow anti-Hindu actions to proliferate. I was in a North 24 Parganas village earlier this year in which police allowed anti-Hindu actions to proceed so long as the attackers did not cross an arbitrary line they enforced. To be sure, there are West Bengal Hindu leaders, like Tapan Ghosh and Animitra Chakraborty, who have been fighting for Hindus for years; most others, however, refuse even to acknowledge the problem.
With the world awakening to the Bangladeshi government’s involvement in anti-Hindu actions, why is West Bengal complicit with them through its silence? And with real action proceeding in the United States, imagine the eternal shame that will attach to West Bengal, if we help save Hindus from halfway across the world, while their next door neighbors in West Bengal continue to do nothing. Saving the Bangladeshi Hindus has been my fight since 2007. Is it not high time for the State of West Bengal and its people to join me?
(The writer is a human right activist and author.)
by Dr. Richard L. Benkin