People often ask me why I have dedicated myself to fighting for the Hindus of Bangladesh. After all, I am not a Hindu; I am Jewish. And I am not South Asian but American. So what is a non-Hindu, non-NRI (non-resident Indian) American doing here in Kolkata today? There are so many ways to answer this question. I could talk about my love of the Hindu people and how knowing India has made me a better person; or I could speak about the imperative for people everywhere to stop violent jihad; but I most often begin this way.
What if you found yourself in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, or more recently in Darfur? You might have looked around and thought, ‘Something’s wrong. Something’s terribly wrong. You can see that. I’m afraid that something really bad is about to happen, and no one seems to be doing anything to stop it.’ Knowing what you know now, what would you have done? Gone about your life, pretending that you didn’t see what you saw? Or would you do everything in your power to stop the impending atrocity and save the lives of so many innocent people? Would it have mattered if you were not Jewish or African? We here today do not have to guess at what our answer should be. We have the lessons of history. Because of the Holocaust and what happened in places like Darfur, we know what will happen—and it is about to happen again.
Bangladesh’s Hindu population is dying. This is not opinion or “Islamaphobia,” or anything else people want to call it to deny reality. It’s a fact. At the time of India’s partition in 1948, Hindus made up just under 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 one in ten; and many put today’s Hindu population at less than eight percent. Professor Sachi Dastidar from the State University of New York estimates that about 49 million Hindus are missing from the Bangladeshi census. Still having trouble wondering where this is going? Take a look at Pakistan where a once robust Hindu population is down to one percent or Kashmir where Hindus are almost extinct. Take a look at the future of Bangladesh’s Hindus if we do not act.
Yet, in this topsy-turvy world, it is WE who have to prove that there is something wrong. What kind of sense does that make? One would expect justice to demand that the BANGLADESHIS explain why they should not be charged with complicity in eliminating an entire people numbering in the tens of millions. That very presumption should tell us why we cannot rest until WE stop this atrocity—completely and forever!
The world pretends that those numbers do not exist, and as it does reports of atrocities against the Bangladeshi Hindus flow like a waterfall. Every day we read about murders, gang rapes, assaults, forced conversions to Islam, child abductions, religious desecration. Bangladeshi officials might object that the perpetrators of these crimes are private citizens not members of the government, but they are equally guilty nonetheless. By half-heartedly pursuing only a token few of these cases and punishing even fewer perpetrators, the government of Bangladesh has given its tacit approval for these atrocities and sent that messages to both the ethnic cleansers and the ethnically cleansed.
Moreover, government officials actually have participated in many of the attacks. In 2009, for instance, there was an anti-Hindu pogrom in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka—right behind a police station with police present. Police on the scene justified the carnage with none other than the Vested Property Act. Bangladeshi-approved legalized plunder of its Hindu population and for more than three decades, the economic engine that drives this quiet case of ethnic cleansing. Later, officials including the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Commissioner and Awami League Members Parliament (Jatiyo Sangsad) carried out a cover up in an attempt to keep the pogrom a secret. If I can verify evidence of these atrocities and the government’s collusion from my home all the way in Chicago, the very notion that Sheikh Hasina does not know about them would be laughable were it not deadly!
I have spoken with hundreds of Bangladeshi Hindu refugees living in largely illicit colonies throughout North and Northeast India. In describing the attacks that forced them to leave their ancestral homes, they made it clear that their attackers were not necessarily radicals, but neighbors; everyday Muslims. They also said with near unanimity that when they went to the police and other officials for help, they were ordered to drop the subject—or else—and to “get out of Bangladesh.” I will never forget one family I interviewed in 2009 only 22 after they crossed into India. They told me about an uncle being killed, the father beaten, and their small farm being invaded by a large number of Muslims who forced them to flee. I also looked into the eyes of their 14-year-old daughter as she talked about being gang raped by them.
Who did it? Not al Qaeda or Jamaat; but simply Muslims who lived in the area and knew they could have their way with the family, seize their land, and get away with it. And that is chilling because history has shown that the most “successful” cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing occur when a small cadre of true believers incites average citizens to engage in heinous acts against a targeted minority; acts they otherwise would not dream of committing.
There might be no Gestapo or Janjaweed in Bangladesh, but its Hindu community faces the same fate as their victims did.
Some might argue that we should not bring religion into this, that religion should not be important in this discussion. Perhaps that is true—in theory—but let us be clear that this girl was not raped and, oh by the way, she happened to be a Hindu. She was raped because she was a Bangladeshi Hindu and therefore not subject to the usual protections of the law. And the men did not rape her and, oh by the way, they happened to be Muslim. They knew they could rape that little girl and get away with it because they were Bangladeshi Muslims. We were not the ones who injected religion into this. So if anyone’s sensibilities are offended, they need to address that with those who did.
Not surprisingly, the election of a supposedly pro-minority Awami League government in Bangladesh has done nothing to stop the atrocities; if anything, they are getting worse. In April 2009, Sheikh Hasina did a most amazing thing. A French delegation was in Dhaka to visit the new Bangladeshi Prime Minister who told them that her government would repeal all of the country’s anti-minority laws. Did she realize what she was saying? Here we have the Prime Minister of Bangladesh admitting that her nation in fact has anti-minority laws. Bangladeshi officials usually retreat behind the empty promises of religious equality in their nation’s constitution, but not that day. The Prime Minister was saying that these are not merely the crimes of a few bad actors but that discrimination against Hindus and others is enshrined in Bangladesh’s legal system!
And did she repeal those laws as she promised? No; even though she could have done so. Let’s take the Vested Property Act as an example. Late in 2008, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court challenged the government to explain why that racist law should not be repealed and the stolen property returned to its rightful owners. The military government at the time deliberately did not respond, in part, as its representatives told me, because making changes to the law exceeded its mandate as a caretaker. But they did this knowing that their non-action made it easy for the soon-to-be elected government to have the Vested Property Act dumped with a simple court appearance. But that never happened.
Instead of action, we get excuses; and the excuses have not stopped a single atrocity; neither have the current government’s empty promises. In fact, it does not matter whether the openly Islamist BNP or the more secretly complicit Awami League ruled Bangladesh. Both have been passive bystanders, failing—or refusing—to exercise their sovereign responsibility to protect the life and security of all their citizens; and both have shared in the spoils of stolen Hindu property. Thus they have sent radical Islamists and common citizens alike a clear message that these acts can be undertaken with impunity, and the victims can expect no justice.
So we have to ask ourselves: What kind of world is this when people listen to their excuses and wait for actions that they know will not come? The Bangladeshis admit that these things occur but ask us to “understand” the “difficulties” they face. They want us to believe that they would like to do the right thing but are afraid of the political consequences. And we give credence to such nonsense while millions are brutalized—or even worse! It is hard to say whose actions are more cowardly.
With Bangladesh’s admittedly discriminatory laws strong as ever, what nation or international entity has called Sheikh Hasina on her April 2009 duplicity? What nation has said that it cannot do business with a country that openly and officially discriminates against its own citizens who, oh by the way just happen to be Hindu? When did Amnesty International or the UN Human Rights Commission protest? What about the United States, or India? Never; and it is our responsibility to make sure they do. Because if we do not, no one else will, count on it, and we will see an end to the Bangladeshi Hindus in our lifetime!
Despite all of this evidence, it falls to us to connect the dots and draw the simple pictures that the international talking heads need to recognize what we see right before us; and that is simply the reality we face. Our challenge is to get the world to recognize this quiet case of ethnic cleansing; mass murder without concentration camps or killing fields; and to act!
So, what do we do?
First of all, we do not look for somebody else to stop the violence. It will not happen. Instead, I want each person here to ask this: Knowing that the Bangladeshi Hindus are being brutalized and worse, what kind of person am I if I do not do everything in my power to help them?
I grow weary of attending meeting after meeting, seminar after seminar, with everyone feeling oh so good about themselves, only to see the same people shake the same ineffective fists at the same enemies. We need to stop shaking our fists and do something! Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. That is, no matter how much we “care,” whatever people have done thus far has not worked. If we are to save the lives of our brothers and sisters, we have to think and act strategically—and, why not, our enemies do.
There is an old expression, “light is the best disinfectant”; that is, we assume that if people are forced to confront the reality of these atrocities, they will do something about it. The government of Bangladesh and the forces of violent jihad benefit from the lack of “light” on their anti-Hindu assault. It allows international powers that be to ignore the matter and focus on pretty much anything else. We need to correct that. It is also clear that South Asian realties have somehow impeded area governments from taking the lead in defending the defenseless and giving voice to the voiceless. As an American, I look to my own country where we do not have to concern ourselves with these “realities” and instead can live up to the ideals of freedom and justice that are at the core of who we are as a nation and people. But we cannot—and should not—do it alone.
When I speak to other Americans about the Bangladeshi Hindus, I often hear: ‘Well, if things are as dire as you say they are, why are we not hearing anything from the Hindus themselves; or from India?’ It is a pretty powerful argument. We can understand if the refugees and other victims do not feel empowered to speak out, but we also know that there are many who can. There is a large NRI (Non-Resident Indian) population making waves throughout the world, but never about this issue. There are also plenty people inside India who can raise their voices through various legal means and let the government and media know that they will not stand for the continued murder of the Bangladeshi Hindus; that if they are not listened to today, they will return tomorrow, and next week, and next year, and so on and so on and will do so until their anguished cries become too loud to ignore.
It took little more than that sort of notoriety to rouse consciences over Darfur, and in an earlier era Biafra. And unlike those African populations, Indians can boast prominent members in positions of power and influence throughout the world. For instance, the governors of two US states (Louisiana and South Carolina) are both of Indian descent; not to mention prominent entrepreneurs and innovators like the Hindu inventors of the Pentium processor or one of the leading candidates to succeed American tycoon and pundit Warren Buffet. Take note, too, that the genocide in Darfur would not have grabbed the world’s attention as it did were it not for celebrity George Clooney. Why can’t that work for this issue? If we refuse to be silenced about what is happening, it could stir celebrity activists like soon to be Hindus Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, or Hindu Julia Roberts whose notoriety would shine that disinfecting light on these atrocities.
And with all due respect to our neighbors just east of here, we are talking about Bangladesh, after all, not China or Iran. Bangladesh is a nation with such an array of dependencies and vulnerabilities that finding a way to force an end to the atrocities is not difficult; for we must be clear: There is no internal dynamic among Bangladeshi leaders to stop attacks on their Hindu citizens. The only way it will stop is if some outside force “convinces” them to stop. Those who thought that the current Awami government has that internal dynamic learned that their “give them time” approach did nothing but increase the tally of victims. Giving it any more time now will ensure even more brutalities.
Those Bangladeshi vulnerabilities are called “pressure points” in Washington, and there are several. The most significant is trade. In 2008, the United States imported $3.74 billion worth of goods from Bangladesh—or 26.5 percent of all of that country’s exports. Making that even more powerful is the fact that Bangladesh had a $3.25 billion trade surplus with the US that year. For perspective, that’s an amount equal to 30 percent of Bangladesh’s entire national budget. Now imagine what it would mean to the Bangladesh government if that number dropped—or what it would mean if it grew! Do you see the power that we have?
When I first encountered Bangladeshi officials in Washington many years back, their number one goal was to win a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Not only has that not happened thanks to the unrelenting work of a lot of good people, but we also have defeated several attempts to grant Bangladesh tariff reduction to increase its exports to the United States. We have done it all on human rights grounds and despite the efforts of Bangladesh and its lobbyists. I can tell you as well that US businesses are not going to buy products from a country that is guilty of ethnic cleansing—or more to the point that their customers know is guilty of ethnic cleansing. And lawmakers are not going to award it any tariff relief for such a country either.
So how do you gain control of that situation? First, monitor the legislation, which I have been doing; second, make sure your contacts in Washington become aware the facts, which I also am doing; third, enough prominent people need to see how serious an issue it is. That goes back to us making a noise loud enough here to be heard in Washington and other capitals; a noise so loud that the media cannot ignore it and remain credible. In the United States, Hindus and others need to contact lawmakers and register their outrage at what is being done to innocent people in Bangladesh—something we expect will happen more in 2011.
We have a very ambitious agenda for 2011. Loud and visible outrage from Hindus here and in the US will make success more likely and that disinfecting light more powerful. It will help Bangladeshis recognize that they only have to protect all of their own citizens in order to end the opposition and benefit over 150 million people. It sounds simpler than it is, but it does give you a good idea of how to tie economics to moral behavior.
Bangladesh is also heavily invested in advertising itself as a “moderate Muslim country.” We know that Bangladeshi Muslims are traditionally just that. But we also know that over the last few decades they have come more and more under the control of radical jihadis. Few Americans know that now but once they do will ask how a country can call itself “moderate” and wage jihad against its non-Muslim citizens? Again, that recognition will not come by itself; it will not happen just because we believe we are right. We have to shine that light so bright that Bengal’s Hindus can be ignored no longer.
Who knows what two nations contribute the greatest number of troops to UN peacekeeping missions; what two economies are bolstered more than any other by payments for these services? The answer is Pakistan and Bangladesh, which averaged over 10,000 troops each every month in 2010. By contrast, India averaged 8,815 and the United States 86. The Bangladeshi economy is so dependent on those receipts that the threat of losing them was the real reason behind Bangladesh’s 2007 military coup. There is no reason why we cannot—excuse me, there is no reason why we should not—challenge the United Nations over its support of ethnic cleansing. There is no reason why we cannot mount an effort—with the help of our nations’ leaders—to have the UN de-certify this ethnic cleanser for participation in peacekeeping missions. And that is an effort I hope to start this year.
These are just a few examples of what we can do to stop atrocities that we know are being committed against Bangladesh’s Hindus with government complicity. And they are not just for the United States.
Bangladeshi exports to Australia, for instance, jumped 176 percent between 2007 and 2008 and Bangladesh’s exports to India are expected to hit $1 billion in 2011.
There is a new human rights organization, Forcefield, and its entire Board of Directors is up here today to stand with you. We might not have the financial resources or name recognition of an Amnesty International but what we do have is real passion for the few causes we can take on. And we have something else that the others do not: a formal commitment to fight for the Bangladeshi Hindus and end the atrocities being perpetrated against them. We, of course, cannot do it alone, and we need your help. Please join us through our web site, http://www.forcefieldnow.org. Join us in this fight for our lives.
As I noted earlier, the first step in achieving all that—from the public support of celebrities to action from Washington and other capitals—is that disinfecting light. And there are things we can both do. I am making progress in getting the US Congress to hold hearings about this; hearings that will raise this issue in the national consciousness and start some major media attention. From there, we can move to those other areas like trade and peacekeeping troops. From here, you can start a similar effort to force attention on their plight with large public demonstrations, events that will grab press and public attention, and the sort of relentless effort that refuses to stop after a single event. Press your case as if your life depended on it; certainly the lives of our brothers and sisters do. I propose to our hosts—right here and right now—a new beginning; a joint task force—Hindu Samhati and Forcefield; Tapan Ghosh and Richard Benkin—dedicated to saving the Bangladeshi Hindus; a task force committed to action, not words, to events, not meetings; to results not efforts; and to organizing all of you into a great movement such as we have not seen.
It is way past time for the world to see and hear some collective—and loud—Indian and Hindu outrage at what is being done to our brothers and sisters in Bangladesh. You live in the world’s largest democracy where you enjoy the freedoms to express yourselves freely and within the law. At times, I believe, people have been stopped by their own fear, which we need to push aside. Consider, too, that if officials here in Kolkata or New Delhi wanted to stop today’s event, they could have.
At times, I know, the task seems daunting, and I can answer that, if you will excuse the expression from this vegetarian. Do you know how to eat an elephant? (pause) One bite at a time.
Let us start today, working together for those small victories that will lead to larger ones. We can do it! You can do it!
I want to thank Tapan Ghosh and Hindu Samhati for the honor of being here with my brothers and sisters. I also want to thank three people who are with me today and as such with you, too: Miriam Jones from Australia, and Amitabh Tripathi and Bikash Halder from Bharat. Do not let anyone tell you that you are too “small” or too “alone” to make a difference. It just is not so. We are living proof of that. Do not let anyone tell you that the only way to get people’s attention is with a lot of money or influence. That, too, is a lie, and we are living proof of it. No, you do not need all of that. What you do need is a just cause and the dedication and determination not to let ANYBODY stand in the way of a just end.