Last month, I was in conversation about a book I wrote on Bangladesh’s ethnic cleansing of its Hindu population. The person with whom I spoke was very taken by the material; so taken that she wanted to help make sure people got word of this atrocity. She knows the American publishing and book buying world very well and said that all the elements were there for a successful project; all the elements except one. And remember this person is a friend, an ally, one of the “good guys,” someone who does care and wants to help. She said, ‘I just don’t see people getting real excited over a bunch of Hindus being killed.’ Think about that for a moment. It should make everyone in this room furious; and if it does not make you furious, you better ask yourself why because three things hit me—a non-Hindu—immediately.
My first thought was, ‘Shame on us if that’s who we are.’ Is this another example in which the so-called civilized world would prefer to wring its hands over body bags piled too high to ignore—as it did in Nazi Europe, Rwanda, and countless other places—rather than prevent the atrocity? The second was that those of us who do understand what is happening have a moral obligation to take effective action to stop it, whatever that means; or we are as complicit in the crime as anyone else. And the third was this: Hindus better not count on anyone else helping them, no matter how much they prattle on about things like “justice” or “human rights.” Those supposed arbiters of right and wrong might apply these concepts to Egyptian and Libyan protesters or warp them beyond recognition so they can prop up those Arab terrorists they call “Palestinian”; but they will not apply them to Hindus in Bangladesh—or for that matter, Hindus in Pakistan, Hindus in Kashmir, Hindus in Malaysia, or Hindus anywhere else, including if it comes to it, Hindus in Andhra Pradesh.
So when considering this weekend’s events, I asked myself if it was going to be another one of those gatherings where the attendees shake their fists and complain about how unfair things are—or one where we actually accomplish something. Despite the preponderance of the former over the latter, we are on the cusp of a new dawn where real accomplishment is possible. It will start here in the United States, and it must begin with us; or else we will have frittered away a golden opportunity to change the trajectory of history and in the process sit by while a lot of innocent people die.
We have a great tradition here in which groups of Americans can petition our government and take concerted action, and I want to give you an example of that from my own Jewish community. Those of you who were around in the 1980s will remember that back then, you could not pass a synagogue that did not have a large banner proclaiming, “Save Soviet Jewry.” Our people were being persecuted horribly in the Soviet Union as part of the Communists’ attempt to eradicate their Jewish religion and Jewish identity. A few, like Natan Sharansky who later became an Israeli Cabinet Minister, garnered some attention, but most suffered without fanfare. The American Jewish community saw their persecuted brothers and sisters and recognized the obligation to save them. Moreover, it acted on that obligation.
We lobbied Washington and our local officials; prevailed upon other religious bodies to recognize the atrocity and let Washington know their position. 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 religious books and other Jewish artifacts at considerable peril to themselves. After all, this was the mighty Soviet Union.
Jewish children reaching their Bar and Bat Mitzvah rite of passage were “twinned” with children in the Soviet Union who did not have the freedom to celebrate their own; so we did it for them. Younger children in religious schools corresponded with pen pals their own age from the USSR and gave them hope. And before it was over, we helped get 1.2 million Jews out of that communist hell. It strengthened our own identity, and every Jewish child who was part of that effort never forgot it or their own sense of Jewishness; and it helped us realize that we could in fact stand strong for our people, that the only thing stopping us was ourselves.
The Bangladeshi Hindus can be your Soviet Jewry. It is an issue of human decency; an issue that transcends partisan politics and speaks to those values that are basic for all Americans. It can galvanize American Hindus to take pride in their Hinduism and help support a resurgent Hindu youth. Will we act?
Two years ago, I stood before you to talk about the Bangladeshi Hindus. Let me list for you everything that Sheikh Hasina and the Bangladeshi government has done to protect their Hindu citizens since then:
[about 10 seconds of silence]
That’s right, nothing, zip, bupkis. That same “list,” moreover, contains everything the United Nations has done for them, everything Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have done; every word of protest uttered by the governments of India and the United States. It seems my friend is right: Nobody gets excited over the killing of Hindus.
The facts warrant a different reaction. In fact, the numbers are so compelling they cry out for an explanation. At the time of India’s partition in 1947, Hindus made up a little less than 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 reliable estimates put the Hindu population at less than eight percent today. Professor Sachi Dastidar of the State University of New York estimates that over 49 million Hindus are missing from Bangladesh. Still having trouble wondering where this is going? Take a look at Pakistan where Hindus are down to one percent or Kashmir where they are almost gone. Take a look at the future of Bangladesh’s Hindus if we do not act.
This is not opinion or “Islamaphobia.” These are facts! Want another? For years, we have received report after report documenting anti-Hindu incidents there; incidents including murder, gang rape, assault, forced conversion to Islam, child abduction, land grabs, and religious desecration. And while Bangladeshi officials might object that the perpetrators were non-state actors, government culpability rests, at the very least, on the fact that it pursues very few of these cases and punishes even fewer perpetrators. And that’s our key. Unfortunately, minorities are attacked pretty much everywhere. The critical question is when it happens, does the majority population have a problem with it; and the best measure of that is what the government does in reaction. When Hindu students were attacked in Australia, the government went after the perpetrators with a vengeance. In the United States, crimes against any minority are considered just that, crimes; and the state will punish you to the fullest extent of the law; but not in Bangladesh.
Here’s another irrefutable fact. While this information pours out of Bangladesh with numbing ferocity, it does not do so through the mainstream media—here, India, or anywhere else. Thus, people are often shocked and sometimes dubious when I present the facts to them. Many wonder out loud how something so horrible could be kept hidden; how our own CIA or India’s RAW could not know about it—were it actually true. They often ask me why, if this is so dire have we read nothing about it in our major papers or watched it on CNN or Fox. ‘Why,’ they ask, ‘hasn’t Amnesty International taken it up,’ or most damning, ‘Why have Hindus themselves said nothing?’
This means that anything we present has to be verified with certainty; if we present information that turns out to be untrue or exaggerated it will sink our efforts. We can expect the Bangladeshi government and even the US State Department to challenge it; and expect the recognized human rights industry to dismiss it. Both parties have an interest to do so, for if we are correct, Amnesty International and the others will be asked why they missed or ignored the situation. The Obama Administration and the rest of the international talking heads have maintained as an article of faith that the December 2008 election of Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League ushered in a new era for Bangladesh. They will point out that it ended almost two years of military-backed rule; and the government before that, , included the Islamist Jamaat in its coalition. Moreover, they will say, the left-center Awami League has always claimed to be Bangladesh’s “pro-minority” party, and these outside groups with no real knowledge of Bangladesh swallow that line. So, it is in their interest to maintain that fiction.
And they are not the only ones. In January 2009, I was asked to address a coalition of Bangladeshi Hindu organizations about how they might respond to the Awami League victory. My advice was to press their advantage since Hindus helped Awami to victory. The last thing they should do, I said, was to “fall asleep. That would be a critical mistake.” Some agreed, but the prevailing sentiment among the organization leaders was fear of angering the new government. “Give them time,” they said, to which I replied, “This attitude of passivity and ‘let's give them a chance’; how well has that worked for the minorities in the past? Not well. We are sitting by while people are being killed and tortured! So, yes, we must give them some time—but not much or we will see that their words are nothing more than words.” And that is exactly all they turned out to be.
During the first year of the Awami League’s rule, there were major anti-Hindu attacks at the rate of at least one per week. I say “at least” because you will recall that our allegations will be held to a higher standard than most. Out of the flood of reported incidents, those were the ones I personally verified—either through my own missions to South Asia or through Indian and Bangladeshi Hindus who investigated and verified the allegations for me. All of these attacks were serious, involved Hindu victims and Muslim victimizers; and in every case, the government refused to take action against known perpetrators. Police and government officials actually took part in some and led a cover up of others. And in none of them, did the police help recover Hindu women or children who were abducted, likely raped, and forcibly converted to Islam. And I re-confirmed the facts as recently as this spring, so the government’s support for anti-Hindu action lasts long after the crimes themselves. Here are three examples.
• For three days in March and April, 2009, an anti-Hindu pogrom raged in the Sutrapur section of the Bangladeshi capital. It occurred right behind a police station and involved arson, beatings, and the deliberate destruction of a Hindu Temple. Many were hospitalized, and dozens still remain homeless. Not only are the perpetrators free of prosecution, but they actually were awarded some of the land they invaded. Officials including the Dhaka Chief of Police and an Awami League Member of Parliament warned local human rights groups to stop inquiring about it.
• On June 13, 2009, 20-year-old Hindu college student Koli Goswami was abducted from her bed in the middle of the night. Muslim men broke into the family home and brandished firearms when confronted by family members. Police refuse to pursue a case, calling it a “love affair,” despite admitted evidence of violence and a struggle. They claim that Koli has “voluntarily” converted to Islam and threaten family members and human rights groups while keeping them from interviewing the young woman. Koli Goswami has not been seen since the night she was taken.
• At 10am on February 26, 2009, two men abducted 14 year old Tanusree Roy and raped her multiple times. Although the distraught father has filed official reports of the incident, authorities have refused to help recover his child or prosecute the known perpetrators. The latter continue to threaten Tanusree’s father if he does not drop the matter. Human rights activists report that the girl has been forcibly converted to Islam and kept incommunicado for the past two years.
There was no let-up during the Awami League’s second year in office. In one 25 day period between March 12 and April 6, 2010, for instance, there were seven major, confirmed attacks.
All we get from the Bangladeshis are words. Like actors reading from a script, they repeat the same hollow denials—the same party line I got when I raised the issue with a Bangladeshi Cabinet Minister in Dhaka earlier this year. He might have parroted the usual denials, but his nervous ticks, obvious discomfort, and averted glance told quite a different story. (I also recall how several years ago, a Bangladeshi general tried to convince me that their Vested Property Act was actually instituted as a device to protect Hindus, although when I pressed him he could not explain how that could work.) And how many times are we going to hear their empty promises to repeal “anti-minority laws.” Sheikh Hasina made that very promise to visiting NATO commander Gerard Valin on May 1, 2009, thereby admittingthat her country in fact has anti-minority laws on the books. In the long standing tradition of Bangladeshi leaders, she went no further than those words and the discriminatory laws remain. Yet, no nation or international body seems to have a problem with that.
What message does that send to anyone who covets a Hindu family’s small farm—or their daughter? And what message are we sending them—and our own children—if we look the other way while it happens?
There is something else. Some of you might be thinking, ‘Perhaps that is all true, but my family is from Andhra Pradesh where we have our own problems. This is about Bengalis.’ And that plays right into the hands of those who wish to destroy us. Were the bombs that went off on 26/11 harmful only to some? Did they discriminate between Telugu and Bengali? Did the killers ask people if they were from Kashmir or Gujurat before firing? And if they destroy the Hindus in Bangladesh and Kashmir, will they then say, ‘it is enough’ and urge their fellow jihadis to leave Andhra Pradesh in peace? iNo, no, no, and no again. If we fail to unite, we will be easy pickings for our enemies—who have put aside their own ancient divisions for the sake of jihad.
So, instead of treating you to a litany of more atrocities, I want to identify one simple thing we all can do from our secure positions in the United States. Everyone can decide today whether to do something simple and save lives or watch another rerun of House or Law and Order while the murders and rapes continue.
To get things started, we have to make people aware of the problem. Despite the flood of emails and consistent documentation successive in Hindu American Foundation reports, few people here are aware of this atrocity or how it threatens them, and we have to fix that. Human rights atrocities generally proceed when governments believe they can commit them without anyone noticing—or caring—which is what we have here. For Bangladesh, that means that it incurs no cost if it allows its Hindus to be eradicated; that is, their leaders have pointed out the domestic political concerns if they take action, but they have none if they let things remain as they are. We have to make it cost more for them not to change.
The US is Bangladesh’s third largest trading partner, and we have given Bangladesh over $5.5 billion in aid. For years, Bangladeshi governments—regardless of party—have wanted a free trade agreement with the United States or at least a reduction in tariffs on their goods. You might call it their holy grail. That is a tremendous amount of leverage we can exercise if we have the will to do so, and it will take a concerted and relentless effort to get our elected officials to use it.
I am currently working with a Member of Congress on a letter that addresses this issue. It will ask the US to re-consider its policies and use all of that leverage to save the 15 million Bangladeshi Hindus. Because at this point, the actual letter is unfinished and needs final approval, I cannot divulge the Member’s name or the specific contents; but the initiative is real and his support genuine. Once it is complete—hopefully during the summer—we will look for other Members of Congress to sign it before sending it to Secretary of State Clinton. Do we expect that this letter will lead the US government to all of a sudden revamp its entire foreign policy? No, but remember the intent: to shine light on an atrocity that is allowed to proceed because it does so in the dark.
Hopefully, the administration will take a serious look at the issue; but whether it does so or not, the letter will provide the basis for further action: Congressional hearings, which are already in the works; confronting the Bangladeshis; and from there action on trade and tariffs. It will take this issue to a new level, and everyone in this room can and should have a role in making it happen because success is premised on getting a range of Congressmen and Congresswomen to sign it. When you came in, you were given a piece of paper to fill out with contact information and questions to determine who your Congressional Representative is. Everyone here who votes can help get that elected official’s signature on the letter and support for the actions we take subsequently to stop this carnage. Please pass in the papers. Now, can each of you do that one small thing? Is there anyone here who can’t?
That’s good, because Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN) once said that any Member of Congress who gets ten phone calls on an issue will sit up and take notice, call staff meetings about it, and probably support their constituents’ position; but whether it is ten, two, or a hundred, the principle is the same. Using these papers, I will identify Members of Congress whom you can call and we can go to for support. When we are ready to circulate the letter, I will contact each of you and ask you to make that call. Moreover, each of you knows other citizens who can make the same call. Urge them to do it—even if they live in the same house as you; so long as they are eligible to vote in the next election. My associate, Prasad Yalamanchi will help with that, but today he and I will be getting information from people and groups that can get things done.
There is something else we can do, and it refers to something that is happening now. Last month, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court ruled against some constitutional amendments instituted during two military dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, and it asked the government to submit replacements for ratification in the Awami-dominated parliament. So what did this oh-so-progressive and freedom-loving Awami League do? It submitted new laws that outlawed military governments and religiously-based parties; but it left intact one of the most significant amendments that came under the Court’s scrutiny: the Eighth, which made Islam the official state religion and essential to the character of all that flows from Bangladeshi law. It is an amendment that Hindus and others say makes them second-class citizens in their own country. Every law they have to follow begins with “in the name of Allah the beneficent.” Madrassas(Islamic schools) are given a favored position by their government and often receive public support, even those preaching radical Islam. This is not the action of a government that really wants to protect its minority citizens, but rather one closer to Iran. It is certainly not the action of a “moderate Muslim nation,” which is how Bangladesh tries to portray itself.
Has there been even one phone call from President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton to Bangladesh, challenging the government on this or other anti-minority actions? Has anyone reminded Sheikh Hasina of her still unfulfilled promises to end official minority discrimination in Bangladesh—and how she has an opportunity with this constitutional change to prove that she and her party are not shams? The answer to all those questions is the same: “No.” I ask my esteemed colleagues at the Hindu American Foundation to work with me now to prevail upon Congress and the Administration to address this matter with Bangladesh while there is still time to fix things. It will also tell us if these people deserve our votes next year.
Let me put it to you this way. If there was a similar situation involving Muslims somewhere in the world, what do you think the American Muslim community would do? How vocal would organizations like Council on American-Islamic Relations be? What about Jewish organizations or Evangelical Christians for their co-religionists? Do Hindus have fewer rights than they do? Does the American Constitution say ‘everyone except Hindus’? No; the only thing stopping us is ourselves. For this effort to succeed, we do not need the entire 2.5 million Hindus in the United States to act. But we do need a core group of individuals who care more about the lives of their oppressed brethren than being thought impolite. And it starts here; it starts today. From this effort, we can make the issue of anti-Hindu oppression a US concern. Each of you can do this one thing, and possibly save the lives of millions of people.
Once we find success in this quarter, we can expand in any direction we wish; tackle any anti-Hindu human rights issues we want—those in Pakistan, Kashmir, Malaysia, Fiji, or anywhere else. In the lead up to the November 2010 vote, some of us in the Chicago area helped organize community members in support of certain candidates who will support us. As a result, some people are beginning to see the Hindu community as a constituency that cannot be ignored; whose concerns cannot be dismissed. And it will stay that way only so long as we continue to exert whatever advantage we have and deny our support to those lawmakers who do not care about those issues important to us, who do not care if Hindus are being killed and raped in Bangladesh. We have a critical election coming up in 16 months, and the papers you filled out today will be added to others to help elect lawmakers who will stand with us and not let our brothers and sisters in Bangladesh or anywhere else be persecuted with impunity.
Whatever we do, however, it all ultimately depends on you. Some of us who are dedicated to saving the Bangladeshi Hindus can lead, can organize, can take on a certain amount of the burden; but our efforts will come to little if people see that the rest of the community does not care enough to stand up and say so. The Congressional letter will be our first test.
And just in case you are wondering whether why you should take this tiny step, please allow me this one last piece of motivation. In 2009, I interviewed a Bangladeshi Hindu family that crossed into India only 22 days earlier. They told me about an uncle being killed, the father beaten, and their tiny farm invaded by a large number of Muslims. I also looked into the eyes of their 14-year-old daughter as she talked about being gang raped. Who did it? Not al Qaeda orJammat; 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.
Joseph Stalin is said to have remarked, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.” That 14-year-old rape victim—that child—I met was no statistic, and God help us if we make her one.