Murder and Jihad: The destruction of Bangladeshs Hindus
– by Dr. Richard Benkin
Dr. Richard Benkin is a human rights activist, author, and speaker. Over the past five years, he has among other things freed a journalist from imprisonment and torture in Bangladesh, forced Bangladesh's notorious RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) to release an abductee unharmed, halted an anti-Israel conference in Australia, and raised the issue of Bangladesh's ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Washington and other capitals. He recently returned from a trip to India where he won verbal support from several political and Lok Sabha officials, addressed universities and large public gatherings, and established a communication conduit at the highest echelons of the Bangladeshi government. Dr. Benkin has also received verbal support for US Congressional hearings about the Bangladeshi Hindus. In 2005, Benkin received a meritorious award from the US Congress for his work.
According to Benkin, after a trip to Bangladesh which capped his successful effort to free a political prisoner, a group of Bangladeshi Hindus contacted him and asked for his help. Although he knew something about their persecution, Benkin immersed himself in research about the subject and vowed to stop it. Since then, he has met with victims and victimizers, gathering information and getting it to US leaders, and working for action.
Benkin is President and a founder of Forcefield, a human rights NGO, described as "non-agenda driven," in contrast with other human rights organisations. Its first human rights case is that of Bangladesh's Hindus. He invites contact at [email protected].
With the blessings of the Saints and Sree Krushna, Forum For Hindu Awakening (FHA) and Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) held the first Hinduism Summit in Chicago, on Adhik Vaishakh Shukla Ekadashi (April 24th 2010) at the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago, Illinois USA.
On occasion of Hinduism Summit Dr. Richard Benkin spoke about the current situation of ethnic cleansing and religious persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh. During his fiery and engaging speech, he not only made all the attendees aware of the plight of Bangladeshi Hindus clearly but also shared practical things for everyone to do toward this cause. He shared how 9 million Jews had stopped the might of the Russian government. How all Jewish people had got together and collected donations, started protests, held rallies, etc. If 9 million Jews could do that, there are 900 million Hindus! We should be able to do much more. It is our responsibility, no one else will do it. His suggestion was that we as Hindus have to changes ourselves. Many attendees were moved by his speech and came forward to donate and support his mission.
As a practicing Jew, I am struck regularly by the similarities our faiths share. In February, I had the honor of taking part in the spiritually uplifting Kumbh Mela in the sacred city of Haridwar. As I took my dip of purification in the holy Ganga, I could not help but recall the Jewish purification ritual I experience annually at Yom Kippur: an acknowledgement that each of us does transgress in some way; and more importantly, that to become better people we must look inward. When I looked inward, I saw the essence that joins Vedic and Judaic principles to guide me on my earthly journey.
But we also share a tragic link. Less than two weeks ago, the Jewish people observed Yom HaShoah to remember the Nazi holocaust and its 6,000,000 Jewish victims. That atrocity of atrocities taught us two things if nothing else: One, that pretending things are not what we know them to be only delays the inevitable battles; and two, the phrase 'Never Again', by which we vowed to prevent future holocausts perpetrated against any people. With Yom HaShoah’s memorial candles still blazing in our minds, it is time to put 'Never Again' to the test.
Bangladesh’s Hindu population is dying. This is not opinion or the ravings of an ideologue: It is a fact. At the time of India’s partition in 1948, they made up a little less than a third of East Pakistan’s population. When East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, Hindus were less than a fifth; thirty years later, less than one in ten; and several estimates put the Hindu population at less than eight percent today. Professor Sachi Dastidar of the State University of New York estimates that about 40 million Hindus are missing from the Bangladeshi census.(Population statistics taken from the census of Pakistan (1948), and Bangladesh (1974 and 2001). Also see Dastidar, Sachi G.; Empire’s Last Casualty: Indian Subcontinent’s Vanishing Hindu and other Minorities. (Kolkata: Firma KLM Private Limited, 2008.) 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.
Meanwhile, we have seen a consistent torrent of reports 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. Their excuses have not stopped the killing. In fact, successive Bangladeshi governments—whether the openly Islamist BNP, the civilian or military caretaker, or the supposedly pro-minority Awami League—all have been passive bystanders, failing, or refusing to exercise their sovereign responsibility to protect the life and security of all their citizens; and thus they have sent radical Islamists and common citizens alike a clear message that these acts can be undertaken with impunity. (The Hindu American Foundation has documented these atrocities in successive annual reports, entitled Hindus in South Asia and the Diaspora: A Survey of Human Rights [followed by a specific year]; copyright Hindu American Foundation. For instance, 2007, pages 5-21; 2008, pages 3-15. They also are available at the Hindu American Foundation web site, http://www.hafsite.org. Global Human Rights Defence investigates and reports on human rights violations against Bangladeshi Hindus at http://ghrd.org. Click “countries” and then “Bangladesh.” The first and third organisations have also worked with me in providing evidence of anti-Hindu activities in Bangladesh.)
And yet, in this topsy-turvy world, it is WE who have to prove that there is something wrong. 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!
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 very clear that their attackers were not necessarily radicals, but neighbours; common, everyday Muslims. They also reported with near unanimity that when they went to the police and other officials for help, they were advised to drop the subject and “get out of Bangladesh.” Last March, I interviewed a family that crossed into India only 22 days earlier. They told me about an uncle being killed, the father beaten, and their small 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 or even Jammat; 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. (This information came from recorded and unrecorded interviews I had with Bangladeshi Hindu refugees, living in mostly illegal colonies in the Indian states of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand, from 2008-2010. The 14-year old rape victim related the story to me in an encampment in North Dinajpur near the Bangladesh border in March 2009.) 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 that they otherwise would not dream of committing. There might be no Gestapo or Janjaweed in Bangladesh, but its Hindu community is facing a similar process of destruction at the hands of the Bangladeshi majority.
In fact, it is even worse; because albeit too late, the civilized world eventually heard the cries coming out of Nazi Europe, Rwanda, and Darfur. As difficult as it was getting to that point, it is even more difficult getting the world to see an atrocity without concentration camps that has been going on for decades. When was the last time Amnesty International protested this; or the UN Human Rights Commission; or anyone else? 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!
So, how do we do it? First, recognise that the mere fact that our cause is just does not mean people will support us. They have not so far, and nothing lately has indicated that is changing. We have to change things ourselves. Second, understand that justice will not come because people finally “see the light,” but as the result of many small victories that make it impossible for the world to continue ignoring what we know is happening to the Hindus of Bangladesh. That means with all due respect that we do not need to hear from groups and individuals about how hard they have worked for this cause. Let us not confuse effort with results. Human lives hang in the balance! Whatever they have done, it has not stopped the murders, rapes, and expulsions; it has not stopped the progressive de-Hinduization of East Bengal and Islamization of West Bengal. We have to move forward with a new dynamic—one that is practical and action-oriented; and one that demands commitment from each of us.
Appeals to right and wrong have not and will not work no matter how many times we try. There is no internal dynamic for the Bangladeshi government to defend Hindus—or any other religious minority. The only chance of it happening is for an outside power to “convince” Sheikh Hasina and her crowd that it is in their interests to do so. As an American, I look first to my own country as the entity that should stand up and be that outside power.
The Bangladeshis have at least four pressure points the United States can push: trade, economic cooperation, UN peacekeeping troops, and its image as a democratic and moderate Islamic nation. If we have any measure of success on even one of them, the Bangladeshis are powerless. Let me give you two quick examples of what I mean. I was in Dhaka during the 2007 coup. Most people think it occurred because of unrest over the BNP’s rigging the elections; but that is not what happened. There was a lot of street violence when I arrived there, and every western democracy was calling for the elections to be postponed; but the military had no intention of moving until someone got the UN to weigh in and threaten to review Bangladesh’s participation in peacekeeping missions. Bangladesh contributes more UN peacekeeping troops than any other country—almost 11,000 at this moment—and the economy depends on its receipts.(Figures come from the United Nations itself, Contributors to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, and the February figures can be found at http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/contributors/2010/jan10_1.pdf.) Besides losing them if the program is cancelled, the very thought of 11,000 young, angry, unemployed, and armed men is enough to scare the pants off anyone—even enough to cause a coup. If anything, Bangladesh is more vulnerable now.
In another case, Bangladesh’s notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) abducted a colleague of mine in Dhaka—and we know that RAB’s abductees often have a habit of “disappearing.” So, I called the Bangladeshi ambassador to remind him that I helped stop several attempts at awarding Bangladesh tariff relief and would do so again, then added that if my colleague was not released unharmed and soon, “there will be a shit storm that you cannot even imagine.” But, you see, right after that I called several Capitol Hill offices that have supported this cause and within the next 45 minutes, the embassy received angry inquiries from at least six of them, including some with responsibility for trade and appropriations. Needless to say, my colleague was freed unharmed after, as he told me, “higher ups” called the RAB commander.
Understand; this is not about me but about a good plan and organisation and what they can do. In both instances, material interest not justice convinced the Bangladeshis to act, and if it worked then, it will work now to save Bangladesh’s Hindus.
What has been lacking so far is focus. Our goal, you will remember is to take this atrocity out of the shadows despite the absence of concentration camps and sustained outrage; and to do so in some goal-directed and purposeful way. Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN) once said that a Representative who receives at least ten phone calls from constituents on an issue will take notice, call staff meetings, and likely vote in favor of it. He is right, but something I have learned in Washington is that contacts have a better chance to succeed if organised. You better know what you want the person to do, what he or she can do, and above all be focused and succinct. Here are some things that Congress can do and which we can affect.
Hold hearings on the ethnic cleansing of Bangladesh’s Hindus. Staff of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the US House of Representatives (TLHRC) has said they would consider doing this. We still have a way to go, but the TLHRC is unlike other Congressional committees. It is non-partisan, and members are not appointed by party but by their interest in human rights. No matter who is in power, there are two equal Democrat and Republican co-chairs. We need to bombard the Congress about this. Call your Representatives—especially the co-chairs, Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Jim McGovern (D-MA); and Chris Smith (R-NJ), who has been on the TLHRC for years and has a strong record of defending human rights. Get others to do the same. I have contact information and a script on the back table that people can personalise and use. Call or fax; do NOT send it by email or post. It is something everyone can do, and if they are uncomfortable talking, they send the fax. It is a great start; but only a start. Once this happens, we can move to other committees with authority over specific matters, like appropriations and foreign policy, and can impact them.
Defeat attempts to award Bangladesh tariff relief or other trade benefits. From the day former Bangladesh Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury came to the United States in 2003, his number one goal was securing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with our country. Thanks to the resolute work of Congressman Mark Kirk (R-IL), currently running for Senator in Illinois, we were able to block its consideration until Bangladesh cleans up its human rights act. There are those who claim that the clean-up occurred with the election of the Awami League at the end of 2008. Fortunately, Kirk knows otherwise and continues to press for human rights in Bangladesh. Beyond that, there have been at least six attempts since 2005 to pass legislation that would have awarded Bangladesh something less than an FTA in the form of tariff relief or other trade benefits. In every case, we have been able to stop them and make sure the Bangladesh embassy knew it. In the case of one Senate bill, they sent no lesser a light than Nobel laureate Mohammed Yunis to urge its passage; but despite the respect with which he was treated personally, the bill never got out of subcommittee. The Bangladeshis try to portray this as simple obstructionism, but it is a positive defense of human rights. This is how we must posture ourselves, because that, in fact is what it is. Another example. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) co-sponsored of one of these bills, and while I am not a California voter, I work with people who are. So I asked one of them to call her office and let her know that the bill threatens to undo months of human rights work, especially in our efforts to free anti-jihad Muslim journalist, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. An aide took the message to the Senator who said she had “no idea that the bill could have that effect on the case.” While she did not drop her co-sponsorship, she stopped supporting the bill; and it eventually died. The bill seemed like a good thing to do—help people in a struggling country—but we had been telling the Bangladeshis that until they play ball on human rights, they would not get the trade benefits they covet. No one connected the dots until we did it for them, and it worked.
Some other things that can be done.
The US can insert conditional human rights language into the myriad Bangladeshi appropriations. Mark Kirk did that a few years ago, calling on Bangladesh to drop the false charges against Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury; language that can be used at any time to turn up the heat on Bangladesh.
We can raise the issue when the Bangladeshis urge Americans to do business in Bangladesh. I know American businesses. If we have a significant presence, they will not find it in their interests to do business with a country that tolerates ethnic cleansing and religious persecution, especially if it could also drive away American consumers.
In 2009, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom upgraded Bangladesh’s status to Transitioning from Military-Backed Rule. I have been working with USCIRF to try and reverse that based on the ongoing persecution of Hindus, by providing objectively verified and verifiable information about these atrocities.
There are four things everyone can focus on right now.
Push for those Congressional hearings. They will affect legislative issues and counter cynical attempt to portray Bangladesh as “moderate.” Everyone take a script, make the Congressional calls, and get as many people as you can to do it, too.
Let’s not do this alone. Hindus should join with others, starting with my own Jewish community, to increase chances of success. We share both tragedies and uplifting principles that make our faiths great. I have started initiatives in Texas, California, and here in the Chicago area. See me after the program to participate.
Recognise our friends in Washington and make sure they are re-elected. Mark Kirk, running for the US Senate from Illinois, is our greatest champion. Republican Whip Eric Cantor (VA) is also a tremendous ally. Others include Steve Rothman and John Adler (D-NJ), Judy Biggert (R-IL), Trent Franks (R-AZ), Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), Nita Lowey (D-NY); and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). By doing this, we can make our concerns as politically potent as those of any religious or ethnic group and will no longer be ignored.
I also want to extend my warmest thanks to Dr. Daniel Pipes and his Middle East Forum for extending continuous and tangible support; to the Forum for Hindu Awakening for this honor; to Prasadji [Yalamanchi] and the RSS for their never-ending strength and support; and to my wife Barbara whose sacrifice has been every bit as great as my own.
There is something else everyone can do. Last year, I founded a human rights organisation, Forcefield. Unlike Amnesty International and the rest, it is not “agenda-driven.” That is, we are not tied to any leftist ideology, network of supporters, or “flavor of the week” issues. And we specifically are NOT anti-Israel. We are recognised by the governments of the United States and India; and contrary to the other organisations, Forcefield is committed to stop the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh and hopefully help persecuted Hindus from Kashmir, Pakistan, and elsewhere by bringing this to the world’s attention.
Our efforts include my human rights missions to South Asia; a documentary about the Bangladeshi Hindus that we expect to be a call for action; and an online newspaper to bring Americans and others solid information about what is happening in South Asia. We have various professionals ready to participate, victims ready to testify, and correspondents standing by in the key areas of India to bring Americans news that CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News never cover; news I never see it in my morning Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post or the New York Times; even though it is about the international jihad that threatens us all.
What is lacking is something that I am probably as uncomfortable talking about as you are hearing: funds. We are brand new and lack the large funding sources others have. If every Hindu in the United States gave just one dollar to Forcefield, we could get these projects going and have an immediate impact on the Hindus’ fate. Besides your own donations, you can help with organisations or individuals who can make grants to Forcefield to help us save Bangladeshi Hindu lives.
Donations are fully tax-deductible, and our credentials are available for inspection. There are envelopes in the back for donations, as well as forms to donate by credit card. You can also donate by credit card through my own web site, http://www.interfaithstrength.com, and click the “Donate” button. Every penny you give will help stop the atrocities we know are happening.
So, four specific things we can do now are (1) Take a script and get EVERYONE to call Congress about holding hearings; (2) See me about Hindu-Jewish outreach; (3) Re-elect our friends and send them back to Washington, especially Mark Kirk here in Illinois. (4) Support Forcefield with donations, and get others to do the same.
Joseph Stalin (Elizabeth Knowles, editor, Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 301. Attributed to 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!
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