Dr. Richard L Benkin has become very familiar and a household name from Indian subcontinent to USA among those who follow the human rights issues in Indian subcontinent with clean eyes—not with blinkered ones to create a huge noise about certain issues and deliberately decide to be silent on some others. If Human beings are the same across the planet, having the same soul with potential to evolve themselves towards divinity sooner or later, then how can the perspectives on human rights be so different?
Over eight years ago Dr. Richard Benkin landed in India for his first visit,to get acquainted with people in India, bringing a reference from the great Middle Eastern scholar and known ideologue on Islamic history,Dr. Daniel Pipes. That first visit paved the way for his more frequent visits with a tough task: to create awareness among people in India on the threat of radicalization of another immediate Indian neighbor, Bangladesh; and the causality for this radicalization was the tolerated persecution of minorities in general and Hindus in Particular .
Being a Jew from the USA, he was welcomed in India with lot of questions about his motive in taking up this cause, and some of the questions were loaded with apprehension and conspiracy theories,too.
The consistent efforts from Dr. Richard Benkin’s side to make aware people about the systematic and institutionalized radicalization of Bangladesh gradually was seen as serious by audiences among the Indian people as well as Indian establishment due in no small part to the intensity of his commitment to his cause and feelings to make a difference on the issue of oppressed Hindus in Bangladesh. Because of his commitment and involvement in learning about India, he could foresee the changing Indian political landscape in advance of others, and saw as early as the beginning of 2012 that Narendra Modi would become Prime Minister of India, which he did in 2014. Back then, many people considered that an insane and cynical thought. Nevertheless, he decided to be politically incorrect and visited him in Gandhinagar and requested Narendra Modi to do give some serious thought to the growing radicalization of Bangladesh and the worsening human rights conditions for Hindus in India’s neighborhood. (The writer of these lines was present in that meeting where Dr. Benkin told Mr. Modi, “Today I am calling you Mr. Chief Minister but the next time we meet, I will be calling you Mr. Prime Minister.”Unfortunately, Mr. Modi has not been able to take time from his busy schedule to meet Dr. Richard Benkin since he occupied the post of premiership of the country.)
When today we are witnessing the grim situation in Bangladesh which proves Dr. Richard Benkin extremely correct and visionary it also indicates the carelessness and casual approach of the major powers on such an important issue.If his warnings would have been taken seriously, from Washington DC to New Delhi, then another Islamist terror hub in Indian subcontinent would have been avoided.
The volatile security situation in Bangladesh compels us to talk to Dr. Richard Benkin on this issue as he is in a better position than anyone else to guide us. In this regard, the chief Editor of AT News Analysis, Amitabh Tripathi, conducted an online interview with Dr. Richard Benkin covering a wide range of subjects from Bangladesh to US politics and its presidential race.
ATN- Dr. Richard Benkin, I can remember that in 2009 when you met the (now late) retired intelligence Bureau director Maloy Krishna Dhar, and expressed your concerns on the fast growing threat of radicalization of Bangladesh, he suggested you should be more optimistic and supportive to the Sheikh Hasina, as she would do everything she could to stop the radicalization of her country, to accelerate the process of modernization, and to transform the system into one more adaptive to modern world order. Since then, you have been more cautious about Indian sensibilities not to target Sheikh Hasina directly, but you are the only person who despite that caution continued narrating the story to the whole world, of how the systematic and institutionalized radicalization of Bangladesh is in the offing and getting ready to explode. Now the incidents in last few months have proven you accurate. How would you respond to this situation?
RB-Thank you, Mr. Tripathi. With all respect to the late Mr. Dhar and others, India, the US, and the rest of the world has been too generous to the Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League, expecting (really hoping) that they would make a real difference in Bangladesh. Their history almost since the nation’s birth in 1971 tells quite a different story. Yes, the Awami League will blame its political rivals (the BNP) or the periodic dictatorships or military governments; but things were no better under their periodic rules, including today. Until we recognize that reality, effective action will be impossible. For the first step in fixing any problem is recognizing it.
Whether it is western powers like the United States, Asian powers like India, or Bangladesh itself; people have either failed to or refused to recognize the reality. But people know the truth; they’re just not willing to admit it. The strongest statements I hear among political and intelligence establishments in support of the Awami League government is that Bangladesh is better than Pakistan and that the Awami League is better than the BNP. We cannot help Bangladesh solve its problem unless we’re honest about it. Once that happens, we can craft an effective strategy pretty simply given the limited territory involved and the assumption by our enemies that they can build their infrastructure in Bangladesh while we keep our focus elsewhere.
ATN- In your opinion where does the problem in Bangladesh lie, and what solution do you suggest?
RB-The 1947 division of the Indian Subcontinent was done on the basis of communalism, and that is the root cause of the problems we face today. That critical error provided the circumstances that led to countries whose leaders felt constrained to allow religious radicalization to take place on their soil. None of the governments of either Pakistan or Bangladesh have ever done anything to change that situation. (Both Pakistan and Bangladesh are Islamic States with Islam as their major religion. To its credit, India has never done that or made Hinduism the official state religion. Big difference!) Beyond that, all of the parties and their leaders in Bangladesh have placed greater value on own success than on success for the country. This is how the Awami League was fine agreeing to form a coalition with the radical Islamist group, Khelafat Andolin Majlis. It took the 2007 military coup to prevent them from making it a reality. This same lack of a true core of values among Bangladeshi leaders, however, presents the opportunity for changing things; because for them it is all about material interests, including political power for those who take the opportunities that would come with change.
Outside powers can help Bangladesh diversify its economy, which has become inordinately dependent on garment exports and a few other things. They can help in areas like security, counter-intelligence, and geo-political strategies. In return, the Bangladeshis would have to be serious about rooting out radicals, and they would have to do the responsible thing and take action (not just mouth words) that extends equal protection under the law to Hindus and other minorities. If they don’t, well, their unhealthy economy can get lot worse with international action on issues like trade and UN peacekeeping, which would have a legal basis in Bangladesh’s tacit involvement in human rights abuses. One way or another—the easy way or the hard way—it can be done.
ATN – In most parts of the world, including your country, the United States, and in India, it has been perceived that there is a vast difference between the approaches of Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia in defining the future of Bangladesh; with the former wanting to make it more secular and accommodative to others; and the latter insisting to convert it into another Islamic state ruled by stricter and tough Islamic laws and customs. But your views are contrary to this perception and suggest that both parties protect the vested interests of radical elements within their society and the only difference is their image makeover. Do you still stick to your opinion?
RB-Yes, pretty much, but with a little more explanation. As I noted above, all parties will make common cause with the worst elements if they believe it is in their own political interest. The Awami League and BNP have profited equally from the Vested Property Act and the plundering of Hindu-owned land. And the verified record of anti-Hindu actions that the government refuses to prosecute is no better under one party than the other. Earlier this month, the Bangladeshi Ambassador to the United States, Mohammad Ziauddin, spoke to me about the “great” relationship between Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If the relationship is a good as he says, that’s wonderful; let Sheikh Hasina use it. Could you imagine if Hindus in Bangladesh and Pakistan were treated the same as Muslims in India? And to the extent they are not, imagine if the rest of the world make that comparison openly and honestly, based on the facts of that treatment and nothing else?
Here’s where the Awami League can show that they really are different and committed to the principles they have claimed to be. On 12 July, Congressman Bob Dold and I met with the Bangladeshi ambassador about the Bangladeshi Hindus. For the first time, a Bangladeshi official admitted to us both that there is a problem with persecution of Hindus in his country and that Bangladesh does not have the resources to stop it; that is, he not only confirmed my allegations about . We are to be working together on a solution. If Bangladesh’s words turn out to be nothing more than words, my opinion will not change. If they follow up with real, effective action, then I will say that they are different from their political opposition.
ATN – Since 9\11 when the world woke up to the threat posed by the ideological basis for terrorism, the USA in particular has been more vigilant to arrest the evolution of any new centre of terrorism in South Asia even beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. Do new developments in Bangladesh frighten the establishment in your country such that it might react based on panic, or are they planning something serious and more thought out to counter this scourge on an ideological basis as well as a military one. As we all can acknowledge that this problem cannot be dealt with by military means alone, but rather the ideas behind it must be countered. Those who want to find solutions in military alone are only aggravating this problem further.
RB-Events in Bangladesh do not cause much concern in the establishment here for at least two reasons: (1) Bangladesh occupies little importance in the US consciousness. Few Americans know much about it, and even major US politicians and officials often visit India and Pakistan while ignoring Bangladesh. This bothers me in that it is has helped make the task of getting people to look seriously at this before it’s too late extremely difficult. But it’s not impossible, and we are making small gains continuously. (2) The other reason is that many of the intelligence and other officials seem to look at things in Pakistan and Bangladesh from the perspective of an old saying: “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” That is, they realize that there are problems in South Asia that could turn into dangers, however, believing that the alternatives are more dangerous, they’re content to deal with those that they face now. I tend to have intense discussions with them about this and remind them that both, nonetheless, are the devil; and I get no opposition from them on that point. That suggests to me that one day, the current cast of characters will become unbearable for them.
ATN- In last few years you have given several presentations and been deposed before various US Congressional committees to give testimony on the issue of human rights violations of Hindu minorities in Bangladesh. How much progress have you achieved in pursuing your policy makers to look into this subject seriously?
RB-As you know, I tend to measure success in terms of concrete results. Yes, we have made substantial gains in getting quite a few people in Washington to now be aware of the matter. Some of that went into the formal Congressional record. A few individual Members of Congress have addressed the issue specifically. And I frequently refer to a speech by Congressman Bob Dold on 2 November 2011 that addressed the issue Bangladeshi Hindus on the floor of the US Congress. Additionally, the matter is becoming better known among a larger portion of the general population. We’ve also had some communication with some of America’s largest buyers of Bangladeshi goods.
The potentially greatest breakthrough came earlier this month and was mentioned above, when Congressman Dold and I met with the Bangladeshi ambassador, and he admitted to us both that there was a problem with the persecution of Hindus and Bangladesh’s failure to do anything about it. The three of us have been communicating and pledge to work together to stop this persecution of the government’s failure to prosecute it. I am hopeful that this government and ambassador will take action; but we still have to see.
ATN- US senator Mark Kirk and US Congressman Bob Dold have been very supportive of your cause, and they have been instrumental in bringing this issue to the forefront of public discussion. What is the latest status of their support?
RB-I noted some of Congressman Dold’s recent actions; he also helps me make my case whenever he sees an opportunity. I recently was in Senator Kirk’s office planning how to move forward on this. Both men continue to be strong beacons for human rights and supporters of mine; and both have helped me get other people in Washington involved as well.
ATN- The issue of Bangladesh’s Hindus is related to ideological radicalization, which ultimately ignites every form of terrorism. In modern democracies, if any majority community aspires to replace the composite culture of nationality with a monolithic, theocratic nation; it distorts the balance of society. It paves the way for strife and civil war and opens the floodgates for various militant and terrorist movements that cover themselves in the garb of ideological cover, validated by authorities who countersign their ideology with tolerance for their actions. In this volatile political and ideological churning, the US presidential race has become more than just interesting. Its outcome is crucial for the future of international relations. Where do you stand in this heated debate in US politics?
RB-I’ve made no secret over the years in both writings and speeches that I believe United States foreign policy needs to be more assertive and robust and less equivocal and passive than it has been; that we need to recognize the threats we face and act strategically to eradicate them. This also involves our international allegiances, and I have called a US-Israel-India alliance humanity’s last great hope. Secretary Clinton has been an architect of the policy I oppose and has stated her intention to keep moving along that path. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, uses very strong language in how he talks about those international threats, but he is short on specifics, and even shorter on international expertise. He has been inconstant in what he advocates—which in itself is problematic for strength of character and conviction in the international arena. He often has found common cause with those that demonize and alienate large segments of the international population who are precisely those with whom we should ally. He has threatened other countries and suggested he would leave some of our international alliances.
Where do I stand? I cannot bring myself to vote for either nominee. (I originally supported Florida Senator Marco Rubio, but he failed to get the Republican nomination.) The way the presidential election system works, my living in the State of Illinois pretty much makes it a moot point anyway. I am devoting my time and resources to helping the re-election of strong, principled individuals who can move our nation along the right path, regardless of who occupied the White House.
ATN- You have openly declared yourself as Republican without hesitation, but this election in US has put Republicans in a very difficult situation and much more divided, what is the latest mood in Republican camp particularly after the Republican convention?
RB-Still divided. Our good friend and mentor, Dr. Daniel Pipes, wrote an article the other day in which he stated that after 44 years, he was leaving the Republican Party after Donald Trump’s nomination. He believes that a Trump thrashing could be the rock on which Republicans re-build their party so it again resembles the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. It was an excellent analysis that I would want all Republicans to read.
If anything can unite Republicans, however, it is the desire to stop Hillary Clinton from being elected president and bringing us another four to eight years of continued anti-business rule, government overreach, and a feckless foreign policy. That desire might not be enough. A large number of Republicans, principled conservatives, are deeply suspicious of Donald Trump’s commitment to the policies that have defined many of us, not to mention his volatility and tendency to make statements that fly in the face of our basic values.
If current polls are at all accurate, Trump will have a long climb back if he is to have any chance of winning in November. Therefore, many Republicans are resigned to losing the presidency and are focused on holding control of the Senate and Congress.
ATN- Being a frequent visitor to India with deep knowledge and understanding of Indian politics and the nation’s overall situation, in your opinion which US president would be a boost for India in every sense?
RB-That’s hard to say, and I believe Indian officials and especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi will pursue the best policies that either nominee can be expected to follow. Regardless, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have a mixture of plusses and minuses for India.
Donald Trump: Trump has made the battle against radical Islamism one of the signature elements of his campaign, promising a tough stance against terrorists and terror-supporting countries, which could include some of India’s neighbors. Recently, he has made several statements indicating his belief that strong US-India relations are in the interests of both countries. As a businessman, he recognizes the transformation that India is attempting with its economic policies, and he should work well with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in this regard. It should not go unmentioned that Trump’s largest donor is a Hindu-American with a strong track record of support for Narendra Modi since well before he became Prime Minister. Shalli Kumar has a consistent history of promoting strong US-India relations as well.
That’s all on the plus side. The downside is that the Republican nominee has a demonstrated history of putting any and all of that and other issues aside if he believes doing so is better for the issue at hand and as part of a negotiating stance. So, all of those things could fly out the window if Trump found it in his interest to change course. Additionally, while I do not agree with those who call Trump a bigot or believe he harbors strong prejudice; he has not hesitated to ignore the bigotry of others at times, nor has he recoiled from using bigoted references when he believes they suit his immediate needs.The future of US-India relations must be predicated on the knowledge that there is no differences between white and brown, and action based on that knowledge.
Hillary Clinton: During Clinton’s failed 2008 run for the Democratic nomination, then candidate Barack Obama referred to her derisively as “the Senator from Punjab” because of the Clintons’ longstanding ties with India. Clinton is more likely to be amenable to negotiating a South Asian trade deal than Trump, who has made dislike of such things another cornerstone of his campaign. This year’s campaign also has set up a clear divide between the Democrat nominee and the Republican on the issue of immigration; and even if Trump’s anti-immigrant statements focus on illegal migrants, the policies that would likely follow from them will hamper the sort of legal immigration that has become so important for both of our countries.
Clinton has considerable downside, as well. She was an integral part of the Obama foreign policy decisions that have compromised America’s role in the fight against terror. Nor did she or the Obama Administration take any action over or even acknowledge Pakistan’s deep involvement with international terrorism, as revealed by—if nothing else—their harboring Osama bin Laden for so long. To date, she has not distanced herself from them in a critical way and even promised that a Clinton administration would continue along the same course. She also has said she favors the recent (and horrendous) deal with Iran.
Moreover, it is very likely she will be at the mercy of Democrats in Congress. No doubt, Republicans will be allied against her actions, so her ability to govern will be dependent on Democrats on Capitol Hill holding solid for her. That means her administration is likely to reflect the far left, ideological positions that are becoming more common to that party.
Those positions can be characterized as tolerant of Islamist radicalism—in fact, fearful of even naming it as such—and more like those of socialist Europe than capitalist United States. For years, Muslims in South Asia have told me that they would like to be more outspoken about radicalization, however, since 2009, they have not seen the US as a constant ally and protector. More than one of them referenced what happened when the US encouraged Iranian moderates only to abandon them and ultimately strike a deal with the mullahs in Tehran. Will Hillary continue that trend and thereby undermine their efforts to unmask closet Islamists? That is a very serious question. Finally, as Secretary of State, Clinton refused to reverse the ban on a visa for then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, as was part of the crowd that continued to demonize your great Prime Minister. It also means that she is more likely to support those in Congress and the Senate who continue to focus on alleged anti-minority abuses in India, to the exclusion of those in neighboring countries.
No doubt, both candidates (especially Clinton) have some core principles in which they believe, however, both also have shown that they are more enamored with realpolitik and being flexible on ideology when doing so means a better deal for them. Less rigidity can be a good thing, however, at the same time, their tendencies make both questionable as constant allies in the US-India relationship.
Although the most reliable polls suggest that Clinton will emerge victorious, I would not recommend anyone writing off the possibility of a Trump presidency. The landslide electoral advantage for Clinton in some states rests on only a few percentage points, and shifts there could change the outcome. There is also the possibility that continued acts of terror will move support toward the candidate who promises an uncompromising attack vs. the one who was a major architect of the current “lead from behind strategy,” which tends to focus more on the behind part. Indians would do best to prepare policies that get the most out of either administration; and I think Narendra Modi is the best person to lead that effort.