A Quiet Case of Ethnic Cleansing: the Murder of Bangladesh’s Hindus

Address by Dr. Richard L. Benkin

“Religious Freedom under Attack”

Hosted by Congressman Robert Dold

St. James Lutheran Church

Lake Forest, IL

August 19, 2015

 

Thank you for inviting me here tonight; and thanks to my friend and ally, Congressman Bob Dold, for his unwavering commitment to human rights and religious freedom.  And thanks to Victoria Williams for putting this all together.

 

Bob’s long advocated that we recognize Turkey’s 1915 genocide of Armenians; he’s not Armenian.  He’s a Congressional leader for Israel and a personal leader for Holocaust survivors; he’s not Jewish.  And he is the first person to address the ethnic cleansing of Bangladeshi Hindus from the floor of the US Congress; no, he’s not Hindu either.  His point is that we don’t have to be part of any group to recognize an injustice done to them.

 

So I’d like you all to engage in a little exercise with me.

 

If you suddenly found yourself in Germany in the early 1930s, knew what was going to happen in a few short years, and had a chance to prevent it, would you?  Even if doing so was difficult or involved personal sacrifice?  Would you still do it?  Maybe you didn’t even know for sure that you could stop it, but you knew for sure what would happen if you didn’t.  Would you still try, or would you go back to a quiet life and pretend you didn’t know what you did?

 

Let’s bring it a little closer to home.  If you awoke tomorrow morning and instead of it being August 20, 2015, it was September 10, 2001; you knew what was about to happen and had a chance to prevent it; would you?

 

In both instances, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to avert these terrible losses of life?

 

If you answered yes, then history has given you a second chance.  For in many ways, today is September 10, 2001.  Time is running out for 12 million Hindus in Bangladesh, and so far, most people seem content to let it run.

 

In 1951, Hindus were almost a third of East Pakistan’s population.  In 1971, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh, they were less than a fifth, thirty years later less than a tenth, and around one in 15 today.  Throughout that time, there has been an unbroken torrent of targeted atrocities—murder, rape, the abduction of young women and children, forced conversion, religious desecration, legalized looting, and more—all of it designed to eliminate Hindus from their ancestral land; and all with the tacit approval or participation of successive Bangladeshi governments. 

 

One third—one fifth—one tenth—one fifteenth.  And if you’re wondering what’s next, look at Pakistan where Hindus are down to one percent or Kashmir and Afghanistan where once thriving Hindu communities are almost gone.  So, how many of you read about this in your morning Tribune or seen it on the news?  Me neither.

 

We can theorize about why the media, the international human rights industry, the UN, and others seem incapable of seeing what one person can—and I’m happy to share my thoughts about that, but at another time.  The only thing that matters right now is that millions of people are being killed, brutalized, and terrorized simply because they are Hindu; and if we don’t stop it, no one will.

 

Let’s go beyond the numbers to the sort of thing that keeps me up at night; that keeps me going back to the villages and jungles in South Asia.

 

In 2009, I met a Hindu family that had crossed into India only 22 days earlier after their Muslim neighbors brutally threw them off their tiny farm.  They told me about an uncle being killed; the father described the beatings he suffered; but what haunts me still is their daughter.  She was probably about 12 or 13 and kept trying to talk. Her mom would push her away, until she blurted out, “the Muslims chased me,” and all eyes turned to her.  She started talking fast, then as she described her ordeal would hesitate and look down, perhaps as the memories became more vivid.  I asked if they ever caught her.

 

“Yes,” she said.

 

“What happened?” I asked.

 

And after a lot of hesitation, she answered, “They did bad things to me.”

 

I’m sorry, I’m not an investigative journalist; I’m just a guy from Mount Prospect.  By training and temperament and as a father, though, I know a hurt kid I see one, and she was one.  No way was I going to press her.  Besides, everyone knew what she meant.  That’s why her parents didn’t want her to talk about it.

 

But why should we meddle?  Shouldn’t we let the Bangladeshis take care of their own internal problems?  And, anyway, don’t we have enough to do here?

 

Good questions, and I like to think I have some answers.

 

·      On a personal level, when you’re hit in the face with something like that, it’s hard to ignore it.  And when you encounter it again and again as I have, it’s even harder to think that all those people somehow matter less than people closer to home.

 

·      On a formal level, it’s an unfortunate fact that minorities are attacked pretty much everywhere.  Whether or not it’s a matter for outsiders depends on one thing:  when those attacks occur, what happens?  Do we have the kind of public angst that we’re going through here?  Does the government treat them as the crimes they are, or does it protect the criminals, thereby telling both victims and victimizers that it approves of these things; that no one’s going to do anything about it.  That’s the situation in Bangladesh.

 

Now, diplomats and “experts” will tell you from a safe distance that the party in power, the Awami League, is our friend:  opposing Islamists and supporting minorities.  It’s been in control since 2009, so it’s compelling to see how Hindus have fared in these best of circumstances.

 

·      During its first two years in office, major anti-Hindu incidents occurred at the rate of almost one per week.

 

·      The Hindu American Foundation, Bangladesh Minority Watch, and others document a similar level of atrocities in the third year, 2011.

 

·      2012 began with at least 1.25 a week in the first quarter and ended with one a week in the fourth.  In between, there was a nine day period in May with an abduction, a murder in broad daylight, and two gang rapes, one of a child on her way to a Hindu festival:  four horrific crimes in nine days and no action against known perpetrators.

 

·      I’m still verifying atrocities—three in the first week of this month alone.  They come from local press reports, witness testimony, direct appeals, and my network of associates.

 

All of these actions were specifically anti-Hindu and not random.  I confirmed them either first hand or with at least two independent sources.  And the government neither prosecuted them nor helped retrieve the victims.  In fact, its officials often participated in the crimes or their cover-ups.  And these are only those I verified with my own limited resources.

 

Here’s two more.

 

·      For three days in 2009, hundreds of attackers descended on a poor Hindu community in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka.  They destroyed the community’s modest temple, burned down homes, and sent hundreds to local hospitals.  And here’s the kicker:  it happened right behind a police station.  Did the police even try to stop it?  No.  On the contrary, they joined with the attackers.  In addition to human tragedy, take away these two things:  (1) this organized attack could happen because the attackers knew they’d have police approval; and (2) even though the US State Department recorded both the attack and the police involvement, the administration buried the report and neither said nor did anything about it.

 

·      Here’s another.  In 2013—the last time the Bangladeshi government didn’t bar my entry—I visited a remote village of 85 Hindu families in far northern Bangladesh.  Several months earlier, the villagers were going about their daily lives when suddenly, more than 100 marauding Muslims attacked; moving from home to home, taking what they wanted and destroying the rest, farm to farm, stealing livestock and destroying crops.  Villagers showed me burnt remnants of their homes.  Women and children talked about hiding in fields while attackers roamed the village because almost all of these events involve rape and child abduction.  As a parent, imagine what it’s like watching your children being carried off, knowing you can’t protect them and those who can protect them, won’t.  Bangladeshi Hindus don’t have to imagine.  They’re living it.

 

And of course, in both cases, the government neither prosecuted the criminals nor helped the victims.

 

Before getting to what we can do about this, there’s an important sidebar, which tells us that there is hope—if we show the moral courage other generations of Americans have shown.

 

Those who attacked the village were whipped into a frenzy by their Imam.  He said the village was on land meant for a mosque and the infidels had to be driven off.  Even now, they threaten to return and finish the job.  The only thing that stands in their way is four Muslim policemen.  They told us that prior to the attacks, police never came to the village but that since then, they get there as often as they can to let the bad guys know if they want to renew the attacks, they’ll have to get through them.  They do this with neither fear nor hesitation and largely on their own because, they said, the government is taking no action.

 

There’s no question that our enemy is radical Islam—whether the administration wants to say it or not—as well as those who appease it and give it ideological cover.  Also know, however, that some of our bravest allies are other Muslims.

 

Although radical Islam threatens Hindus in Bangladesh, Christians in the Middle East, and many others; it also threatens us.  If we do nothing to protect these innocents—rather make deals that protect the bad guys and their state sponsors like Iran—we’re telling them that our words do not translate into action; that we have no moral backbone.  We will be abandoning the values that make us who we are.  If we allow them to do this in Bangladesh and the Middle East, there is no doubt that they will be doing it here soon enough.

 

Here’s some simple things you can do; and let’s remember, this is Bangladesh.  If we can’t stand up to Bangladesh, we’ve got no chance against adversaries like Iran and North Korea.

 

I’ve dealt with Bangladeshi officials before.  They will not act because it is the right thing to do, but they will act if their financial interests are threatened; and the Bangladeshi economy is inordinately dependent on one thing:  garment exports—you’ve seen those “Made in Bangladesh” labels, right?   Well, we’re their biggest customer.  In 2011 and 2012 alone our imports equaled 40 percent of Bangladesh’s annual budget; so we have leverage.

 

Here’s how it will go.  First, they’ll deny things, then act insulted.  Next they’ll accuse the US of something; and then they’ll play the “poor me” card.  If we don’t fall for any of that, we will prevail.  If we demand action and not just words we’ll prevail.  That’s exactly how my recent encounter with the Bangladeshi Home Minister went—he was pretty nasty until I mentioned the exports, which is when he played the poor me card.

 

You can be part of that, and you don’t have to go to Bangladesh or leave your homes.  I’m passing out cards and ask that you write your name and email address on them.  I will send you a link so you can email several large US companies like Target and Walmart; not to threaten a boycott but to let them know that their purchases support ethnic cleansing, something they’d rather not have their name associated with.  Please take this small action that will have a huge impact; and encourage others to do the same.  Perhaps it’s something the church can do as a community.

 

I also ask that you support Bob Dold and House Resolution 396 that calls on the US to protect Bangladesh’s minorities and will provide the basis for US actions—for instance, on trade.  And please, be a voice for those who have none:  don’t let this issue die; tell others about it.

 

Saving the Bangladeshi Hindus is not only another human rights issue. It’s also the right thing to do.

 

Thank you.

 

[For those reading the speech online, you too can take that small action to bring about huge results.  Below you will find the link to our infographic.  Scroll down to the boldface writing that begins, “Tell companies like Wal-Mart, the Number One importer of Bangladeshi goods that their Bangladeshi purchases support ethnic cleansing and unsafe and unfair labor practices.”

 

http://bdhindus.tumblr.com/

 

What follows is a simple way to do that.

 

One paragraph begins, “If you have a client based email like Outlook or Thunderbird.”  Simply click the four links in that paragraph.  Each will generate an email.  You can send it as is, add your name and town, or edit it; your choice.

 

The next paragraph begins, “If you have a web based email like gmail or Hotmail.”  Click the links in that paragraph to generate a blank email. Add the subject line noted in the paragraph, and cut & paste the following paragraph into your email (the one that begins, “The United States is a top destination for Bangladeshi exports”); and again, feel free to send it as is, add your name and town, or edit.

 

Thank you very much.  Your action is helping to save millions of lives.

 

Dr. Richard Benkin]