A QUIET CASE OF ETHNIC CLEANSING IN BANGLADESH

 

Dr. Richard L. Benkin

http://www.InterfaithStrength.com

drrbenkin@comcast.net

 

There are an estimated 12 to 13 million Bangladeshi Hindus, and every one of them is facing ethnic cleansing and at risk of genocide.  The Bangladesh government can seize their land at any moment—by law—and force them to emigrate.  Even worse, their very lives are almost constantly in jeopardy.  Of the millions who have been forced out, the lion’s share live in West Bengal, India, and they are at risk as well.  So, too, are their children.  The war against Bengal’s Hindus has been proceeding for decades, but it took a particularly dangerous turn in 1965 and again in the 1970.  The ever increasing power radical Islamists in South Asia drives it and the world’s inaction tells the perpetrators that they can continue doing it with impunity.

 

PART ONE: THE ROOTS OF ETHNIC CLEANSING

 

Tensions between Hindus and Muslims on the Indian subcontinent have existed almost since Islam’s appearance there; so much so that the area was divided into two sovereign nations:  one Hindu (India) and one Muslim (Pakistan).  Both communities and nations regularly accuse the other of various atrocities, often reacting with armed conflict.  But something happened in the year 1965 that represented a seminal change in those relationships, and it is something that should have caused a loud and sustained international uproar; but it did not.

 

That year’s Indo-Pakistani War resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Muslim nation.  In an undisguised act of retaliation, Pakistan passed the Enemy Property Act.  Aimed deliberately at its Hindu population, the act empowered the government to declare their land and possessions enemy property and to seize it.  When Bangladesh won its independence, the new nation re-wrote the Enemy Property Act (EPA) as the Vested Property Act (VPA), with explicit language stating that only the law’s title had changed, not its content.  At the time, almost one in five Bangladeshis was a Hindu; today the number is less than one in ten.  Their seized lands have become part of Bangladesh’s notorious corruption gravy train, used to woo and benefit every major party.  Between 2001 and 2006, 45 percent of the spoils went to the right-center BNP, 31 percent to the left-center Awami League (the figures were reversed when the Awami League was in power), 15 percent to Islamist parties, and the rest to Jatiya and others.

 

Imagine for a moment if US or Canadian law empowered the government to seize the land and property of non-Christians and give it to Christians.  Imagine the international hue and cry that—justifiably—would be heard from every human rights NGO and government entity.  And imagine the sustained and passionate cries—again justified—of racism, not only from the aggrieved but from every decent American and Canadian as well.  Imagine, too, what an insult such a law would be to the human community.  Thankfully, no such law exists, and we do not have to face the animus of all those advocacy groups.  Yet, both Pakistan and Bangladesh have such a law; and have had them on the books for decades.  The only difference between their law and the hypothetical one above is that they are Muslim majority countries and the laws address property of non-Muslims.  Yet, aside from periodic, anemic statements from one or another NGO—statements never coupled with action or sustained outrage—the world has uttered not a peep about this blatant form of de juro bigotry.

 

On July 30, 2007, I had a meeting at the Bangladeshi embassy in Washington to address the persecution of journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury and other matters.  During the meeting Bangladesh’s top representative in the United States, Ambassador M. Humayun Kabir told me flatly that the current Bangladeshi government “has no intention to address the Vested Property Act during its tenure”—which at the time of this writing is indefinite.  More recently, a Bangladeshi official justified the VPA as a form of “protection” for the Hindu minority.

 

When the British left India in 1947, Hindus were almost a third of the East Bengali population; but things have changed drastically with the rise of a more aggressive and radical Islam, fueled by middle eastern money.  In 1971, the newly independent Bangladesh declared itself a secular nation.  A short three years later, it enacted the VPA, and only three years after that, it did an about face and officially proclaimed itself an “Islamic republic,” much to the chagrin and horror of its Hindus and other religious minorities who were now pariahs in their own nation.

 

The implications of this progression are critical for what was to come.  In 1971, the new Bangladesh was very much beholden to India without which it never could have achieved its independence.  At the same time, the power of Islamist parties and groups was at its ebb.  For they had come out publicly against Bangladeshi independence and often fought alongside the Pakistanis to prevent it.  There is extensive documentation linking many of their leaders with the brutal massacre (in cooperation with Pakistani troops) of over three million Bangladeshi non-combatants.  But they were never called to account for their actions, and Islamists soon re-established themselves in Bangladesh and especially among its officialdom.  As they did, Bangladesh moved further and further away from India and its pluralistic beginnings.  In a terrible irony, some of the participants in the 1971 atrocities gained positions of governmental power over the relatives of their victims.  With the rise of an internationalist radical Islam, Bangladeshi Islamists have garnered continually growing influence.  Though a small part of the overall Bangladeshi population, they have entrenched themselves in almost every major institution from education to banking, from the police to the judiciary.  From 2001 to 2006, Islamist parties were members of the ruling coalition; and had the 2007 elections proceeded as scheduled, they would have been so again no matter who won a majority.  Despite Islamists’ open calls for Bangladesh’s “Talibanization” including the imposition of Sharia Law, both major parties had agreed to include them in the government.

 

All of these factors have created a situation in Bangladesh in which severe prejudice is tolerated by those in power.  Carrying it to an extreme, even if the government of Sudan has not been the primary driver of genocide in that country; its refusal to stop the Janjanweed is the primary factor allowing it to happen.  Are we looking forward to a time in Bangladesh when severe bigotry turns into genocide because its roots and preliminary forms have been tolerated by those in power and allowed to proceed unopposed by a timid or uncaring world?

 

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Dr. Richard L. Benkin is an independent human rights activist who first gained notoriety for his successful fight to free Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury from imprisonment and torture in 2005.  Since then, he has continued to advocate for Mr. Choudhury’s rights—are constantly under attack by the government of Bangladesh-—and for other human rights issues.  Most recently, he took a fact finding trip to West Bengal and other areas in India to confirm the ethnic cleansing of Bangladeshi Hindus and the severity of their current situation even in India.

 

Dr. Benkin is available for talks and seminars:



Part II: Islamist Attacks and Government Collusion
Part III: Rightless and Vulnerable
Part IV: What Must be Done

 

http://www.InterfaithStrength.com