Can we call it ‘Awakening’ if we ignore our Brothers’ Suffering?
Address to Chicago Dharmajagruti Sabha
By Dr. Richard L. Benkin
August 27, 2011
NOTE: Dr. Benkin did not address this gathering as a representative of Forcefield but as an individual.
Those of you who were around in the 1980s will remember that back then, you could not pass a synagogue without seeing a large banner proclaiming, “Save Soviet Jewry.” Our people were being persecuted in the Soviet Union, whose leaders wanted to eradicate their Jewish religion and identity. A few, like Natan Sharansky who later became an Israeli Cabinet Minister, got some attention, but most suffered silently. The American Jewish community saw their persecuted brothers and sisters and recognized their 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 in religious books and other Jewish artifacts at considerable peril to themselves. Jewish children reaching their Bar and Bat Mitzvah were “twinned” with Soviet children who did not have the freedom to celebrate this most important rite of passage; we did it for them. And before it was over, we helped get 1.2 million Jews out of that communist hell. It strengthened our identity, and every Jewish child who was part of that effort never forgot it or their own sense of Jewishness. We also realized that we could in fact stand strong for our people, that the only thing that could stop us is ourselves.
The Bangladeshi Hindus can be your Soviet Jews.
Since 1947, 49 million Hindus in Bangladesh have gone missing, according the State University of New York’s Sachi Dastidar. Hindus were almost a third of East Pakistan’s population then but had been reduced to under a fifth by the time East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971. Thirty years later, they were less than one in ten, and by reliable estimates, they are less than eight percent today. In all that time, what have we heard from those entities that should have defended them: the UN, Amnesty International, and the rest? Nothing. It seems that their incessant prattle about human rights does not apply to Hindus.
But I do not care about their actions—or inaction. Their history is one of moral cowardice anyway; of focusing on what is politically correct and what brings them cash; of responding to real human rights tragedies only when the body bags are piled too high to ignore. If we wait for them, we can expect their continued silence until the day they awake to a Hindu-less Bangladesh; and then they will say, ‘How could this have happened?’ and, ‘We never knew.’ If our brothers and sisters are to escape the regular murders, rapes, legalized land grabs, Mandir destruction, and more, we will be the ones to save them.
Did the so-called civilized world help Hindus in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Kashmir? What makes us think they will save Hindus in Bangladesh? There are only two options open to us, and each of us here must decide: Will I act to stop the atrocities or be complicit in them.
First, the bad news: we do not have a lot of time. The numbers alone tell us that; and there is more.
Charge Number One: Government-tolerated atrocities continue unabated. Some people naively assumed the current Awami League government would change things; it has not. During its first year in power, major anti-Hindu attacks occurred at the rate of at least one per week. I say “at least” because while there were dozens more reported, I was able to directly verify that many. All of them were serious, involved Hindu victims and Muslim victimizers; and in every case, the government refused to take action. They included a three-day anti-Hindu pogrom in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka—right behind a police station; the abduction and forced conversion of a 20-year-old Hindu college student—that police call “voluntary,” even though the kidnappers needed to fire guns during the abduction; and the gang rape and forced conversion of a 14-year-old girl whose victimizers continue threatening her family with police connivance.
There was no let-up during its second year in power, when for instance, there were seven major, confirmed attacks in a 25 day period during March and April. And it is still happening. As recently as last month in Dinajpur, an area I know well and from which many Hindus flee the country, another Hindu child was abducted and forcibly converted to Islam; the police will not intervene.
This is a regular and deliberate attack on the Hindu gene pool, occurring at least monthly; an attack that turns Hindu girls into “baby machines” for Islam. Bangladeshi authorities are complicit in this crime and their involvement critical to it. Their refusal to prosecute gives Islamists and others a green light. Plus, they refuse to help recover these Hindu girls, no matter how much the families plead. Our time for pleading is over!
Charge Number Two: This spring, the Bangladeshi Supreme Court questioned several constitutional amendments, including the infamous Eighth, which substituted Islam for Bengali ethnicity as the basis for Bangladesh nationality. It made Islam the country’s official religion, and placed it in a legally favored position. The court directed the government to submit replacements to an Awami-controlled parliament, which it did—for every amendment but the Eighth. The Awami League thus proclaimed its intention to continue delegitimizing non-Muslims in Bangladesh and laugh at those who believed its promises that it would do otherwise. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me? It did the same thing almost immediately during its tenure by ignoring a Supreme Court ruling that deliberately opened the door for the new government to void Bangladesh’s Vested Property Act; a law responsible for the forced transfer of millions of acres from Hindus to Muslims and the economic engine driving this train of ethnic cleansing. Our time for ignoring is over!
Charge Number Three: Earlier this year, I was asked to meet with a Bangladeshi cabinet minister at the Prime Minister’s behest. The minister told me how much they were willing to do for help in making material improvements to the country that would secure the Awami League’s re-election. The conversation was moving along smoothly until I said to him: “You know, we’re going to have to do something about the persecution of Hindus in your country.” He nervously assured me that there was no problem for Hindus in Bangladesh; but I told him I knew otherwise and that we would have to deal with the matter—and with actions, not words. Since then, we have had some ongoing contact, but the Bangladeshi government has thus far chosen to forego those benefits rather than stop oppressing Hindus. Our time for tolerating empty words is over!
Charge Number Four: And please listen closely because this one is on us. It already has spread to India. While the Hindu population has dropped in East Bengal, the Muslim population has begun to outstrip it in West Bengal. Those who claim that it is merely a matter of demographics and not something indicative of jihad should have accompanied me to Deganga earlier this year where I met with victims of a well-documented Muslim attack on the Hindu community. Since the attack, many Hindus have left the area; the ones who remain are thinking about it. Wives cannot go to the market unaccompanied; children cannot walk to school alone. And I heard similar tales from frightened Hindus in Howrah, saw desecrated Mandirs in North 24 Parganas, and spoke with a woman whose daughter was abducted from the village of Norit. Nor is it limited to West Bengal. In Meerut, I arrived six days after a Hindu community leader was burned to death by jihadi activists who have become more brazen not two hours from New Delhi.
The ethnic cleansing of the Bangladeshi Hindus is a terrible atrocity by itself; but it is also a test of our own resolve. What we do about it will determine how far our enemies will go and if we eventually have to battle them on Route 41 because we did not stop them in Dhaka or Deganga. Our time for action is now!
And it has already started.
Do you remember my earlier words? “Since 1947, 49 million Hindus in Bangladesh have gone missing.” They are not really mine. Those are the words with which Congressman Robert Dold from Illinois, who is represented at this Dharma Sabha today, began a speech from the floor of the United States Congress on July 28, 2011 that changed our struggle forever. Instead of speaking in general terms about “minorities” or “extremists,” Congressman Dold addressed this issue of anti-Hindu persecution in Bangladesh specifically and forcefully; and he cited it as a reason for US action. That had never been done before in the US Congress.
Why is this particularly important? It is important because our opponents—both those who are perpetrating these atrocities and those who are deliberately ignoring them—have kept this issue off the human rights agenda and distracted us with their own, politically motivated ones. They want to fool us into believing that there is no persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh so it can continue under the radar; to keep us from putting the issue of anti-Hindu ethnic cleansing front and center so people have to deal with it; hence, the generalities about minorities (not Hindus per se) and extremists (not the “good people” running Bangladesh). Thanks to Congressman Dold, that is over. The genie is out of the bottle; the toothpaste is out of the tube; the persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh is part of the United States Congressional Record.
Moreover, Congressman Dold made that speech in support of a bill introduced by Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia, long time co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the US House, which we now have reason to hope will address the issue of the Bangladeshi Hindus. The fact that Wolf was at Dold’s side when he made that speech is no coincidence. Now, here is where your action can be vital.
The bill, HR440, called for the appointment of a “Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia.” It passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support and now rests with the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which is scheduled to meet next month to discuss the legislation before it. We need everyone to call their Senators, especially if they are on the Foreign Relations committee. If they are, call and urge that they co-sponsor S1245, support it in the Foreign Relations Committee, and make sure it is discussed at the committee’s next meeting. If they are not on the committee, urge them to co-sponsor the bill, which is being sponsored by Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri and co-sponsored by senators from both parties.
Emphasize the importance of the United States taking a lead in helping the victims of religious persecution through the Special Envoy that the bill calls for. If you wish to mention the Bangladeshi Hindus and my name, that would be great, too. Please make contact by telephone or fax; other methods will not be effective. There are handouts here with contact information for members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and a web site where you can get the same information for Senators not on the committee.
Your action—and that of as many people as you can get—is more important than you might think. Given its bi-partisan support, this bill almost certainly will pass; and that is a good thing. But we also know that the wrong person in the position could end up focusing on one-sidedly false charges about Gujarat, Orissa, Palestinians, and the like, while ignoring real issues like the Bangladeshi Hindus. Our best chance of preventing that is to play a prominent role early and even have some voice in who is appointed as Special Envoy. ‘Impossible,’ you say; ‘out of our reach.’ Think again. With the nation focused on the economy, this is unfolding out of the public eye and will not attract the sort of attention it otherwise would. We should fill that gap. And why not? We are voters, we are passionate, and we have a just cause. We have an opportunity here that took a perfect storm of factors to present itself. We cannot afford to waste it; more importantly, there is a young Hindu girl somewhere in South Asia who will be ripped from her family’s bosom and victimized in ways we cannot even imagine if we do. As I said in a different context earlier: the only thing that could stop us is ourselves.
This is but one of several initiatives made possible in part by Congressman Dold’s speech, and I want to mention one more. Yesterday, I was part of the initial meeting of Congressman Dold’s Human Rights Advisory Council. Our enemies are counting on the fact that we Americans are going to let these human rights issues fall through the cracks because we are so focused on the economy; they believe we no longer have any stomach for the fight. Well, they are wrong. And through organizations like Congressman Dold’s Human Rights Advisory Council, we are going to make sure our enemies get a rude awakening if they believe we will sit by while they continue raping children and destroying temples. Armenians, Assyrians, Baha’I, Jews, and Koreans, and I sat with the Congressman and made that pledge—to ourselves, to one another, and to the people who brought each of us to the table.
My friends, we are beginning to build a coalition among many people who are committed to helping one another’s causes, to saving the victims and not letting them be ignored; and all in the name of what is right. Regardless of what anyone does, as long as there is life in my body, I will continue fighting—alone if necessary—to save the Hindus of Bangladesh; but our chance of success is much greater if others join that fight; which means taking action and supporting these initiatives. For those who have or will, I offer my humble thanks. Those do not will have to figure out how to explain their complicity to their children, their grandchildren, and most of all to themselves.
Let me end with one more bit of motivation, if any is needed. 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; 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.