Pogroms a fact of life for Bangladeshi Hindus, but now Dhaka can’t escape scrutiny by blaming radicals
The ethnic cleansing of Bangladesh’s Hindus have frustrated many for years by the complicity of every Bangladesh government, and the international community’s failure to recognise the atrocities
The massive anti-Hindu pogroms in Bangladesh are as disturbing as they are unsurprising, however, they could be the spark needed to awaken nations heretofore willing to look the other way at the South Asian nation’s effort to eliminate Hindus from its borders. The fact that they were associated with the Hindu celebration of Durga Puja, a major Hindu observance with even greater meaning for Bengali Hindus, raises religious freedom issues that make it even more difficult to explain away. Hence, condemnations have poured in from countries and NGOs previously inert at the slaughter of Hindus.
Amnesty International had been largely silent as Hindus faced decades of attacks designed to ethnically cleanse them from their ancestral home in East Bengal. In the past two years, it called on Bangladesh to do more for Rohingya Muslims multiple times, complained about restrictions on press freedom, but seemed okay with ongoing attacks on Hindus.
A 2019 press release noted, “Twenty-five years ago, the international community stood by and watched as genocide unfolded in Rwanda, devastating a country and leaving lasting scars.” Yet, it “stood by and watched” as Hindus went from a third to a fifteenth of Bangladesh’s population. It “stood by and watched” while Hindus faced human rights atrocities — murder, gang rape, forced conversion, and more — that were aided and abetted by Bangladeshi governments that refused to punish the criminals. It accepted those governments’ excuses that the problem was “radicals”; but no more.
On 18 October, Amnesty International issued a statement on the current anti-Hindu violence that held the Bangladeshi government responsible because it “failed in its duty to protect minorities”.
Moreover, that assignment of blame — and responsibility for fixing the situation — is spreading. For it was in that atmosphere, only two days after Amnesty International’s press release, that the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held its nomination hearing for President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the new US ambassador to Bangladesh, Peter D Haas. I was involved in that process, as was the Hindu American Foundation, and can confirm that at a time when partisan politics often stands in the way of agreement, neither party had any appetite to excuse the Bangladeshi government’s guilt for the anti-Hindu pogroms.
Public hearings on ambassadorial nominations for smaller countries like Bangladesh tend to be perfunctory affairs. Americans recognise the President’s prerogative to make appointments and tend to approve them quickly. If there are discordant issues that the Senators want the prospective ambassador to address, they raise them in the all-important closed-door meetings that precede the public hearing. In this case, it was holding the Bangladeshi government responsible for the communal violence against Hindus.
Both Majority (Democratic) and Minority (Republican) Senators and staff worked with me as news of anti-Hindu pogroms in Cumilla, Rangpur, and elsewhere in Bangladesh shocked Americans. Many have worked with me for years and recognised that these events were not exceptions, but more the rule for Hindus in Bangladesh. Even news that an unnamed number of people were arrested failed to gain traction in Washington, since decades-worth of evidence shows that, at best, Bangladesh arrests and later releases individual lawbreakers while providing immunity for those who incite and fund the anti-Hindu pogroms. More often than not, the criminals know that nothing will happen to them — which of course incentivises them to commit more crimes against Hindus.
This should not be taken to mean that these US power brokers see Bangladesh as an enemy or do not want a trade agreement with Bangladesh; quite the contrary. It does mean, however, that it won’t happen without the Bangladeshi acting — not just promising — to protect all its citizens and apply the rule of law equally to all of them, something that it has failed to do on every international measure. This is neither more nor less than we should expect from any country; and I was happy when Committee staff said they wanted my ongoing involvement. This is important not because Americans want to be the new British Raj (we don’t) or because we consider ourselves “better” than other people (again we don’t).
Bangladesh experienced an economic miracle before the pandemic that raised it out of the category of less developed nations. Both the people and the government can be rightly proud of their great accomplishments. But that vital economy remains dependent on the largesse of others, especially the United States.
Americans are the world’s biggest customers for Bangladeshi garment exports, accounting for almost a fifth of them, which are the backbone of Bangladesh’s economy. Many other countries export readymade garments and would love a larger share of the American market. This gives Americans a number of alternatives if Bangladesh continues to allow the human rights of Hindus to be violated with impunity.
Bangladesh also provides more United Nations (UN) peacekeeping personnel than any other country, taking in millions of dollars every month, and paid for largely by US taxpayers. The UN, too, has condemned the violence against Hindus, saying that the attacks “need to stop”.
I was in Dhaka during the 2007 military coup and spoke with several military leaders after the coup. There was violence in the street, and Opposition leader Sheikh Hasina told her followers to “close down the country”. But the military told me that, in fact, they finally acted because they worried that the UN would bar them from peacekeeping operations. The stakes for Bangladesh could hardly be higher. Protecting Bangladesh’s peacekeeping role and its export economy is in Sheikh Hasina’s hands. Will she choose to do so or give greater priority to brutalising Hindus?
And what of India? The Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 marked the first time that the Government of India formally recognised that Hindus are persecuted and at-risk in Bangladesh. In the same tradition in which India has provided safe haven for Tibetan Buddhists and Iraqi and other Jews, it now offers succour to persecuted Hindus in Bangladesh. What it does with that formal recognition remains to be seen. In addition to buying a growing amount of Bangladeshi exports, India also cooperates with Bangladesh on water rights, counterterrorism, and other economic and strategic elements — any of which could be in play if Bangladesh continues to abet the persecution of Hindus.
If my discussions in Washington and Peter D Haas’s confirmation hearings are any indication, Bangladesh can no longer mollify the rest of the world by blaming the ethnic cleansing of Hindus on radicals. If Sheikh Hasina decides to protect all her citizens equally, there is much to be gained. If she instead chooses to continue allowing the ethnic cleansing of Hindus, she will have to explain to her people why she put radical interests over theirs.
The writer is an American human rights activist and the author of ‘A Quiet Case of Ethnic Cleansing: The Murder of Bangladesh’s Hindus’. Views expressed are personal.
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