Recently, US Senator Charles Grassley sparked an angry response when he called out Bangladesh as a country where religious freedom is not respected in fact. As is so often the case, the Bangladeshi response focused on formal laws and such but ignored the reality on the ground.
Senator Grassley is the President Pro Tem of the Senate, which makes him fourth in line for Presidential succession, as well as chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Finance, which can have an impact on Bangladesh's economy.
The Bangladeshi response, by the way, might have meant something for domestic consumption here, but I can assure you that it convinced no one that things are fine for minorities in Bangladesh.
Fighting the ethnic cleansing of Bangladesh's Hindus is and has been an emotional and strategic roller coaster. When I first started in 2007, people told me that "no one cares, no one ever will care"; and for a time, it looked like they might be right. But that sort of human rights action is a marathon, not a sprint; and the fact that the struggle continues 13 years later should not obscure how close we might be getting to a resolution.
For years, the BNP government refused to let me in the country because of my work. The interim caretaker and military that followed let me in once or twice but otherwise blocked me.
And at first, the Awami League government refused to let me in but later ended the ban. That more open attitude reached its zenith this year when the government gave me a five-year visa, which I find a positive sign for our being able to work together, end the persecution, and make things better for all parties.
Regardless, the persecution of Bangladesh's Hindus remains a serious problem that is getting more and more international attention, which I will get to in a bit.
In 1951, Pakistan held its first census after the massive population transfers that accompanied partition. It found that Hindus accounted for a little less than a third of the East Pakistan population. When East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, they were just under a fifth.
After 30 years of Bangladeshi rule, they were less than a tenth; and today's estimates have them hovering somewhere close to one in 15.Professor Sachi Dastidar of the State University of New York, using demographic data, estimates that the Bangladesh census is missing about 5 crore Hindus due to murder, forced conversion, and forced emigration. Some people might want to argue about how or why it happened. The fact is that it happened; and based on documented cases and fleeing population, it still is.
Bangladeshi cabinet ministers, ambassadors, and other officials have reacted angrily to the data and even questions about what the government is doing about it. Some responded with silly excuses, my favorite coming from one high official who said that the Hindu "population has gone down because Hindus leave Bangladesh for India for better matches for their children."
During all those years when Bangladeshi governments refused to let me in the country, I spent my time with Bangladeshi Hindu refugees, and not one of them ever said they fled their country so their children would have better marriage prospects. Those responses hurt Bangladesh's credibility, and not just with me.
Quite a few lawmakers and staff in Washington shared their derisive opinions of former Bangladeshi officials in Washington. When I would get these excuses, it always seemed that the official figured that all Americans get their information from the movies and are naïve enough to believe anything they said.
They ultimately found out otherwise as my Capitol Hill allies and I showed them extensive evidence of how Hindus and Hinduism are being eliminated in Bangladesh.While you might or might not consider the United States worthy of being a moral arbiters, in the practical world of geo-politics, they're critical to the Bangladeshi economy and the economic miracle that is today's Bangladesh.
One of my great pleasures last year was reading mind-boggling growth figures for Bangladesh during my presentation at a Daily Asian Age seminar. But what would happen to all that if Bangladesh's biggest customer started buying their garments from Latin American countries because companies did not want to be associated with these human rights atrocities and the government's refusal to do anything about them; or because President Trump levied tariffs that made them no longer competitive because of these human rights issues?
And don't expect China to pick up the slack. Even before the coronavirus ravaged their economy, it was in serious trouble. Even at their best, the Chinese are great at selling you stuff, but not much on buying.
In any given week, we receive multiple reports of atrocities against Hindus. For me to accept one, I either have to confirm it personally or have it confirmed by at least two independent witnesses. Once I do, they now are going to the US State Department and some of America's most powerful lawmakers, including those with authority over trade and foreign aid.
Another area currently under review is Bangladesh's participation in UN Peacekeeping, which is funded by US taxpayers far more than anyone else. If Bangladesh cannot keep the peace at home, those police and soldiers would do better to stay at home, though it would mean the loss of millions of dollars every month.
Late last month one lawmaker, Congressman Brad Schneider from the Chicago area,considered the situation so serious that he was about to take the extraordinary step of going himself to Washington's Bangladeshi embassy until scheduling conflicts forced the parties to find another date and time.
Despite the delay, Bangladeshi officials should understand that this member of the powerful US House Committee Ways and Means, which controls financial and trade legislation, will not relent in his determination to deal with this matter.
As the evidence of human rights abuses against Hindus in Bangladesh continued to accumulate, I have counseled Bangladeshi leaders to formally recognize the problem and be part of the solution. For Bangladesh has a lot of goodwill in the world. Your War of Independence is seen as a noble struggle by a great people.
The fact that the immediate event sparking it was Pakistan's attempt to overturn the legitimate electoral will of the Bengali people strengthens the belief that it was about democracy and freedom; about equal justice for all. It's an inspiring chapter in world history that touches the best in us all.
The murder of as many as three million innocents, massive use of rape to attack the Bengali gene pool, and targeted execution of intellectuals and others was a tragedy that the world should recognize as the attempted genocide it was. That Hindus might face a similar fate in Bangladesh now, does not fit with the nation's carefully cultivated image around the world, which is changing as a result.
Even under the Awami League, long considered a party with affection for minorities, there were targeted anti-Hindu actions at the rate of one and a half per week during its first term in office. And they were only those atrocities I was able to confirm myself. Decision-makers are aware that the actual number is much higher.
Unlike nations like Pakistan, identified in Senator Grassley's statement, Bangladesh does not carry out these atrocities itself-even though we have proof of participation in the atrocities and their cover ups by individual members of the government. More people see it as equally guilty, however, because Bangladeshi governments (of all parties and factions) refused to prosecute the atrocities or punish the perpetrators, sending a clear message that if you commit these crimes against Hindus, nothing will happen to you.
When police and government officials tried to tell me that "the same thing happens to the majority community," such arguments fell flat. I asked them for the last time a group of Hindus destroyed a mosque, and the government did nothing; or the last time a Muslim child was abducted and forcibly converted. No one ever produced a single example.
After a police official posted guards at a threatened Mandir while I was here last year, he was transferred for it, and his successor has not renewed the protection. I have given reams of evidence of crimes to former cabinet ministers and ambassadors who promised to "take care of it personally," but never once received a response.
Time might be running out for a solution that does not put Bangladesh in the same human rights category as Pakistan. India, too, has recognized the problem by including Bangladeshi Hindus as a group protected by the recent citizenship laws.
Here is my suggestion. Bangladesh's diplomats in Washington are top-notch, bright, and quite savvy about the different ways things might get done.
Even when we disagree, there always is mutual respect. I suggest that they, along with my good offices, and perhaps the assistance of the Bangladesh International Mediation Society, hammer out a solution that protects all Bangladeshis, assures that the rule of law is applied equally to all citizens, and secures Bangladesh's place among the great nations of the world. We can do it. The solution is there. All we need is the authority.
In the end, what happens is up to the Bangladeshis themselves-not the US or China or the British Raj. The nation's leaders will have to decide if they want to continue gambling that people will ignore these atrocities and continue to fund the economy responsible for them; or take the lead in solving this increasingly known human rights tragedy.
The writer is an American scholar and a geopolitical analyst
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