Dr Richard Benkin, an American human rights activist, says that he will never be silent and never stop fighting for the rights of Bangladesh’s Hindus.
Dr Richard Benkin is an American human rights activist, journalist and writer. He successfully fought for the release of Bangladeshi journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, imprisoned and tortured after writing articles warning about the rise of Islamic radicals, urging Bangladesh to recognise Israel, and advocating for religious equality. Dr Benkin is helping Bangladeshi Hindu refugees in West Bengal and elsewhere in India secure basic rights and protections. A sought after speaker, he is currently working with others to organise Indian Hindu communities in the United States and elsewhere to take action to protect their co-religionists in South Asia. He spoke to The Sunday Guardian on the issue during his recent visit to the capital. Excerpts:
Q: How grave is the situation in Bangladesh where Hindus are being persecuted by jihadists?
A: If it were only jihadis, things wouldn’t be so grave. Jihadis are more easily identified and isolated; and although they have been gaining power steadily in Bangladesh for decades, they are not the only problem, not even the biggest one. What makes the situation so perilous is the range of support for the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League brand themselves as liberals and pro-minority, but they have held near monopolistic power since 2009, and the open assault on Hindus continues unabated. The people who carry out the attacks on Hindus—the shock troops of ethnic cleansing—come from across the Bangladeshi populace. Apologists might tell you it’s done with the hope of some small financial gain, and not out of hatred; but that does not absolve them of any guilt. Would you murder your neighbours to get their homes? Of course, not, but these Bangladeshis have no problem doing it if their neighbour is a Hindu.
Pakistan’s first census (1951) found Hindus to be about a third of East Pakistan’s population. When East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, they were less than a fifth; 20 years later under a tenth; and reliable estimates put them at about one in 15 today. You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to figure out that the next number is not going to be higher.
Q: Is the government there taking proper steps to check it?
A: That answer is a simple No! In fact, government inaction represents its tacit approval of anti-Hindu actions, and is arguably the most important reason for this human rights travesty. This is not at all like genocides by Nazi Germany, or in Rwanda or the Sudan. It’s not even like Pakistan where the army and ISI carry out atrocities. There are no concentration camps, no Gestapo or Janjaweed. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to get people to see the injustice. There are so many bad things happening around the world that people can lose sight of this one. Yet, whether done by the government, Islamist radicals, or “average Bangladeshis,” the impact on the victims is the same.
Q: You are a Jewish person. What prompted you to work for the cause of the Hindu community in Bangladesh?
A: In 2005, along with my then-Congressman, Mark Kirk, I forced the Bangladeshi government to do something it did not want to do and release a political prisoner. Not surprisingly, the BNP government reacted by refusing me entrance into the country until 2007, which was during the January 2007 military coup. While there, I heard about the anti-Hindu persecution, and when I returned to the US, I received a fax from a Hindu pleading with me for help because, he wrote, “my people are dying in Bangladesh”. I immersed myself in research and in developing good sources of on-the-ground information, and the rest, as they say, is history. That’s the “how”.The “why” comes from my Jewish experience. During the 1930s and 1940s, it was my people who were dying. Raised in its aftermath, I learned two things. The first is our call, “never again,” which means that we never again would allow such a thing to happen to us. It also means that we would never stand by while it happened to others. The second was that the inaction of others was at least as responsible for the Holocaust as actions by the Nazis. When I realised that it was happening to Hindus in Bangladesh, I refused to sit by and do nothing. I have not and never will be silent or stop fighting for the Hindus of Bangladesh!
Q: Do you think Hindus are facing similar situations in other countries as well, including Pakistan? Are you working for them also in those countries?
A: We know that Hindus are victimised in other countries, too, especially Pakistan where the Hindu population is down to about one per cent; and where Hindus have been forced out of former areas of the Hindu heartland. But I am just one guy doing what I can. I am part of no large organization or government. My abilities and resources are limited to that of one man, and I fight for Bangladesh’s Hindus because there are many lives to save and because no one else is stepping up to stop this. Where are those large organisations, the international media, or governments and their intelligence agencies? Where are the 110 crore Hindus? Even Hindutva organisations discouraged me and told me not to take any action. But that won’t stop me either.
As my human rights work expanded to include other causes, I found that I was best suited to take on those that others ignored. That’s why I am helping Pashtuns, Sindhi, and Baloch win back their independence from Pakistan. Hindus in Bangladesh, however, remain my first priority and neither the media’s silence nor the inaction of Hindus themselves will stop me.
Q: Are you satisfied with the Indian government’s steps to ensure that the rights of the Hindus are protected in Bangladesh, Pakistan or any other countries?
A: No, which is quite puzzling. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and I have talked about this, and he expressed concern about it. Modi is a sincere man who, I believe, really does want to help his co-religionists next door, just as I believe that most Bangladeshis are decent people. However, neither Modi’s sincerity nor the Bangladeshis’ decency does anything to stop the anti-Hindu assault. I also told L.K. Advani about it in 2009. He responded by saying that the Indian people must know about this, but he never acted on it; and as the Dalai Lama once said: “It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.”
My sources also tell me that it will be difficult for anything to happen on a universal scale as long as long as India is silent. Until then, I have to fight for individual victories and to move the US government (Bangladesh’s biggest customer for its exports) to take a stand. But we are not without hope. Both the US State Department and US lawmakers are working with me to take effective action. Also, there is a growing movement among Indian Hindu youth to take up this cause; especially among the Hindu Struggle Committee of Arun Upadhyay and Diksha Kaushik.
Q: Do you think that the Citizenship Amendment Act will help improve the situation?
A: Yes and no. On the one hand, providing a safe haven for Bangladeshi minorities who until now have had none, is a just and moral thing to do; and I applaud the Indian government for it. The caution is that it must be managed much better than cross-border incursions have been until now. You cannot tell a true refugee from an infiltrator just by looking at them and except for a small area in its southeast, Bangladesh is almost entirely Bengali. It’s also tough distinguishing between a persecuted Punjabi from Pakistan and an infiltrator; same for Sindhis, Kashmiris, and others.
I believe in the good that the Citizenship Amendment Act will do for persecuted Hindus. However, it must be coupled with strong action to stop the persecution in Bangladesh and remake East Bengal into an area that again welcomes people of all religions.