Dr. Richard BenkinLess than a week after the Mumbai terror attacks, United States Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was in South Asia trying to “reduce tensions” between India and Pakistan. (Funny, we did not see her flying around the United States with the same message after the Islamists’ 9/11 attacks.) By the time she arrived in the area, Pakistani support for the Deccan Mujahadeen and their parent Lashkar-i-Taiba was a well-known and accepted fact. Rice’s goal was to convince Pakistan to take some obvious actions to defuse Indian anger over its involvement in the attacks. It worked, too. Pakistan did go after Lashkar-i-Taiba and made some arrests, but it would surprise no one if the arrests are short-lived and the terrorist group is not back in business soon. The real upshot of the effort was a bevy of calls for US President-elect Barack Obama to find a “regional solution” to the conflicts in South Asia. And that should scare the heck out of everyone.
The notion of a regional solution entails throwing the many“regional” conflicts and issues in one pot and trying to determine which ones have priority for the major parties in the way of“solutions.” In a very broad way, it makes sense; but when it comes down to specifics, these approaches always fail. (Just look at their record in the Middle East.) Moreover, the solutions involve satisfying some of the combatants while ignoring others; securing rights for some in the region, while ignoring those of others; then assuming that the unsatisfied parties will decide to play nice. Given the recent focus on Kashmir and US interests in Afghanistan, that area will be the subject of these efforts. Deeper conflicts between India and Pakistan and between Hindus and Muslims in the area will be ignored. Moreover, is there anyone who believes a regional solution will address the ethnic cleansing of the Bangladeshi Hindus? This is no small matter, and the results of ignoring the carnage should feel all too familiar.
Our history of responding to genocide and ethnic cleansing is a sad one. The international community response seems to respond only after the bodies are piled too high to ignore. Pious statements of condemnation, memorials for the victims, and studied outrage are indeed the order of the day—but onlyafter our inaction allowed far too many deaths, most of them brutal. European Nazis murdered six million Jews in the 1940s. In the 1960s, Fulani-led Nigerians slaughtered around a million ethnic Ibos who formed the Republic of Biafra. Three decades later, majority Hutus murdered almost a million Tutsis in Rwanda; and Serbs did the same to about 10,000 ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. And the humiliating saga continues without end. Ethnic Arabs are still killing non-Arab Sudanese; so far over half a million. While there have been smaller mass killings, too, these crimes grabbed the world’s attention—albeit too late for the victims. The United Nations (UN) issued proclamations and sent aid through its human rights and refugee organizations. Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch, and others loudly condemned the perpetrators, documenting the atrocities and raising money for their aid programs. Several international celebrities took on highly visible roles, and massive protests worldwide gave vent to peoples’ outrage. Dr. Richard L. Benkin with refugees
Yet, a case of ethnic cleansing, a-genocide-in-the-making, with numbers that dwarf these crimes has been proceeding for decades with little more than the occasional whimper. When Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in 1971, Hindus made up almost one in five of its citizens. Today, they are less than one in ten. There are regular reports out of Bangladesh of young Hindu girls being abducted, raped, then forced to convert to Islam. The government has been investigating some of these incidents but thus far has taken no action. The practice continues unhindered. Demographers and others estimate that anywhere from 20 to 35 million Bangladeshi Hindus have disappeared. At least that many remain at risk; but no George Clooney or Angelina Jolie; no declarations from the UN, despite its mandate to stop such atrocities. Its largely misnomered human rights organizations ignore the matter. Even the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has never helped the victims, though several organizations have documented their suffering. Earlier this year, I visited almost two dozen extra-legal camps of Bangladeshi Hindu refugees in West Bengal, India, and saw their need for help. The international human rights industry, too, has been silent. AI has devoted pages upon web pages to the United States and Guantanamo and spends a high percentage of its resources criticizing Israeli democracy. It recently devoted the cover story on its web site to Sunnis treating Shias like “second-class citizens” but to date it has shown no stomach to oppose what could be the worst case of ethnic cleansing in our time. The last time AI or Human Rights Watch gave the Bangladeshi Hindus even passing mention was in 2006.
This is not the first time the world has ignored mass murder in South Asia. Towards the end of the Bangladeshi war of independence, Pakistani troops and their Islamist allies slaughtered between two and three million mostly Hindu Bangladeshis; noncombatants, women, children, the elderly. All manner of brutality from mutilation to ritualized gang rape accompanied the carnage, but the world remains silent even while the victims’ descendants cry out for justice. NATO sent troops into Kosovo when thousands were at risk but did nothing to save millions in East Bengal. Hindu refugees flood West Bengal and live in semi-legal squalor, but the UNHCR refuses to recognize them as refugees. Several refugees and others attribute this disparity to religious bias. Fear of terrorist reprisals, the lure of petrodollars, and a rigid political correctness prevent many from taking a stand against Islamists, according to one Indian activist. But he and others blame “our own nature” that militates against activism and tolerates corruption.
As I told Indian journalists, “Everyone in India seems to know about the Bangladeshi Hindus, but no one is doing anything about it.” The action of Bangladeshi Islamists while atrocious is not unexpected. Imagine, however, refugees barely escaping with their lives, leaving murdered loved ones behind. They described crossing into the largest Hindu nation in the world; but found no welcoming arms of co-religionists. Instead, they were “treated like trespassers”; given no aid, no shelter. They reported being forced into camps where captors took advantage of them no less than did their Islamist tormentors. In West Bengal, refugees testified that local officials let them squat on some land; in exchange, they would be forced to attend Communist rallies. They would get vote cards only to be told that officials of the ruling Communist Party of India/Marxist (CPIM) would fill them in for them. But if anyone else desired the land, the refugees would be ejected; something I observed first-hand.
India is today an economic and military powerhouse. Yet it has never advocated for the thousands of victims streaming across its borders. If it has protested the ethnic cleansing to Bangladesh, it has done so ineffectively and invisibly. Just last week, Pakistan demanded that India turn over any evidence of its complicity in the Mumbai attacks or cease its accusations. With Pakistan’s now aggressive approach in its own defense, the outcome of regional negotiations is anything but clear even with regard to what appeared to be the clearest issue in the region. How even more unclear are things with regard to the Bangladeshi Hindus. It would also be a mistake for the US and others to focus on the India-Pakistan conflict and Kashmir while ignoring Bangladesh. There really are many in that nation struggling to make democracy a success there. Moreover, there are issues of trade, minority protection, anti-poverty programs, and a host of other matters that any truly regional solution would have to address.
India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are the second, sixth, and seventh largest nations in the world by population respectively. An agreement that encompasses the varied and complex issues that plague the quarter of all humanity living in those countries would be nothing short of monumental. But it would have to be truly regional and tackle all of the critical issues in the region. Unfortunately, our track record on this score is not encouraging. No parties who claim to defend international justice have given a serious thought to the Bangladeshi Hindus; none have done anything concrete to stop the ethnic cleansing that is already transpiring. Any talk of a regional solution in South Asia is misguided at best, extremely dangerous at worst, as long as it and the participants ignore what could become the worst case of genocide even in our genocide-ridden age.
– Asian Tribune