A quiet case of ethnic cleansing: Saving the Bangladeshi Hindus

A quiet case of ethnic cleansing: Saving the Bangladeshi Hindus


Bangladesh’s Hindu population is dying. That is not opinion; it is a fact. At the time of India’s partition (1947), they were just under one in three East Pakistanis. When East Pakistan became Bangladesh (1971), they were under one in five; thirty years later less than one in ten; and according to some estimates, under eight percent today. Professor Sachi Dastidar of the State University of New York, using demographic and other methods, calculates that well over 49 million of them are missing (Dastidar, 2008). (1) During that same period, regular reports of anti-Hindu atrocities have poured out of Bangladesh. They have not slowed even with the landslide election of the self-styled “pro-minority” Awami League government at the end of 2008. Serious anti-Hindu actions occurred at the rate of almost one a week in 2009; and they have continued without let up in 2010 and 2011. (2) This puts every one of Bangladesh’s remaining 13-15,000,000 Hindus at risk. Yet, while these numbers dwarf those of the worst cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing (e.g., Nazi Holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur), no major human rights organization, international body, or individual nation has highlighted this quiet case of ethnic cleansing or even raised it as a matter for investigation.

Through on-site investigation in South Asia’s refugee camps, universities, and along its open borders, among other venues, this author sometimes in conjunction with local activists has verified numerous atrocities. While current and past Bangladeshi governments take pains to note that the perpetrators were not government agents, they have been complicit nonetheless because they prosecute few and punish even fewer. Moreover, while they are driven by radical ideology, perpetrators are “average” Muslims, and that makes this especially chilling. For history shows that the most successful cases of genocide occur when a cadre of true believers incites average citizens to engage in heinous acts against a targeted minority; acts they otherwise would not dream of committing. There might be no Gestapo or Janjaweed in Bangladesh, but its Hindu community is facing a similar process of destruction at the hands of the Bangladeshi majority.In 2009, I interviewed a family that crossed into India from the northern Bangladeshi district of Dinajpur only 22 days earlier. They told me about an uncle being killed, the father beaten, and their small farm invaded by a large number of “neighbors.” 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. I have spoken with hundreds of other Bangladeshi Hindu refugees whose stories are essentially the same. Victims who went to Bangladeshi authorities for help were told to drop their complaints and leave the country; some were threatened or actually harmed for their entreaties. Discouraged at that unchanging response, other victims did not even try to engage them. (3)

Not long after that 2009 encounter, what can be described as nothing less than an anti-Hindu pogrom occurred in the Sutrapur section of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, on March 30, April 17, and April 29.

A community of approximately 400 Hindus was reportedly going about its business when “hundreds of Muslims” suddenly descended on them and demanded they quit the homes where they and their families had lived for the past 150 years. Witnesses also report that police watched passively while attackers beat residents and destroyed a Hindu temple (Benkin, 2009).

At first, the Bangladeshi Government denied that any such thing even happened, but sources of the reports were highly credible, which prompted our own two-month investigation that confirmed something terrible did occur. While the pogrom did not leave all 400 Hindus homeless, as initially alleged, it dispossessed many, quite a few of whom remain so. Eventually, the government admitted that Hindus were beaten and some religious desecration occurred; but it still denied that this amounted to a specifically anti-Hindu attack. Yet, our investigation confirmed that police were present during them and that the area attacked was located directly behind a police station; the desecrated temple was only about 18 meters from it. Police refused to launch a case against the perpetrators, who made no effort to hide their identities, even though at least three crimes were committed: arson (they also burned down several homes); battery; and destruction of religious property. Several groups lodged formal protests, including Global Human Rights Defence of The Hague (GHRD), one of those highly credible sources. According to GHRD Human Rights Officer Jenny Lundstrom, they even brought the matter to Dhaka’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner, but he “refused to take any action against the perpetrators of crime.” Awami League MP Shuranjit Sengupta refused to respond to another group’s entreaties (Benkin, 2009).

Police justified the Sutrapur action with reference to Bangladesh’s Vested Property Act (VPA). The VPA is a re-named version of a Pakistani law (Enemy Property Act). In 1974, the new Bangladeshi government was completing its review of the Pakistani laws that once governed its people. Its challenge was to incorporate as much of that legal system as possible into their new one, while eliminating those not in keeping with the democratic principles that animated its revolution. Pakistan’s Enemy Property Act would seem to be a prima facie case of a law that would not become part of the new Bangladesh. The Pakistanis passed the Enemy Property Act as an open act of retaliation against its Hindu population after its humiliating defeat in its 1965 war with India. Instead of scrapping the law, however, the Bangladeshis simply renamed it. The VPA empowers the government of Bangladesh to declare minority property as “vested” on the flimsiest of pretexts and re-distribute it to Muslims. The pretext is alleging that the property owner no longer resides in Bangladesh (according to the law is no longer a “permanent” resident). This has created an industry whereby these defenseless minorities (i.e., not defended in fact by local, state or, national authorities), and especially Hindus, are attacked, driven off their land, declared non-resident, and then the land is seized and taken over, as pre-arranged, by the perpetrators. The VPA has become a tremendous source of patronage and political reward; part of the nation’s notorious corruption gravy train. It has in this way also become the economic engine that powers this quiet case of ethnic cleansing (Bhowmik, 1998; Bhowmik, 2008; Benkin, 2008; Trivedi, 2007; Mohaiemen, 2008).

The Awami League has condemned the law and promised to do something about it; but never has. (4) One explanation is that the distribution of Hindu properties, obtained with the authority of the VPA, has become indispensible for any major political party in Bangladesh. Professor Abul Barkat of Dhaka University has carried out the most extensive and authoritative studies of the VPA. In several works between 1996 and 2008, he noted that all parties benefitted from the VPA, and that the critical factor determining who got what was political power, not ideology or principle. For instance, when the Awami League’s hated rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was in control, its minions received 45 percent of the VPA spoils. When the Awami League was in control, its minions received 44 percent. The Islamist Jamaat e-Islami party’s share changed very little from one Awami control (five percent) to BNP control (eight percent), even though the latter is associated with anti-Hindu activity and even brought Jamaat into its 2001-2006 ruling coalition (Barkat, et. al., 1997; Barkat, et. al., 2008).

Perhaps because there are no concentration camps or killing fields and because the destruction of the Bangladeshi Hindus has been occurring slowly but steadily over decades, it has been especially difficult to get people to recognize it. We have, however, a unique but narrow window of opportunity to do something about it, and both Europe and the United States can play a vital role. Although Bangladesh’s current Awami League government has been unable or unwilling take any effective action to stop this atrocity, the destruction of Bangladesh’s non-Muslim minorities does not comport with the party’s philosophy or seem to be part of the future Bangladesh it envisions. The Awami League is less comfortable with it than was its predecessor and political rival BNP, which even included an openly Islamist party in its ruling coalition. Bangladesh is a nation beset by problems and challenges. It is the only nation that appears among the world’s ten most populous and its ten most densely populated. Its 150 million people face constant privation, especially in areas of infrastructure: consistent and reliable electricity, clean water, good roads, and so forth; not to mention its needs in areas like agriculture, energy development, and market development. Helping Bangladesh make progress in those areas would help counter the influence of radical Islamist groups, which have been gaining ground there steadily for the past two decades—in particular because they have offered people basic services that governments have been unable to provide (Karlekar, 2005; Brunei Times, 2010). The Awami League’s re-election in 2014 is also in the West’s interest as the government has at least made some progress in working cooperatively with India on controlling terrorist infiltration and internally in reining in radical Islamist groups. It offers a much better chance of keeping this nation out of the Islamist camp than any of its major rivals do.

Europe and the United States can help Bangladesh (and not incidentally the Awami League) with aid in these areas but also have the leverage to demand effective action by the Bangladeshi government to end its tacit approval of the ethnic cleansing of its Hindu citizens. In exchange for this extensive help for the nation of Bangladesh, Europe and the United States would be justified in demanding that the Bangladeshi government: (1) effectively prosecute credible accusations of the sort of anti-Hindu actions described in this article; (2) effectively prosecute those government officials who do not do so whether out of corruption or bigotry; (3) repeal the VPA immediately and return seized property to its rightful owners or compensate them for it. Thus far, the greatest impediment preventing governments from taking these actions has been fear of political reprisal; the VPA having been a major source of patronage and corruption using the proceeds from Hindu property seized under Bangladeshi law—an amount, according to Barkat equal to $55 Billion (Barkat, et. al., 2008).

Europe and the United States often claim the mantle of defenders of human rights victims. Most recently, in March 2011, they engaged in military action against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya expressly on that basis. In 1991, they used the same justification for NATO’s military actions in Bosnia. While military action is not necessarily needed to save the Bangladeshi Hindus, what is needed is the same outrage over their ethnic cleansing and the same commitment to take strong action in their defense. Unlike the other two examples, this one does not include a government that would be their adversary; but instead, one that can be a partner in ending this atrocity. Rather than threatening military action, Europe and the United States can offer technical and other assistance, but—and this is critical—only in exchange for concrete actions, not words alone. Within months after her election, Sheikh Hasina told a visiting French dignitary that her government would repeal all of Bangladesh’s anti-minority laws; that has not happened (Daily Star, 2009). We have the example of the Potemkin village Vested Property Return Act of 2001, which sounded good but failed to help the Bangladeshi Hindus. Without requiring specific actions before providing the benefits, promises of help to stop the ethnic cleansing of Bangladesh’s Hindus will never be realized in fact.

What a deal: concrete help for a nation that needs it in exchange for concrete actions to save a people whose victimization demands it.



1. Population statistics are taken from the census of Pakistan (1948), and Bangladesh (1974 and 2001). Former Indian cabinet minister, Dr. Swami Subramanian, is among those offering current estimates to this author. In February 2011, however, Bangladeshi cabinet minister H. T. Iman told this author that he believed the proportion of Hindus in Bangladesh was again on the rise.

2. Working with people on the ground in South Asia, we investigated hundreds of reported incidents but included in this tally only those that: were specifically anti-Hindu; were independently verified and passed our own standards for verification; occurred since the installation of the Awami League government; occurred with impunity from the Bangladeshi government. Thus, the incidents cited were less than half of those reported. Additionally, reports of similar incidents continue to come out of Bangladesh. Sources include: Global Human Rights Defence, Bangladesh Minority Watch, Bangladesh Hindu Christian Buddhist Unity Council, Asian Human Rights Commission, multiple local newspapers, and direct testimony of the victims.

3. These interviews took place in several Indian states including West Bengal, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. The interview with the family and their 14-year-old daughter took place on March 23, 2009, amid a small group of huts in the West Bengal district of Uttar Dinajpur.

4. Just before its last term of office expired in 2001, the Awami League passed the Vested Property Return Act, which was intended to repeal the VPA. It never was implemented, however, during subsequent governments; and neither is the current Awami League government implementing that repeal. Moreover, the Awami League has been criticized for passing a law on the eve of their exit from power, knowing it had little or no chance of being implemented, after refusing to repeal the VPA during any time over the previous five years when it had the same power to do so. Today, the VPA is in force as much as it ever was.

Richard L. Benkin is the President of Forcefield