A less than two minute-video of Priya Saha with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office has gone viral, earning her the ire of much of Bangladesh’s political establishment. It has been even fiercer in social media. Traitor, screamed many and demanded immediate justice. Luckily, Bangladesh has a cool-headed Prime Minister who while away from home on an official mission instructed to do no such thing. Let’s hear her out, let her explain what she has to say. We can take action, if necessary, thereafter, she counseled.
Ms Saha is a leader of the Hindu Bouddho Khristan Oikyo Porishod, a platform of Bangladesh’s religious minority groups, who was invited to the White House by the US State Department. Together with representatives of many other persecuted minority groups from around the world, she was in the Oval Office to meet face-to-face with the most powerful man on earth, the US President. Hurriedly and a bit inarticulately, she told the President more 37 million Hindus in Bangladesh have ‘disappeared’. Her own house has been plundered by extremists. Please, help us stay in the country, she beseeched the President.
She did not explain what she meant by ‘disappeared’, nor did she specify the time period – from when to when – the many million Hindus had disappeared. Absurd, many in the official circles declared, and many in our political cognoscenti argued she was maligning the country in front of the US President.
It was neither a surprise nor a shock to hear the chorus of condemnation. Everywhere minorities are under attack, their voices rarely getting a chance to become audible. If you are a Muslim in India, a Bahai in Iran, an Ahmadia in Pakistan or an African-American in the US, discrimination is part of your daily experience. Being a minority – in terms of numbers, wealth and political clout – you are no match for the majority who control all aspects of life. On paper you may have equal rights and opportunities, but it is just that – on paper only. Political scientists call this phenomenon ‘horizontal inequality’. It is their country, and yet, in reality, daily humiliation is what they get for being a minority. For example, unless you are a Punjabi, chances of your being in the military are limited. If you are a Kurd in Turkey, most doors for government employment are closed for you. If you are an African-American or a Muslim in America, you will be ‘racially profiled’ and face additional scrutiny.
Underscoring such discriminations, Mahatma Gandhi had more than a century ago emphasized the role of the majority in ensuring the rights of minorities. The degree to which a country is civilized can be measured by the treatment the majority mete out to their minority, he said. In other words, the responsibility to protect the minority lies squarely on the shoulders of the country’s majority. Gandhi himself did his part to protect the minority, sometimes risking his own life.
The fact that minorities in Bangladesh are not doing well is no political scoop.
In each of the ‘communal riots’ that occurred in the then East Pakistan following India’s partition in 1947 and thereafter, minorities have been targeted. Careful and meticulous documentation of such persecution has been cataloged, there is no need for repeating them here. Human Rights Watch and the US State Department, among other foreign entities, have done similar documentation.
However, there is no denying that the situation now – in 2019 – is much better than in recent past, this is gratefully acknowledged by minorities themselves. There is now less outright discrimination in official hiring, obstacles to obtaining loans have been reduced, more minority representatives are now in key policy-making positions. Yet, the situation remains worrisome, the reflection of which can be gleaned from media reports on any given day.
The ruling Awami League itself acknowledged the reality in its 2018 election manifesto by promising sweeping institutional and legal reforms, including eliminating the dreaded Vested Property Act. They also pledged to establish a minority commission tasked with drafting new sets of legal safeguards for the country’s minorities and declared all efforts would be made to ‘end all legal and other unjust measures.’
Instead of her blanket accusation, if Priya Saha could acknowledge the progress made under the present government, she would be hailed instead of being vilified. She is not a good politician, that is clear from her two-minute fame.
Much of the criticism has centered on the alleged ‘disappearance’ of 37 million Hindus. A careful reading of the statement would suggest that she probably meant this many people had ‘left’ Bangladesh since 1972, deduced from census reports of the past 50 years. This is a standard practice among economists and statisticians to look at census reports to identify population trends. If the population growth rate is universally applied to all groups – or even if they are disaggregated – it is easy to surmise that the total Hindu population in Bangladesh- instead of growing - has actually gone down significantly. They are 'missing' from the official census, hence the conclusion that they have ‘disappeared’ through migration to other countries, including neighboring India.
This is no rocket science.
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has done a similar statistical analysis of the Chinese census reports and found that more than 100 million girlchildren are ‘missing’. They are missing because they were never given a chance to be born, all due to China’s One-Child Policy and the universal preference of boychild. Whether you call them ‘missing’ or ‘disappeared’ the reality remains unmistakably the same.
Many liberal economists in Bangladesh have also painted a painful picture of Hindu disappearance. Professor Abul Barakat, a member of the ruling party’s think tank, has even claimed that, if the current rate of Hindu exodus continues, soon will come a time when no Hindus will remain on Bangladesh soil. In his estimation, in the period between 2001 – 2013, on average 774 Hindus have left Bangladesh daily. Hindus have always trekked out of Bangladesh, but their number has accelerated in recent years, he has concluded.
People have condemned Priya Saha for making a claim that has also been made by Dr Barakat. Yet, no one asked for the Awami intellectual’s head. Why, is it because he is a Muslim and Priya a Hindu?
Why do Hindus leave home where they have lived for generations? The answer is obvious: they do so because they do not feel safe in their own homeland. More than 20 million people are now – this very moment – on their way-out seeking shelter elsewhere for that singular reason, security. Ironically, Priya Saha in her breathless entreaties said she is not among those who are seeking an opportunity to find shelter elsewhere. She wants to live in Bangladesh for which she wants help from the US President. Why is that treasonous?
Why go to the US President for help, what can he do? Sarcastically asked a lefty friend of mine on Facebook. Isn’t the answer obvious, my friend. Because you and people like yourselves have failed to protect her. Priya Saha’s own village home was razed to the ground. She called for help and sought official protection. She even picketed at Dhaka’s Press Club hoping to raise awareness about the plight of our Hindus. No succor has arrived, not yet.
As an aside, let me recall that it is not just Priya Saha who sought US intervention. Most political parties in Bangladesh, when out of political power, rush to Washington to lobby their cause with the US Administration. Last year, right before the general elections, a delegation of the opposition BNP landed in Washington with the sole purpose of getting the Trump Administration's attention. They could not get an audience with Trump and had to satisfy themselves with breakfast chats with secondary players from D.C. circles. I don’t recall my lefty friend ever raising his eyebrow for such appeals to the Trump Administration.
Like it or not, clearly the majority of Muslims in Bangladesh have not done enough to protect their minority neighbors. Hindus and other minorities live next door, and yet we tend to ignore the daily ignominy they must undergo. I remember a Hindu friend telling me he was asked to leave his rented apartment because other renters objected to his mother praying in her room with incense. In 2001, in post-election riots in Bhola, dozens of Hindu girls and women were raped. In Bangladesh parliament, a ruling party member scoffed at the accusation, saying if this was true, he would be among those lining up to take advantage of the opportunity. Compare this to the claim by a Myanmar General that they would never rape the Rohinga women, ‘because they are not pretty.’
If only we could think of our minority neighbors not as Hindus or Buddhists or Christians, and stand by them as fellow Bangladeshis in their hours of distress, no Priya Saha would ever need to ask a foreign leader for help.
Hasan Ferdous is an author and journalist based in New York. His latest publication in Bangla, Juddher arale juddho, was published in February 2019 in Dhaka by Ittadi Publications.
25 July 2019, New York