As Religious Violence Escalates, HAF Hosts Congressional Briefing on Bangladesh

Washington, D.C. (June 12, 2015) -- Against a backdrop of escalating religious violence and extremism, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) hosted a Congressional Briefing on Bangladesh earlier this week, following its 12th Annual DC Advocacy Day and Reception on Capitol Hill. The Briefing, facilitated with the assistance of ranking House Foreign Affairs Committee member Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA), brought together a panel of human rights and policy experts to explore the ongoing threats to secular democracy, freedom of speech, women’s rights, and pluralism in Bangladesh.

Noted Bangladeshi American author and human rights activist, Rukhsana Hasib, began the panel discussion by providing historical context to the current crisis in Bangladesh and recounted her own family’s personal experience during the country’s struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971 and the genocide that ensued.

“In the pitch dark of that night, two Pakistani soldiers banged on my mother’s door. Armed with a machete, my mother hid the children under the beds and did not make a sound. She got lucky that night, but the next morning more soldiers came and took my mother and my little sisters, 3 and 10, prisoners. The nearby School was converted into a prison camp. Here my mother and 250 women and children suffered many indignities,” Hasib told a packed audience of Congressional staffers, NGOs, and local community members.

Hasib further described the growing climate of extremism and intolerance in Bangladesh in the post-independence period and its slide away from traditional, secular Bengali culture. She specifically singled out Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), a radical group that collaborated with the Pakistani army in 1971 to commit war crimes and that has continued to foment violence and chaos, as being primarily responsible for the current crisis.

“These extremists are strongly principled and are willing to kill and die for their cause. That makes them powerful and dangerous. Jaamat-e-Islami, the most known group in Bangladesh, is a terrorist organization and must be branded as such,” added Hasib.

Michael De Dora, Director of Government Affairs at the Center for Inquiry, a humanist and secular rights group, and president of the United Nations NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, continued the discussion by focusing on the threat to freedom of expression in Bangladesh and the government’s failure to respond to violence perpetrated by radical groups.

"Instead of protecting individuals like Avijit Roy, Washikur Rahman, and Ananta Bijoy Dasa, who are speaking out against extremism [and] trying to counter that narrative, the government has instead arrested them or else ignored violent threats against them,” said De Dora. “And as a result, what's happening in Bangladesh right now, there is a closing civil space for individuals to come and speak out against religious extremism. This includes individuals of all religious affiliations or no religious affiliation."

Jay Kansara, HAF’s Director of Government Relations, who earlier this year went on a fact-finding mission to the region, rounded out the panel by highlighting recent violence against Hindus and other vulnerable religious minorities by JeI and its coalition partner, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. In particular, he noted the bouts of large-scale violence in the aftermath of verdicts by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), commissioned to investigate war crimes during the 1971 War. Kansara stated that violence peaked in January 2013 and continued during the election in November 2013 to January 2014. The latest attacks resulting from a guilty verdict of a JeI official fell on at least three Hindu temples in April 2015.

“Hindus and other religious minorities, as well as atheists, remain in critical danger, as long as Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist groups are allowed to operate with impunity,” said Kansara, who also recently testified at a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee Hearing on political and religious extremism in Bangladesh.

The Briefing concluded with all of the panelists urging U.S. policy makers to address the escalating crisis in Bangladesh before it becomes too late.

The Foundation previously published multiple human rights reports and a policy brief on Jamaat-e-Islami, documenting systematic human rights violations against minorities and religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh.