March 25 marked the 50th anniversary of one of the worst slaughters in a 20th century filled with slaughters — up to 3 million killed, hundreds of thousands raped in the Bengali Hindu genocide. On that day in 1971, Pakistan launched Operation Searchlight to quell Bengali unrest, which had been growing from years of oppression and second class status for ethnic Bengalis at the hands of the dominant West Pakistanis. Back then, Pakistan had two non-contiguous two parts: West Pakistan, which is today’s Pakistan; East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh.
Operation Searchlight affected all Bengalis, especially intellectuals and other prominent persons. The Pakistanis and their collaborators killed an estimated 991 teachers, 13 journalists, 49 physicians, 42 lawyers, and 16 writers, artists and engineers to cut off the head of Bengali resistance. But their top target was the Hindu community. They were marked for eradication in the same manner as the Jews of Nazi Europe, Tutsis of Rwanda, and Armenians of the Ottoman Empire.
Pakistan’s 1970 election produced a Bengali victor for the first time in its history; but Pakistani leadership refused to let Sheikh Mujibur Rahman take office. That was the final straw, and on March 26, 1971, he declared an independent Bangladesh. The Pakistanis and their allies swooped in to kill the rebellion with another agenda as well. Military leaders at Eastern Command Headquarters in Dhaka (now Bangladesh’s capital) spoke openly about using the revolt for “the elimination or exile of Hindus,” Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas wrote for London’s Sunday Times that he “saw Hindus, hunted from village to village and door to door” and shot after soldiers stripped them and confirmed that they were uncircumcised. More importantly, he wrote, “the killings are not the isolated acts of military commanders in the field.” One military leader told admitted, “Now under the cover of fighting we have an excellent opportunity of finishing them off.” Outrage reached the US Senate, but nothing was done to save the victims.
Today, the Bangladeshi government is helping others finish the job Operation Searchlight started.
Bangladesh was founded with a promise. It worked with India to gain its freedom, and was to be democratic and secular. Unfortunately, this turned out to be an unmet promise. Minorities face a callous government and brutal mob justice. Others are simply terrified as Bangladesh teeters on the brink of being a one-party dictatorship. It’s not safe to speak freely about the ethnic cleansing of Bangladesh’s Hindus. I’ve sat with highly placed officials who were close to trembling as they told me how they and their families would face violence or worse if their concerns became public. A credible fear that friends learned the hard way. Others have threatened me, barred me from the country for years, and now threaten to take away my visa unless I close my eyes to this anti-Hindu genocide. Several of my human rights associates in Bangladesh have been attacked or arrested. Another can’t return home safely. Senate and House anti-blasphemy law resolutions passed in December with overwhelming bi-partisan support called out Bangladesh as a major rights violator.
Many Bangladeshis are now using the cover of a pandemic to eliminate Bangladesh’s Hindus. Bangladesh imposed a COVID lockdown from March 26 through May 30. While social distancing and mask wearing were otherwise enforced; police and government looked the other way as mobs attacked Hindus: 85 multi-crime incidents in that 66-day lockdown period—murder, gang rape, religious desecration, and some that can be described only as anti-Hindu pogroms. None of them were prosecuted by Bangladesh’s government. No victims were saved, not even abducted children.
Americans have a special duty to help. We are the largest customers for Bangladesh’s exports, upon which their economy depends. US taxpayers fund their UN peacekeeping efforts that bring in millions of dollars monthly. The Biden Administration has put human rights back on our foreign policy agenda. If we can be strong against powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and China; we can be equally moral with Bangladesh. The mere prospect of stopping the money flow will force a change and save lives, as it did when I was there during its 2007 coup. Urge your Senators and Representatives to support the anti-blasphemy resolutions when they are introduced again this year. Let them know that this is important to you and to how you vote. If you stop buying goods “Made in Bangladesh,” tell retailers why you’ve made that decision.
I know Bangladesh’s leaders well: They will not do the right thing because it is the right thing, but they will do the right thing if it is in their interests to do so. Until we act, people will continue being killed, raped, and their children abducted with no one seeming to care.
Dr. Richard L. Benkin is author of A Quiet Case of Ethnic Cleansing: the Murder of Bangladesh’s Hindus and editor of What is Moderate Islam?