On a chilly October morning, as I was sipping my morning chai from Kabir’s bakery and scrolling through my phone, I discovered a notification on Twitter from Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), bragging about a bipartisan resolution co-sponsored by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif), declaring what happened in Bangladesh a genocide. I had to do a double-take because of the irony.
Chabot tweeted, “The Bangladesh Genocide of 1971 must not be forgotten. With help from my Hindu constituents in Ohio’s First District, @RepRoKhanna and I introduced legislation to recognize that the mass atrocities committed against Bengalis and Hindus, in particular, were indeed a genocide.”
Pakistan is estimated to have killed as many three million Bangladeshis in the 1971 genocide that culminated in Bangladesh becoming an independent nation. Pakistan was armed by the United States which viewed it as a Cold War ally.
On March 25, 1971, the Pakistani Army launched an extermination campaign to assassinate Bangladeshi journalists, poets, artists, professors and other intellectuals. The violence didn’t stop there.
Some of my immediate thoughts were, “Why did a Republican write this? Were scholars, legal advisors on genocide, human rights orgs from the diaspora and academics consulted?” Despite living in the city with the largest Bangladeshi community in the United States and just a block away from the sprawling streets of Little Bangladesh in Jamaica, Queens, I was hearing about this for the first time. Were any organizations from the Bangladeshi diaspora consulted?
I reached out to the organization I’m a co-founding member of, Bangladeshi Americans for Political Progress, to flag the tweet and see if anyone else had the answer to these questions. Hindus for Human Rights, No Separate Justice and other human-rights organizations also flagged it as a possible concern because it was led by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF). HAF’s co-founder Mihir Meghani was a longtime member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), described in Wikipedia as an Indian right-wing paramilitary organization.
Concerned about the organizations behind this resolution, a group led by Bangladeshi and human-rights organizations contacted Geo Saba, Khanna’s chief of staff, and Kate Gould, his deputy chief of staff, to express our concerns. In response to Chabot’s tweet, Bangladeshi Americans for Political Progress and the coalition tweeted this thread which summed up our concerns.
Shortly after we sent the tweet, I had People for Bernie Sanders — the grassroots group representing the Sanders movement — amplify it. We tagged Khanna with a demand to correct course and answer for his role in drafting a resolution with organizations tied to the RSS and Anti-Islamic, Anti-Christian, and Anti-Dalit groups.
This made a lot of people who didn’t come from Bangladesh but identified with Hindu right-wing ideology and used the Indian flag as their “avatar” bombard us with hate tweets labeling our coalition as Islamist Jihadists and “genocide deniers”.
It seems what got lost among the din of slurs and accusations is that we agreed that this was a genocide and Pakistan should be held accountable on the international stage for the atrocities they committed against the Bengali people. But this resolution was not it.
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Kazi Nazrul Islam, one of the great Bengali poets, once wrote; “Annihilate the Jobons” (An insulting term used by fanatic Hindus to address Muslims), “Annihilate the Kafers”(an insulting term used by Muslims while referring to Hindus). The Hindu-Muslim conflict in Bangladesh was created — first quarrels, then battles.
Those who were shouting to save the prestige of mother Kali (A Hindu Goddess of power) or Allah earlier did not remember them when they were in danger. The Hindus and the Muslims were groaning in the same language, ‘Oh mother, Oh father’— as two motherless children crying for the mother.
Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote the Bangladeshi National Anthem, once organized a rally calling for Muslims and Hindus to march barefoot together to the river Ganges singing his poem বাংলার মাটি, বাংলার জল which means Bangla’s soil, Bangla’s water. The song goes on:
Bengali houses, Bengali markets,
Forest of Bengal, field of Bengal
Be full be full
May it be fulfilled O Lord.
Bengali bet, Bengali hope,
Bengali work, Bengali language
Be true be true
Let it be true, O God.
It sounded less like a song and more like a prayer with a ritual rally of Hindus, Muslims and people of all faiths of Bengali origin gathered together in front of the Ganges with Rabi Thakur to tie Rakhi on each other’s wrists. Rakhi is a bracelet that is gifted by one sibling to another as a symbolic promise of protection and care.
Th bipartisan resolution did not preach the philosophy of secular humanism Bengalis grew up reciting at school and in their homes.
Commemorating genocide is a serious and delicate subject. It shouldn’t be a rushed political job done to score points and used for political gain by any party or interest.
Bangladesh has always had a deep tradition of secularism and humanism rooted in our language, culture and musical traditions even before the great poets and colonialism. We are an ethnic group rooted in Baul philosophy. The Bauls are a group of traveling mystic musicians from Bangladesh and the Indian states next to it; Baul-geeti, which means “song,” is a musical tradition known for having a variety of cultures that came from many different places, such as the Vaishnava, Shakti, Buddhist and Islamic Sufi traditions. Baul-geeti was also an oral tradition meaning its compositions were not written down but passed down from teacher to student.
Rabindranath Tagore popularized the work of Bauls, like Lalon Fakir Shah, put them into manuscripts, and published a compilation of his songs. Lalon’s music promoting equality and rejection of caste left a deep impression on the Nobel laureate, who was one of the pioneers of the Bengali renaissance movement.
So vast was the reach of Bengali secularism it even found its way across the seven seas and into the United States of America to inspire the likes of Allen Ginsberg, a young, gay, Jewish poet.
Lalon-geeti commonly referred to as polli-geeti or “songs of the people,” criticized religious divisions of class and caste.
In his most famous song, sab loke kay lālan ki jāt samsāre, Lalon sings:
Everyone asks, ‘Lalon, what’s your religion in this world?’
Lalon answers, ‘How does religion look?’
I’ve never laid eyes on it.
Some wear malas [Hindu rosaries] around their necks,
some tasbis [Muslim rosaries], and so people say
they’ve got different religions.
But do you bear the sign of your religion when you come or when you go?
Today, Bengalis across the diaspora canonize Lalon as a great folk musician. His songs are sung at weddings and cultural events. Young Bangladeshis like Nish and Muza remix Lalon’s and other Baul musicians’ songs into electronic pop songs for people to dance to. Coke Studios Bangla recently composed a modern version of the song quoted above.
I am writing about the humanist tradition of Bengali culture because our language was the main catalyst for the Bangladeshi Liberation Movement of 1971. These songs and poems helped get a large group of people to work together against our colonizer, West Pakistan.
The Pakistani Army was aware of the magnitude of the role culture and language played in taking them down and the power of the intellectual Bengali class. That’s why on March 25, 1971, the Pakistani Army launched an extermination campaign to assassinate Bangladeshi journalists, poets, artists, professors and other intellectuals. The first morning of independence was drenched in bloodshed; a new nation was in mourning for the people who were supposed to forge her future.
Rep. Chabot and Rep. Khanna’s resolution doesn’t mention this history or any of the other groups that were killed — like the student movement, the Adivasi or indigenous community, or the Christian, Buddhist or majority Bangladeshi Muslim community from which these intellectuals came, who were killed without regard to religion. The draft also leaves out the role the U.S. government played in providing weapons and aid to Pakistan to carry out this terrible act of genocide.
By leaving out this humanist point of view and the long history of solidarity between different religious groups, classes and castes and solely focusing on the extermination of Hindu deaths and casually lumping everyone else as Bengalis, the resolution fails to cover the depth of atrocities that span a genocide and, in turn, insults the memory of millions of people who died protecting one another as fellow Bengalis and fellow humans. It also creates an unnecessary division between our Hindu siblings and the rest of the Bangladeshi diaspora.
Hindus for Human Rights, led by its policy director Ria Chakrabarty, a Bengali Hindu of Bangladeshi descent, wrote and submitted a draft to Khanna’s team to try to mitigate the potential harm that the current version of the resolution might cause.
Commemorating genocide is a serious and delicate subject that requires careful consideration and analysis. It shouldn’t be a rushed political job done to score points and used for political gain by any party or interest. It should make people who are impacted feel seen, inspire justice and serve as a lesson for humanity — anything less deserves protest and scrutiny.