How a meeting with Donald Trump put the Bangladeshi minority rights activist in the eye of the storm

A Bangladeshi minority rights activist found a rare opportunity to meet President Donald Trump in the White House, but those moments of glory turned into colossal outrage at him. At the meeting, Priya Saha, director of Dhaka-based SHAREE which works with marginalized and disadvantaged communities, claimed that 37 million people belonging to minority groups had “disappeared” from Bangladesh, without mentioning any time references.

In a video, Ms Saha was seen urging President Trump at a July 17 meeting to help Hindus, Buddhists and Christians in Bangladesh. She also alleged that her land had been seized by Muslim fundamentalists. Legions of her detractors have descended on her on social media for her “unpatriotic” and “traitorous” comments.

Ms. Saha’s home in Dhaka has become a site, albeit briefly, for latent protests. The lawyers threatened her with legal action, vowing to throw her in jail. Seemingly embarrassed by her comments, Hindu leaders avoided her in a quick change of mind. A minority pressure group, the Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, expelled her from her post as organizational secretary for “breach of discipline.”

The first official reaction came from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on July 20. “It seems that there is an ulterior motive behind Ms. Saha’s absolutely false and concocted stories that were intended to slander Bangladesh,” the ministry said. “Bangladesh is a beacon of religious freedom and community harmony, where people of all faiths have lived in peace for ages.

Next come two influential ministers. Home Secretary Asaduzzaman Khan insisted that Ms Saha must prove the allegations or face tough measures. Minister of Road Transport Obaidul Quader reported that Ms. Saha would be prosecuted for sedition. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s son and ICT advisor, Sajeeb Wazed, has denounced the US Embassy in Dhaka for choosing it as part of a delegation to Washington. But government officials reduced their rhetoric after Ms. Hasina intervened and disapproved of any hasty action against Ms. Saha.

Decrease in population

Immediately after, Ms. Saha was obviously silent. Then, on July 22, her rights organization released a video in which she defended herself with data, basing her claim on a study by Abul Barkat, an economist and professor at Dhaka University. She said she was familiar with the results as she had worked with Professor Barkat.

Hindus now make up 9.7% of the total population, up from 29.7% during the 1947 partition, Ms Saha said in the new video. This means that many people have gradually left Bangladesh, she said.

“All I wanted to say is that the number of minority people has gradually decreased. I did not intend to comment on the government. I just mentioned what happened in my village, ”she said, referring to Pirojpur, a district in southern Bangladesh. “There were 40 families in my village in 2004. This number is now 13.”

Taqbir Huda, research specialist at Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, said: “It is absurd to talk about the oppression of minorities to the very man who has come to embody anti-minority racism and bigotry in his own country. Furthermore, some might argue that asking to be “saved” in this context only serves to fuel the “white savior complex”, which has historically proven to be dangerous for the subcontinent. ”

After Ms Saha resorted to self-defense, Professor Barkat said she had never worked with him and accused her of making “misleading and unprincipled” comments. For her part, Professor Barkat said that some 10.13 million Hindus have gone extinct in five decades – from 1964 to 2013 – and Ms Saha did not mention the 50-year period.

“While Hindus are actually leaving Bangladesh in large numbers, describing it as ‘disappearance’ might be misleading because it is very different from migration, even though it is caused by persecution,” Huda said. There is a startling difference between Ms. Saha’s claim and Mr. Barkat’s calculation, but the two crystallize a pattern: the gradual and silent departure of Hindus from Bangladesh. The unsavory subject that Bangladeshis often prefer to sweep under the carpet now opens up emotionally charged debates.

Arun Devnath is a journalist based in Dhaka.

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