Updated at 9:26 a.m. ET on 2019-07-23
A woman who made comments during a White House meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump about the plight of religious minorities in Bangladesh has clarified her statements after Dhaka condemned them as “blatant lies.”
Priya Biswas Saha’s remarks on July 17 that 37 million Hindus, Buddhists and Christians had “disappeared” from Bangladesh went viral on social media, sparking an uproar in the Muslim-majority country.
But Saha, a Hindu and minority-rights activist, told BenarNews after the controversy erupted that she was referring to statistics dating to 1947, when the Indian Sub-Continent was partitioned and the predominantly Muslim East Bengal was carved out of India to become a detached province of the new nation of Pakistan.
“I did not mean that those people were killed or forcefully disappeared. The appropriate English word could be ‘missing.’ But, you should understand that English is a foreign language to me,” she told BenarNews in an interview from Washington late Saturday.
The Bangladesh government, in a statement issued through its foreign affairs ministry on Saturday, condemned Saha’s remarks “in the strongest possible terms,” describing them as “blatant lies.”
“Bangladesh is a beacon of religious freedom and communal harmony, where people of all faiths have been living in peace for ages,” the statement said, adding that the country had been widely praised for sheltering 1.1 million mostly Muslim Rohingya refugees driven out of neighboring Myanmar.
Saha was in Washington to attend the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, a gathering convened by the U.S. State Department and attended by delegates from more than 100 countries. Saha and 23 others described as victims of religious persecution were selected by the State Department for an unscheduled meeting with Trump at the White House.
In Dhaka later, Law Minister Anisul Huq told BenarNews that Saha would be questioned about why she made the allegations and should issue a public apology if she cannot prove them.
“There are no statistics that stipulate that 37 million people disappeared from Bangladesh,” he said.
Bangladesh is the world’s third-largest Muslim-majority country, after Indonesia and Pakistan. There was no official census in 1947.
When Bangladesh carried out its first population census in 1974, there were 71.5 million residents, including more than 9.6 million Hindus (about 13.5 percent of the populace).
The last Bangladesh census took place in 2011, establishing that the nation’s 144 million people included more than 12.2 million Hindus. According the United Nations Population Fund, the nation had an estimated 163 million people in 2016, making it the world’s 8th most populous nation.
Abul Barkat, a Dhaka University professor who wrote a book on the exodus of Hindus from Bangladesh, said that about 10.1 million Hindus were unaccounted for between 1964 and 2013, but the discrepancy could be explained by transmigration.
Leading population researcher A.K.M. Nurun Nabi, founder of the department of population sciences at Dhaka University, rejected Saha’s claims that the Hindus in East Pakistan in 1947 constituted around 30 percent of the population, saying her figures were “not reliable.”
“No population census was done in 1947. The last population census before partition of India in 1947 was carried out in 1941,” Nabi told BenarNews.
Senior Minister Obaidul Quader, general secretary of the ruling Awami League party, told reporters he had stopped a fellow cabinet minister from filing a sedition charge against Saha.
Sedition in Bangladesh carries a punishment of three years to life in prison, according to the nation’s Penal Code.
“[W]e should not hurry to take a decision in this regard. Priya Saha must be given the chance to defend herself,” he said.
“Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has instructed the home minister and the law minister to deal with this issue,” he said. “Measures will be taken in line with the prime minister’s instruction.”
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The meeting between Saha and other “survivors of religious persecution,” and Trump at the Oval office was open to the media.
“I am from Bangladesh. Here is the 37 million Hindu, Buddhist and Christian are disappeared. Please help us Bangladeshi people. Still there is 18 million minority people. My request is, please help us," she was seen saying.
“We don't want to leave our country, just help us to stay. I have lost my home, they burned my home, they've taken my land -- but no judgment has taken place,” she said.
Asked by Trump, “Who took the home and the land?” she replied, “The Muslim fundamentalist group. And always they are getting political shelter. Always.”
Saha later told BenarNews that the figure was derived from statistics provided by the Bangladesh government showing religious minorities made up 29.7 percent of the population living in what was then East Pakistan in 1947.
Had that percentage remained consistent, there would be 53.5 million religious minorities in Bangladesh today, but the 2011 census counted 9.7 percent of the current 180 million, she said.
“That means, Bangladesh has only 17.5 million minorities. The rest of the minority population is missing! Where did they go?” she said.
In a statement on the White House meeting, Washington-based NGO Freedom House described Saha as general secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council, but she said she was not representing the organization during her trip to Washington.
“The State Department of the USA invited me directly and brought me here. I came here quite suddenly. Nobody in the Unity Council knew that I would be here,” she said.
Amid the uproar over her statement at the White House, there had been a demonstration outside her house in Dhaka and attempts to break into it, she said.
“My family is now in great danger. The newspapers in Bangladesh have published the photos of my family members. They could publish my photo, for I am responsible for my statements,” she said. “My family members are innocent.”
She said her home was set on fire on March 2 and again on April 22 and that no one had been arrested despite police reports and news stories about the incidents.
The Hindu community in her village has shrunk because of people taking over their land and filing false legal cases against members of the religious minority, she said.
“We were 40 Hindu families in our village even in 2004. But now there are only 13 families. The rest of the families left the village. … They have become exhausted to face the courts. The main target of it is to grab lands of Hindus and evict them. They harvest the crops of minorities,” she alleged.
But she defended her family’s allegiance to Bangladesh, saying her relatives had served in the navy and government and as freedom fighters during the 1971 war of independence. Some 99 percent of Bangladeshis are tolerant of religious minorities, she said.
“I have said it to everybody in the United States that I want to live in my own country. I will return to Bangladesh. I will work along with our prime minister to establish a non-communal Bangladesh,” she said.
Jesmin Papri in Dhaka contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version misidentified the location of her house.