The Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council in Bangladesh expelled one of its organizing secretaries after she told U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office that 37 million people have disappeared from the Asian nation.
The HBCUC, which is established to protect the rights of religious minorities in Bangledesh, temporarily ousted Priya Saha for “anti-disciplinary activities” following a meeting of the organization’s standing committee on Monday, according to the Dhaka Tribune.
“She has been temporarily ousted for breaching discipline,” the council’s general secretary, Rana Dasgupta, was quoted as saying.
Saha, a Hindu who directs a rights group advocating for disempowered minorities called SHAREE, was among the nearly 30 survivors of religious persecution that met with Trump at the White House last Wednesday while in town for the U.S. State Department’s three-day Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
Saha was also among the few survivors and advocates granted the opportunity to have a brief exchange with the president about the persecution taking place in their countries.
“Sir, I am from Bangladesh. Here is 37 million Hindu, Buddhist and Christian are disappeared,” Saha told Trump during the meeting. “Please help us, the Bangladeshi people. We want to stay in our country. Still, there is 18 million minority people. Please help us. We don’t want to leave our country.”
“I have lost my home, they burned my home and they have taken my land,” she continued. “But no judgment has yet taken place.”
Trump followed up by asking Saha who took the land and the home.
“The Muslim fundamentalist group,” she responded. “Always, they are getting the political shelter. Always.”
Saha’s brief exchange did not go over very well with the HBCUC or the Bangladesh government. A statement from the foreign ministry slammed Saha’s claims as “blatant lies.” The government also accused Saha of having an “ulterior motive” and said that it expects the U.S. organizers of the ministerial to invite responsible individuals.
It should be noted that Saha was among five Bangladeshis chosen by the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka to participate in the State Department ministerial attended by nearly 1,000 civil society leaders and representatives from 106 nations.
"Bangladesh is a beacon of religious freedom and communal harmony, where people of all faiths have been living in peace for ages," the foreign ministry statement reads.
HBCUC spokesman Kajal Debnath told BSS that the organization is “embarrassed” by Saha’s comments.
“The comments she made were her own and not ours,” Debnath said.
Saha responded to critics in a video in which she claims that she got the 37 million figure from research conducted by Bangladesh Economic Association President Abul Barkat. However, Barkat said that his research never presented such a finding.
According to Dhaka Tribune, Barkat said that his work has found that 11.3 million Hindus left Bangladesh because of religious persecution and discrimination from 1964 to 2013. Barkat has asked Saha to retract her statement.
According to BdnNews24, Saha gave a video interview to a journalist that was posted on the website of her rights organization.
“All I meant is that the number of minority people has gradually declined,” she was quoted as saying. “I didn’t mean to comment on the government. I just mentioned what happened in my village in Pirojpur. There were 40 families in my village in 2004. That number is now 13.”
Saha said she was inspired to raise the issues facing Bangladesh's religious minorities with Trump by the actions of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
“When the extreme torture on the minorities continued for 94 days after the elections in 2001, the prime minister, who was the opposition leader then, traveled across the globe to save the minorities of Bangladesh,” Saha said. “She raised the issue at different places.”
“I spoke because I am inspired by her, I am her follower. I have learnt from her that any wrongdoing can be spoken about at any place.”
Two sedition cases had been filed against Saha. However, Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader stated on Sunday that the cases were not accepted because no legal process can start until she makes a public statement about what she said.
“She has the right to return to the country and we are not creating any obstacle for her from returning to the country,” Quader was quoted as saying. “I think she can come back to the country in a spontaneous manner and we do not have to take any measures to bring her back.”
On Saturday, a news report indicated a human chain formed around Saha’s home in protest of her remarks.
BSS reports that the home ministry has been advised to station security at Saha’s home.