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Hindu nationalism in New Jersey is rising and sparking tensions

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In his native India, Shaheen Khateeb said he was treated like a foreigner, bullied at school and called a “Turk” because of his Muslim faith. Hearing of cases of mob violence against Muslims, he decided to move to the United States in 1979.

Now Khateeb, who lives in Washington Township, fears the tensions he left behind are boiling over in Indian immigrant communities, including in New Jersey, where the US Census Bureau says about 420,000 people of Indian descent.

In recent months, controversies have erupted over a protest that split the India Day parade in Edison, a speech scuttled in Ridgewood by a Hindu nationalist leader and a Teaneck committee resolution condemned by Hindu groups.

Khateeb said the tensions had strained friendships.

“We visited each other. We shared dinners. But not anymore,” he said. “What’s happening in India is happening here these days because social media news travels really really fast.”

Muslim and human rights groups say tensions in the United States mirror what is happening abroad as a Hindu nationalist movement grows in India, sparking allegations of discrimination and hate crimes against minorities. But some Hindu leaders say concerns about nationalist activity in the United States are overblown and unfairly vilified and slandered.

Raju Patel, president of the Jersey City Asian Merchants Association, said Indian immigrants are concerned about raising their children and being good citizens, not the divisions they left behind.

“People make a fuss about all these things,” he said. “They are trying to bring these issues back here to the United States”

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Tensions are not new among religious communities in India, where Hindus make up around 80% of the population. But the movement known as Hindutva – a far-right ideology that promotes Hindu rule – has gone from strength to strength since Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, was elected in 2014. Right-wing Indian websites and WhatsApp groups have fueled support for the movement in the United States. , said Audrey Truschke, associate professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University.

“What is new is the ferocity of Hindu nationalism, its aggressiveness and the negative impacts it has on the Indian Muslim community and community relations,” Truschke said.

Nationalist fervor expressed in patriotism, ethnocentrism, and anti-immigrant sentiment grew worldwide. Often there is a populist strongman at the helm, and in some cases nationalist extremists have embraced violence to advance their cause. These forces have shaped politics in countries like Brazil, Hungary and the United States, where groups with a nationalist “America First” agenda stormed the Capitol on January 6 in an attempt to overthrow the transfer of power.

In New Jersey, many Indian immigrants follow news from their home country closely, but in recent months they have been the subject of news stories themselves.

In August, the inclusion of a bulldozer in the India Day Parade in Edison drew condemnation. In India, some see the bulldozer as a symbol of hatred for its use in razing homes and businesses to punish Muslim militants.

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Earlier this month activists protested against a planned fundraiser with Hindu nationalist leader Sadhvi Rithambara at Old Paramus Reformed Church in Ridgewood, leading to its cancellation.

And last week, the Teaneck Democratic City Committee passed a resolution calling for the investigation of organizations in the United States with alleged ties to a Hindu nationalist paramilitary group. The resolution also called on politicians to reject campaign funds and support from these groups.

The Teaneck resolution drew outcry from Hindu organizations, which issued a statement calling it a provocative and false act that demonizes the Hindu community and condemns groups that have not had a chance to respond. The backlash prompted Teaneck Mayor James Dunleavy to issue a statement saying the committee is not associated with the township, which has a nonpartisan form of government.

On Friday, the New Jersey Democratic State Committee took a stand against the resolution.

“A fundamental goal of the Democratic Party is to bring people together, not divide them, and the anti-Hindu Teaneck resolution fails to achieve this important goal,” the committee wrote in a statement. “We stand with those who value inclusiveness and diversity, and against hate and bigotry in all their forms.”

Committee members said the resolution was not anti-Hindu, but rather a condemnation of Hindu extremist ideology which they say promotes hatred against minorities.

In Edison and Teaneck, residents have had heated exchanges about religion and nationalism at town meetings or voiced their outrage in calls and emails, while urging local officials to take a stand.

Patel said the string of incidents was driven by misinformation and hard feelings. For him, nationalism meant pride in his country, he said.

“Is it a crime to have Hindu nationalism? If I hurt someone, then it’s a crime. In this country, freedom of speech is for everything, but some people will not tolerate that freedom of speech,” he said.

In Jersey City, he said, South Asian immigrants of various faiths continue to work and socialize without issue.

Still, activists including Khateeb say the rise of the nationalist movement should not be ignored. Recent violent clashes in the city of Leicester in England between groups of Hindu and Muslim men have been a warning of how the problems can get worse, he said. In Leicester, men with metal poles marched through the streets chanting “Jai Shri Ram”, a religious song used as a rallying cry against Muslims. At the same time, a Hindu temple was vandalized.

“What happened in the UK was an eye opener,” he said. “What is happening is that the forces of Hindutva are coming together. There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes. »