Politics

An Anti-Muslim Symbol From India Is Paraded on Main Street, New Jersey

EDISON, N.J. — The India Day Parade featured a pretty standard lineup of festival fare.

A Bollywood actress waved to fans from the top of a handmade float. Indian flags fluttered in the breeze. Flashy cars and quirky ads (“Kidney donors are sexy,” read one) passed by.

Then, toward the middle of the caravan, came a small yellow bulldozer, decorated with photos of India’s prime minister and a hard-line protégé.

To some bystanders, the solitary piece of construction equipment was no more than an oddity as it rumbled past during the parade last month in Edison, N.J.

But to those who understood its symbolism, it was a blunt and sinister taunt later likened to a noose or a burning cross at a Ku Klux Klan rally.

“I felt disgusted,” said Deepak Kumar, 50, a co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, who attended the parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of India’s independence from Britain.

In India, where a divisive brand of Hindu-first nationalism is surging, the bulldozer has become a symbol of oppression, and a focus of the escalating religious tension that has resulted in the government-led destruction of private homes and businesses, most of them owned by members of the country’s Muslim minority.

But now the bulldozer was here, in Edison, a sprawling suburb that is home to one of the largest Indian American communities in the United States. To Indian immigrants outraged by its presence, it represented a threat to the highest ideals of their adoptive country and exposed subtle fault lines within the region’s Muslim and Hindu communities.

Mohammed Nisar, a Muslim oncologist who emigrated from India and has lived and worked in Edison for 45 years, said the bulldozer was as offensive as a hooded Klansman would be to African Americans or a swastika to Jews.

“We have enough hate groups here,” Dr. Nisar said. “We don’t need any more.”

Officials with the Indian Business Association, a private group that organized the Aug. 14 parade, said at first that the bulldozer was meant to represent law and order in India, where they said it was used to raze illegally constructed property — echoing the explanation India’s government frequently offers to justify demolitions that circumvent the legal process.

“What is the bulldozer’s meaning?” Chandrakant Patel, an Edison restaurant owner who leads the association, told the township council. “Illegal land construction.”

Others dismissed the claim that the bulldozer was a symbol of hatred and expressed strong support for India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi.

“Nobody has a right to disrespect our prime minister,” said Bimal Joshi, who has lived in Edison for 30 years and is not affiliated with the business group.

But within two weeks, at the urging of the mayors of Edison and the neighboring town of Woodbridge, where the parade ended, Mr. Patel had apologized. In a letter, he called the bulldozer a “blatant divisive” symbol.

Mr. Patel added that his group was aware it had “offended the Indian American minority groups, especially Muslims, from the local area and across the state and country” and vowed to never again include anything similar in future parades. He did not respond to requests for additional comment.

For many, the apology was too little, too late.

Muslim leaders had already filed a complaint with the Edison Police Department, citing intimidation and bias. Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. arrived to hold meetings with community members.

The State Legislature’s Joint Asian Pacific American Caucus issued a statement condemning the bulldozer as a “symbol of division and hate,” as did the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

One Edison township council meeting ran nearly three hours long and another four as dozens of speakers waited for a turn at the mic to discuss the bulldozer. A Muslim high school student warned that the simmering religious tension in the community was likely to seep into the classroom. And an Episcopalian pastor who is a member of a human rights group in town said the rift was the most alarming thing he had ever witnessed as a lifelong resident of Edison.

Days after the parade, Minhaj M. Khan, a past president of the Indian American Muslim Council of New Jersey who has led much of the local opposition to the bulldozer, said he felt wary buying ice cream in Edison with his oldest daughter, who wears a hijab.

“I feel scared,” said Mr. Khan, 48, a father of four who immigrated to the United States from India 25 years ago, and settled in New Jersey a year later. “We all love this place. We chose it for a reason. I don’t want this ideology spreading any further.”

Dominic Sequeira, left, and Minhaj Khan, have met with government officials to express their outrage over the bulldozer.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

In many ways, the schism now gripping New Jersey’s large Indian American community reflects longstanding divisions in India, where an extremist political movement that strives to make India a Hindu republic has gained strength.

Monks there have encouraged Hindus, who make up about 80 percent of the country’s population, to use violence against Muslims. Lynch mobs have killed Muslims suspected of slaughtering cows, a sacred animal in Hinduism. And bulldozers have been used to destroy homes in acts that Amnesty International and officials with the United Nations have said appeared designed to punish religious minorities.

Mr. Kumar, a software engineer, said he feared that India, his home until the age of 27, was being consumed by religious hatred. He said he was intent on speaking out against similar divisions in the United States, even though he said it had alienated him from some fellow Hindus.

Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called the presence of a bulldozer at a parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of the world’s largest democracy “a dog whistle.”

“It’s a warning sign,” he said. “You are taking social divisions that are prominent in India and replicating that in the diaspora.”

There are 4.2 million people of Indian origin in the United States, representing the second largest immigrant group in the country. Mr. Modi has made outreach to the Indian diaspora a signature element of the foreign policy of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. After his election in 2014, he spoke at Madison Square Garden; in 2019, accompanied by then-President Donald J. Trump, he addressed a large crowd at a Houston football stadium.

A study done last year by the Carnegie Endowment found that half of Indian Americans approved of Mr. Modi, with the strongest support among Hindus and people older than 50.

In Edison, about 35 miles southwest of Manhattan, nearly half of its 108,000 residents are Asian. The Oak Tree Road commercial strip, where the parade was held, is lined with stores and ethnic restaurants that cater almost exclusively to immigrants from South Asia.

As explosive as the controversy was to some, other Edison residents said they had heard little about the parade bulldozer in the weeks after the event, besides a few stray messages on social media.

Rajasekhar Chesuku, 34, a software engineer who emigrated from India to attend graduate school, said he had never sensed any outward religious strife in Edison, a sentiment echoed by many other residents as well as the mayor.

“We came here for some work, for the better future,” said Mr. Chesuku, who is Hindu. “I can feel secure here.”

Dominic Sequeira, 54, has lived more of his life in the United States than in India. Most of his friends are Hindu, he said, and he was raised Roman Catholic, another religious minority in India.

He said he believed it was impossible for people familiar with the news in India to ignore the timing of the parade bulldozer or to overlook its hateful intent.

Two months earlier, he noted, the family home of Afreen Fatima, a Muslim activist, was destroyed by a bulldozer in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in a story that captured headlines worldwide. The demolition came after protests over anti-Islamic remarks by a former official in India’s governing party.

Ms. Fatima said news of a bulldozer appearing in a parade in the United States felt surreal. The four-bedroom, two-bath house where she had lived with her family in the city of Prayagraj for roughly 20 years was gone.

“For it to be celebrated, it feels like a defeat,” she said of the bulldozer during an interview from India.

“It’s a very loud and clear message once again to the Hindu community: You have support outside of India, and you can get away with whatever you want to do,” she added.

That is part of the reason, Mr. Sequeira said, that he decided to speak out.

I’m here because I live in a community where I have prospered,” he said. “I’ve come from India, where before this current government, there was no such oppression. We never talked about this.”

“There comes a tipping point,” he added, “where you have to draw a line.”

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