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Hindu nationalism may be on the rise in New Jersey. Here's why

In his native India, Shaheen Khateeb said he was treated like an outsider, harassed at school and called “Turk” because of his Muslim faith. Hearing about cases of mob violence against Muslims, he decided to move to the U.S. in 1979.

Today, Khateeb, who lives in Washington Township, fears the tensions he left behind are bubbling up in Indian immigrant communities, including in New Jersey, where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 420,000 people of Indian ancestry live.

In recent months, controversies have ensued over a divisive display at the India Day Parade in Edison, a scuttled speaking engagement in Ridgewood by a Hindu nationalist leader and a Teaneck committee resolution condemned by Hindu groups.

Khateeb said the tensions have strained friendships.

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

Supporters cheer as India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives a speech during his visit to the United States at Madison Square Garden, Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in New York.
Supporters cheer as India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives a speech during his visit to the United States at Madison Square Garden, Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in New York.

Muslim and human rights groups say tensions in the U.S. mirror what is happening abroad as a Hindu nationalist movement grows in India, spurring allegations of discrimination and hate crimes against minorities. But some Hindu leaders say that concerns about nationalist activity in the U.S. are exaggerated and that they are being unfairly vilified and maligned.

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

“People are making a fuss about all these things,” he said. “They are trying to bring those problems here to the U.S.”

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

“What’s new about it is the ferocity of Hindu nationalism, how aggressive they are being and the negative impacts that is having on the Indian Muslim community and cross-community relations,” Truschke said.

Nationalist fervor couched in patriotism, ethnocentrism and anti-immigrant sentiment has risen around the globe. Often, there is a populist strongman at the helm and, in some cases, nationalist extremists have embraced violence to further their cause. These forces have shaped politics in countries like Brazil, Hungary and the U.S., where groups with an "America First" nationalist agenda stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 to try to subvert the transfer of power.

In New Jersey, many Indian immigrants closely follow news from their native country, but in the past few months, they themselves have been a focus of news stories.

In August, the inclusion of a bulldozer at the India Day Parade in Edison sparked condemnations. In India, some view the bulldozer as a hate symbol for its use in razing homes and businesses to punish Muslim activists.

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

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

The Teaneck resolution sparked outcry from Hindu organizations, which issued a statement calling it a provocative and false act that demonizes the Hindu community and condemns groups that were not given 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 foundational goal of the Democratic Party is to bring people together, not to divide them, and the anti-Hindu Teaneck resolution does not accomplish this important goal," the committee wrote in a statement. "We stand with those who value inclusivity and diversity, and against hate and bigotry in any form."

Committee members said the resolution was not anti-Hindu but instead was a condemnation of extremist Hindutva ideology that they say promotes hate against minorities.

In Edison and Teaneck, residents had heated exchanges over religion and nationalism at municipal meetings or expressed outrage in calls and emails, while urging local officials to take a stance.

Patel said the spate of incidents was due to misinformation and grudges. Nationalism to him meant pride in one's country, he said.

“Is it a crime to have Hindu nationalism? If I hurt somebody, then it’s a crime. In this country, free speech is for everything but some people won’t tolerate that free speech,” he said.

In Jersey City, he said, South Asian immigrants of different faiths continue to work and socialize with one another without problems.

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

“What happened in the United Kingdom was an eye opener,” he said. “What is happening is Hindutva forces are gathering. There is a massive amount of work being done behind the scenes.”

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Hindu nationalism in New Jersey rising, sparks tensions