Tempers flare as Indian organisers refuse to apologise for bulldozer at New Jersey parade
New Jersey's Indian Business Association (IBA) has said it will not apologise for bringing a bulldozer to an India Day Parade earlier this month, in a row that has turned the spotlight on the rising role of Hindu nationalism in US politics.
Speaking on the sidelines of a marathon four-hour township council meeting in Edison, New Jersey, on Wednesday, Chandrakant Patel, the chairman of the IBA, told Middle East Eye that his organisation would not apologise for the incident "because it had not done anything wrong".
"This is a prejudiced complaint. The bulldozer only represents the demolishing of illegal structures on government land [in India]," Patel said.
On 14 August, organisers arranged for a bulldozer to roll through Edison's streets as part of a rally marking the 75th anniversary of India's independence. The excavator was decorated with posters of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath, an Indian politician from the state of Uttar Pradesh who is known for his incendiary anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Adityanath, who is a vocal supporter of the Islamophobic "Love Jihad" campaign that aims to stop Muslims from marrying Hindu women, has pejoratively earned the nickname "Bulldozer Baba" over his extensive use of excavators.
In recent years, bulldozers have become a symbol for Hindu nationalists, with authorities using them to demolish the homes of Muslim activists under the pretext of the structures being illegal.
Both the UN as well as several international human rights groups have called the practice an act of collective punishment.
Several Indian-American Muslims told MEE on Wednesday that they were particularly aggrieved that the IBA would decide to bring these symbols of hate to Edison, given the discrimination plaguing India's religious minorities.
Likewise, organisations such as the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) have demanded action be taken against the IBA.
"In the name of an India parade, they are parading racist Hindutva ideology through the streets of Edison," said one Muslim activist who requested to remain anonymous.
"And if someone says 'I don't know what the bulldozer is', I am sorry you are a liar," the activist added.
'It was by design premeditated. If there is a symbol of hate, this is it'
- Dominic Sequeira
At Wednesday's council meeting, tensions flared as several residents accused council member Ajay Patil of a conflict of interest given he was also vice-president of the IBA.
Patil was asked to recuse himself from the issue with residents noting that at the first council meeting after the incident, he was the only member who refrained from condemning the incident.
"Could it be that the one person who did not condemn the act happens to be a vice-president of the IBA?" Bishop Nikolaos G Brown, from Ignite Church, asked the council rhetorically at the meeting.
Another resident, Tony DePasquale, echoed the sentiment: "He should have said nothing or should have been part of the solution, instead he diminished the feelings of people."
Addressing concerns at the end of the meeting, Patil said he wasn't privy to IBA's plans prior to the event and that he did not think he needed to excuse himself from commenting on the issue.
But an official in the Edison Township Municipality, who asked to remain anonymous, told MEE that it was unlikely he wasn't aware and unthinkable that he would characterise himself as an impartial stakeholder.
Both Mayor Samip Joshi's office as well as the leadership of the council did not reply to MEE's request for comment.
'Law and Order'
Several representatives and surrogates of the IBA attended Wednesday's meeting and defended the inclusion of the bulldozer at the rally, describing it as a symbol of "law and order" in India.
They argued that the Indian Muslim complaints were baseless and disrespectful to the Indian government as well as to Hinduism.
One Hindu American resident of Edison told the council the issue had been blown out of proportion. He used former President Donald Trump's efforts to root out "illegal immigration" as an example.
"I am a big fan of Trump. I am a Republican. If he wanted to build a wall, people said he is oppressing people. But he is stopping illegal immigrants.
"If someone is removing illegal things, I support them," he said.
Likewise, another resident, Bimal Joshi, said that he "was full of respect for the Muslim community, but at the same time, if they try to portray that someone is doing a hatred [sic] in this town, no, that is wrong,"
"In America if someone is doing the illegal stuff [sic]; if someone is burning the property of the government, then government takes the action," Joshi said, before cautioning the council to reserve judgement about the use of the bulldozer in India until they found out about the "history of India".
"India is the largest democracy in the world. If someone tries to disrespect our prime minister [Modi] as Hitler, they should know what is Hitler," Joshi said.
However, other residents said there was a deliberate attempt by the IBA to obfuscate the facts and confuse both the council and the public.
Dominic Sequeira, an Indian American who said he was brought up Catholic, said the issue was clear. "If you are celebrating Indian 75th independence day, you are celebrating the heritage of the country; you are celebrating the development and prosperity, not literally a symbol of destruction.
"It was by design premeditated. If there is a symbol of hate, this is it," Sequeira added.
Other residents said they found the issue puzzling. "I am looking at the IBA's objectives on their website. They say: 'Protect the civil rights of Indian Americans and other minority communities. And it doesn't sound like that is what is happening," said one resident, who went by the name "Nic".
"And if you can't even apologise for something you've offended a whole bunch of people about, that's probably not a good thing."
Last week, the town's leadership said they did not know a bulldozer would be part of the parade nor were they aware of what it represented.
But Patel, chair of the IBA, told MEE that the city had been informed a bulldozer would be part of the proceedings.
"We even took permission from the township at parade preparation meeting where we presented our plans for the parade. We told them why we were bringing the bulldozer," he said.
On 19 August, Edison's mayor described the incident as "unacceptable" and said he would be pursuing an apology from the IBA.
Mayor Joshi's office did not immediately respond to MEE's questions over his next course of actions given the IBA's refusal to apologise.
Since Narendra Modi became India's prime minister in 2014, human rights groups have reported an increase in abuses against minorities, including Muslims and Christians.
His ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has specifically courted the estimated 4.2 million people of Indian origin living in the US for support.
According to a study last year by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the BJP is the most popular party among Indian Americans. It also found that close to 50 percent of Indian Americans approve of Modi's performance.
"This support is greatest among Republicans, Hindus, people in the engineering profession, those not born in the United States, and those who hail from North and West India," the report concluded.