Sep 12, 2023

Why was a bulldozer at an India Independence Day event in New Jersey?

US activists have expressed outrage after a bulldozer was used during an India Independence Day event in the state of New Jersey, something critics say has become a symbol for Hindu nationalist politicians and a tool to intimidate the country's minority Muslim community.

Hundreds of Indian Americans held a rally on Sunday to commemorate India's 75th Independence Day in Edison, a town in central New Jersey.

'You have to ask yourself: what is a bulldozer doing at a parade about independence?'

- Mohammed Jawad, Indian American Muslim Council

The event, organised by the Indian Business Association, is an annual affair. Men, women and children carry the Indian tricolour flag and walk through the streets of a town known for its Indian supermarkets, restaurants and boutique fashion stores.

On Sunday, the rally was attended by several local politicians as well as the national spokesperson of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

One Indian Muslim who attended Sunday's rally described it as "huge".

"It was heavily crowded, everyone wearing Indian T-shirts such as cricket shirts or Indian colours," the resident of Edison, who requested anonymity, told MEE.

"I got weird looks in the crowd as I have somewhat of a beard though I am young and was accompanied by family in hijab."I support cultural ties to my country and I thought it'd be nice to just walk down the parade. I didn't know it would be what it was but I should have known better."

Indeed, there was something a little different about this year's event.

On Monday, photos and video emerged of a bulldozer, adorned with posters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ally, Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of India's most populous state Uttar Pradesh, rolling through the main road in Edison. Bystanders yelled "Jai Shree Ram", a religious chant that has now become a battle cry for Hindu supremacists in India.

Adityanath is a vocal supporter of the Islamophobic "Love Jihad" campaign in India that aims to stop Muslims from marrying Hindu women. He once said that he would place Hindu idols inside every mosque.

Minhaj Khan, an activist from New Jersey, told Middle East Eye that it was "a blatant display of anti-Muslim hate".

In recent years, bulldozers have come to symbolise the demolition of homes belonging to Indian Muslims on the mere suspicion of participating in protests or riots. Adityanath was a pioneer of this strategy in his state and is often referred to, both affectionately and pejoratively, as "Bulldozer Baba". In June, the Indian government destroyed the home of the prominent Muslim activist Afreen Fatima after protests erupted in the state of Uttar Pradesh over controversial remarks about the Prophet Muhammad by a BJP official.

Fatima recently told MEE that the decision to destroy the homes of Indian Muslims such as hers was to subjugate the Muslim minority.

"The idea is to punish Muslims and to let them know that we can say whatever we want and you can't do anything about it," Afreen said.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International urged the Indian government to end the practice, adding the "punitive demolition of family homes of suspects could also amount to collective punishment, in violation of international human rights law."

Several Indian Americans, especially Muslims, who saw Monday's footage said they were startled and outraged by the open expression of bigotry.

"We know that there are many in Edison who support the Hindu nationalist politics of Modi, and [that] they send money to the Hindu supremacist projects in India, but we have never seen anything like this," Mohammed Jawad, Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) president, told MEE.

"You have to ask yourself: what is a bulldozer doing at a parade about independence?" Jawad asked rhetorically.

Other organisations have also expressed outrage over Sunday's events in Edison. Pranay Somayajula, advocacy and outreach coordinator, for Hindus for Human Rights, told MEE that his organisation was "appalled and disgusted though unsurprised by this brazen display of violent Hindu supremacy.

"The diaspora, and in particular Hindu Americans, urgently need to speak out against the infiltration of Hindutva hatred into our communities," Somayajula said.

On Tuesday, Council on American-Islamic Relations-New Jersey executive director Selaedin Maksut condemned the presence of the bulldozer at the rally and the glorification of Hindu nationalist figures.

"We also call on Edison Mayor Samip Joshi to condemn these acts of hatred and block the BJP's attempts to interfere in local New Jersey politics," Maksut said in a statement.

Khan said that activists in the area would make efforts to explain this symbol of hate to local office bearers and the general predicament facing minorities in India.

Commenting on the developments over the weekend, the Mayor's office stopped short of condemning the incident. Joshi's office told MEE the town was "committed to celebrating and working with people from all cultures" and that "no discriminatory symbol has [sic] a place in Edison."

The Indian Business Association, which organised the rally, did not immediately reply to MEE's request for comment.