Hindu Temples in San Francisco Bay Area Face Vandalism, Prompts

Call for Increased Security

In the span of two weeks, three Hindu temples in the San Francisco Bay Area have fallen victim to acts of vandalism, raising concerns among Hindu advocates about the safety and security of temples across the United States. The incidents have prompted a call for heightened vigilance and security measures within the Hindu community.

On January 5, Vijay’s Sherawali Temple in Hayward, California, experienced an act of vandalism when the entrance sign was spray-painted with the phrases “Modi is a terrorist” and “Khalistan Zindabad” (Khalistan Forever). Khalistan represents the aspiration of Sikh separatists for an independent state carved out of the Indian state of Punjab. This incident follows an earlier burglary at the Shiv Durga Temple of Santa Clara on January 1, where three perpetrators were captured on camera stealing gold jewelry from the temple’s idols and donation boxes.

Sunil Khanna, president of the Santa Clara temple’s board, expressed shock at the incident, emphasizing the community’s belief that temples are invulnerable. He highlighted the emotional impact, stating, “The main thing that hurt all of us was how they misbehaved with the gods.”

The Shree Swaminarayan Temple in Newark, California, faced a different form of desecration on December 23, with a vulgarity aimed at Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, defacing the premises. Jonathan Arguello, police captain for the city of Newark, indicated that the act appeared to be targeted, leading to a commitment to a thorough investigation.

These attacks are part of a concerning trend of anti-Hindu hate crimes, according to Ramya Ramakrishnan of the Hindu American Foundation. She noted the impact on community members, saying, “This is supposed to be a safe place where you go to pray and get peace of mind. But this holy and sacred space is now being violated.”

The recent wave of vandalism follows previous incidents, including an attack on the Indian Consulate in San Francisco and the vandalism of a Mahatma Gandhi statue in New York. These occurrences point to a growing pattern of anti-Hindu sentiments and actions.

The incidents also coincide with charges by the U.S. Department of Justice in November, accusing an Indian government official of plotting to murder Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York. The Canadian prime minister’s office had earlier accused India of involvement in the assassination of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

Pro-Khalistani vandalism has been ongoing since at least March 2023 when protesters in San Francisco entered the Indian Consulate, displaying Khalistani flags. A subsequent arson attack in July further highlighted the issue. Despite these incidents, law enforcement has emphasized the criminal nature of vandalism against diplomatic facilities without explicitly addressing Sikh separatism.

Anti-Khalistani activist Puneet Sahani highlighted the need for the Hindu and Sikh communities to address separatist sentiments, referencing a 2021 incident in Queens where Khalistani rhetoric was spray-painted. Sahani expressed concern that Hindu organizations might avoid speaking out against the Khalistan movement due to fears of being labeled anti-Sikh. He emphasized the importance of addressing extremists within the community.

Ramakrishnan pointed out that Hinduphobia is yet to be fully recognized by law enforcement, calling for increased federal-level efforts. While local authorities have responded promptly to recent crimes, she stressed the need for broader recognition and swifter action, comparing the incidents to potential reactions if they had occurred in synagogues or mosques.

The Hindu American Foundation, the largest Hindu advocacy organization in the U.S., regularly provides resources for temples to enhance security measures. These resources include a manual with information on safety assessments, education on security measures ranging from CCTV cameras to alarms, and a call for reporting all incidents to prevent Hinduphobia-related crimes from going unnoticed.

“We really want our Hindu community to be aware that this is happening in your backyard,” Ramakrishnan said. “Not to be afraid, but to face this. We need to be united as a community.”

Sunil Khanna, determined to rebuild, aims to lead a consortium for Bay Area Hindu temples, advocating for recognition of the community’s unity in the face of these attacks. He emphasized resilience, stating, “No temple should close their doors… This is a time to stand up and rebel against the negative forces.”

Seattle Is First US City To Ban Caste Discrimination

(AP) — The Seattle City Council on Tuesday added caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws, becoming the first U.S. city to ban caste discrimination and the first in the world to pass such a law outside South Asia.

Calls to outlaw discrimination based on caste, a division of people based on birth or descent, have grown louder among South Asian diaspora communities in the United States. But the movement has been getting pushback from some Hindu Americans who argue that such legislation maligns a specific community.

Tensions within the community were visible at Seattle City Hall on Tuesday as a noisy hearing culminated with a 6-1 vote with a majority of the council agreeing that caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries and that without such laws, those facing caste discrimination in the U.S. will have no protections.

The packed room, which overflowed with activists from both sides bearing banners, chanting slogans, challenging speakers and city officials as they made their comments, laid bare stark divisions over this issue within the South Asian diaspora. A majority of those present in council chambers were supporters of the ordinance and those opposed were a vocal minority.

Picture : NBC

As council members voted in favor of the ordinance, the chamber erupted into cheers of “Jai Bhim,” which means “victory for Bhim” a rallying cry adopted by followers of B.R. Ambedkar, an Indian Dalit rights icon whose given name was Bhimrao. Dalit groups and their supporters say caste discrimination is prevalent in U.S. diaspora communities, manifesting itself in the form of social alienation and discrimination in housing, education and the tech sector where South Asians hold key roles.

Yogesh Mane, a Seattle resident who grew up as an untouchable in India, broke into tears as he heard the council’s decision.

“I’m emotional because this is the first time such an ordinance has been passed anywhere in the world outside of South Asia,” he said. “It’s a historic moment.”

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Oakland, California-based Equality Labs, whose advocacy work along with community partners continues to push caste discrimination laws forward, called the council vote “a culture war that has been won.”

Seattle first US City to ban caste discrimination

Seattle City Council on Tuesday added caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws, becoming the first U.S. city to specifically ban caste discrimination (Feb. 22) (AP video/Manuel Valdes)

“We got the support of over 200 organizations from Seattle and around the country,” she said. “It’s a powerful message that Dalit people are not alone. The South Asian community has united to say we want to heal from the trauma of caste.”

Council Member Kshama Sawant, a socialist and the only Indian American on the City Council, said the ordinance, which she proposed, does not single out one community, but it accounts for how caste discrimination crosses national and religious boundaries. Sawant said the council received over 4,000 emails in support of the ordinance.

“We’ve heard hundreds of gut-wrenching stories over the last few weeks showing us that caste discrimination is very real in Seattle,” she said.

Council Member Sara Nelson who cast the lone dissenting vote agreed with opponents calling the ordinance “a reckless, harmful solution to a problem for which we have no data or research.”

“This could generate more anti-Hindu discrimination and could dissuade employers from hiring South Asians,” she said. “The community that is being impacted is deeply divided on this issue.”

Nelson also said the ordinance would also get the city entangled in legal battles to which Sawant responded: “Bring it on.” Sawant said being fearful of lawsuits is not the way to effect progress or change.

Council Member Lisa Herbold questioned opponents’ logic that the law singles out Hindus and people of Indian descent. “That’s like saying gender discrimination laws single out all men,” she said. “And just because we have a small population that is experiencing (caste discrimination) that doesn’t make it any less important.”

Shobha Swamy, a representative of the Coalition of Hindus of North America said she was disappointed by the council deliberations and line of questioning. The group said they received a show of support from over 100 organizations. “Due diligence wasn’t done,” said Swami, who flew in from Atlanta.

C.H. Srikrishna, a San Francisco Bay Area-based tech worker, said he is worried about the ramifications this ordinance might have for the South Asian community.

“I too want discrimination to end,” he said. “But we need to first determine that widespread discrimination exists.”

Srikrishna, who is Hindu, believes the ordinance does target his religion. “When you say it originated 2,000 years ago, that is implicitly blaming Hinduism,” he said. “That bothers me. I feel betrayed.”

Sanjay Patel, a tech company owner from the Seattle area, said he never felt discriminated against in the U.S. as a member of a lower caste and that the ordinance pained him because it reminded him of a caste identity, which he thought had become obsolete.

“I fear with this law, businesses will be afraid to hire South Asians,” he said. Earlier Tuesday morning, several activists braved cold temperatures and wind gusts to line up outside City Hall so they would get a chance to speak to the council before the vote. But the council restricted public comment at the meeting where more than 300 people had requested to speak virtually and in person. They heard about half of the comments before moving on to deliberations and the vote.

The origins of the caste system in India can be traced back 3,000 years as a social hierarchy based on one’s occupation and birth. It is a system that has evolved over the centuries under Muslim and British rule. The suffering of those who are at the bottom of the caste pyramid — known as Dalits — has continued. Caste discrimination has been prohibited in India since 1948, a year after the nation’s independence from British rule.

The U.S. is the second most popular destination for Indians living abroad, according to the Migration Policy Institute, which estimates the U.S. diaspora grew from about 206,000 in 1980 to about 2.7 million in 2021. The group South Asian Americans Leading Together reports that nearly 5.4 million South Asians live in the U.S. — up from the 3.5 million counted in the 2010 census. Most trace their roots to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Over the past three years, several colleges and university systems have moved to prohibit caste discrimination. In December 2019, Brandeis University near Boston became the first U.S. college to include caste in its nondiscrimination policy. The California State University System, Colby College, Brown University and the University of California, Davis have all adopted similar measures. Harvard University instituted caste protections for student workers in 2021 as part of its contract with its graduate student union.

Rep. Ro Khanna Elected Co-Chair Of India Caucus

Congressman Ro Khanna, 46, a Democrat who represents California’s 17th Congressional District, is the co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans, along with his Republican House colleague Mike Waltz (R-Fla) in the 118th Congress.

“The Indian-American diaspora can play such an important role in helping strengthen the US-India partnership. I think this is a historic moment for our community. I think we’re really emerging and coming into our own as a strong voice,” Khanna told the media.

Picture : Newsweek

The India Caucus is a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers that was established in 1993 to bolster New Delhi-Washington relations. Prior to Khanna, Congressman Ami Bera was the first Indian-American to be elected as the co-chair of the Caucus in 2015-2016 during the 115th Congress.

“I’m going to try to make it about not just us India, but also the Indian-American community and highlighting the contributions of that community,” Khanna was quoted to have said.

Indian Americans are the second-largest immigrant group in the US, with their population estimated to be around four million. As the profile of the community has grown, so too has its social, economic, and political influence.

There are presently five Indian Americans serving in the Congress, popularly known as the ‘Samosa Caucus’ — Ami Bera, Ro Khanna, Raja Krishnamoorthi, Pramila Jayapal, and Shri Thanedar. Khanna’s appointment comes amidst reports that he may be looking at a potential presidential run in 2024.

His recent moves have sparked speculation among Democrats in several key states that the Congressman has his eyes set on a higher office, according to Politico. “If President Biden didn’t seek re-election, his name would have to be on the list of top contenders,” Stacey Walker, founder of the Iowa-based firm Sage Strategies, said.

Khanna — son of immigrant parents from Punjab — is seen as one of the leaders of his party’s progressive wing, and a relative newcomer on the scene who has broad appeal and formidable skills.

On US-India relations, he said last month that the relationship between the two democracies could define the 21st century. Khanna had said in November 2022 that the US needs a strong defense and strategic partnership with India, especially in the face of escalating aggression from China. In September last year, he had introduced a standalone bill in the US House of Representatives seeking a waiver to India against the punitive CAATSA sanctions.

Rep. Ro Khanna will be a co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, he said in an exclusive interview last week. Khanna, a Democrat who has been representing California’s 17th Congressional District since 2017, will co-chair the caucus with Rep. Mike Waltz,.

“When I started on this journey, in my 20s, there was a huge novelty to having someone of Indian origin even enter politics,” he said. “The Indian American diaspora can play such an important role in helping strengthen the U.S.-India partnership. … I think this is a historic moment for our community. I think we’re really emerging and coming into our own as a strong voice.”

The caucus, which was established in 1993 to strengthen relations between the U.S. and India, was previously chaired by Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., and former Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio. Khanna said he hopes to take the caucus beyond its original goal. The Indian diaspora in the U.S. has its own unique needs, he said, and the position could be an opportunity to bring them to the forefront.

“I’m going to try to make it about not just us India, but also the Indian American community and highlighting the contributions of that community,” he said. “I think being Indian America and being part of the community, knowing so many of the community leaders, knowing the passions and interests of young people, I’ll be able to do that.”

Khanna said that having spent much of his career in Northern California’s Silicon Valley, he has been immersed in Indian American issues for years. The rising tide of Hindu nationalism is on the forefront of the diaspora’s collective consciousness; from professional spheres to college campuses, reports of Islamophobia and casteism abound in South Asian spaces.

Khanna hasn’t shied away from such conversations, and his vocalness has sparked outrage from right-wing Indian Americans. In 2019, 230 Hindu and Indian American entities wrote letter criticizing Khanna for denouncing Hindu nationalism (also known as Hindutva) and for advocating religious equality on the subcontinent.

“It’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist & Christians,” Khanna tweeted at the time.

They also criticized Khanna for joining the Congressional Pakistan Caucus and for speaking out against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s revoking the state of Kashmir’s autonomy.

“Of course, we have to fulfill the strategic partnership and we have to respect the democratically elected leadership in India,” Khanna told NBC News. “I will work to strengthen that while also upholding these human rights values.”

“When I started on this journey, in my 20s, there was a huge novelty to having someone of Indian origin even enter politics,” he said. “The Indian American diaspora can play such an important role in helping strengthen the U.S.-India partnership. … I think this is a historic moment for our community. I think we’re really emerging and coming into our own as a strong voice.”

“Of course, we have to fulfill the strategic partnership and we have to respect the democratically elected leadership in India,” Khanna told NBC News. “I will work to strengthen that while also upholding these human rights values.”

“These kids of H1B are like the Dreamers,” Khanna said. “You have kids who came here when they were 2 or 3. They don’t have citizenship. … Even though they have grown up their whole life here, they’re in a vulnerable position.”

With both Republican and Democratic representatives serving on the India Caucus, including Khanna’s co-chair Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., Khanna is aiming to mobilize bipartisan support for safeguarding young adults who find themselves in this position.

Khanna held a town hall on Saturday, bringing awareness to Asian American and Pacific Islanders’ mental health in the wake of the deadly shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, California. Though the shooters in both cases were Asian men, Khanna said they amplified a mounting fear of simply existing in community spaces once considered safe.

With numerous high-profile acts of violence against Asians in the last few years, community members are feeling more “distant” from America than ever, he said.

“We had so much outreach to our office from constituents…people afraid, concerned, anxious about being Asian American in the United States,” he said. “These shootings, even though the perpetrator was Asian American, I think they triggered for so many in our community a sense of vulnerability.”

Khanna says taking on this greater role in the India Caucus feels like the culmination of generations of work in the public sphere. His grandfather Amarnath Vidyalankar spent his life fighting for India’s independence from British rule, even spending a few years in jail for the cause. Vidyalankar became a member of India’s first Parliament after independence in 1947.

Growing up with this knowledge has shaped Khanna’s strong beliefs in equality and religious freedom, he said, something he hopes to bring with him while chairing the caucus.  “Because of my grandfather, I was influenced by Gandhi’s thinking, by Nehru’s beautiful speeches about liberal democracy, about pluralism,” he said. “Those are the values I champion. … I’ve spoken out where I think those values are being challenged.”

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