8 March, 2024: The Plaque set in Arijejen, Nauru

When Father was called into the office of the Republic of Nauru Hospital, he had no idea he was being given an award that had been bestowed on him by the government of Australia. In major countries like Australia or the US, or even in relatively bigger countries like Fiji, in comparison to Nauru, it was common to give awards or titles to doctors to commemorate their hard work and improve their morale. Father knew of these things happening in practice, but he had never expected getting anything like that himself because it wasn’t customary in Nauru. People weren’t really recognised in general. They spent their time watching the sunset from the silty coastline outside of their houses, fishing, chatting for hours with their relatives or neighbours, and getting drunk when they were younger or getting high off of the Gospel when they were older.

They lived their life, let it be lived, and didn’t think much about what they were doing.

So, when Father came into the office and noticed one of the people who worked for administration unwrapping bubble wrap off of a plaque, he was curious. The plaque appeared to be made out of wood, but it was covered with a gold plating. Whether it was fake or real, Father did not know. But then he saw what was written in a black font at the top.

Community Care Excellence 2023, Dr Bruno Neneiya 

His name was Bruno Neneiya. And underneath that was a signature of a Mr Robin White and the name of a medical association based in Australia. Father felt a pang in the deepest parts of his chest, but then the emotion that followed after was resounding, filling, warm. He was being recognised, and from a foreign institution, and it had all been unprompted, unasked for. The happiness that was flooding Father was almost overwhelming. He thought he was going to cry, though he didn’t.

The hospital administrator handed him the plaque, saying with a dull smile, ‘Congrats.’ Father noticed how glassy his eyes were. It was the same lifeless look he had had last year when Father had given his presentation, arguing how the hospital could improve their services by buying more modern medical equipment and giving salary increases to workers. Father always remembered how the administrator had put on a smile, thanked Father for his hard work, then waddled away to close the door on him after saying that the administration would take the time to think about it. They never gave a response, and Father accepted that this was the most likely outcome. But it certainly felt good, seeing a plaque coming from one of the NGOs Father had been writing to to ask for advice on how to improve the medical infrastructure for his island country.

Father touched the plaque. The written imprint felt rough on his fingers, almost like he were touching pebbles. Yet the wooden frame was so smooth, as if it hadn’t been made out of real wood or the kinds of woods Father was used to touching. He turned the plaque to see his name written in gold. He couldn’t help but smile. Then he just as quickly turned off his smile when his administrator came over to his side, his three double chins melting into one mass of fat as he glared at it.

There was no fancy celebration or ceremony. This was the only hospital on the island, and they didn’t really celebrate things like this. The administrator asked his assistant to take a picture of the two of them holding the plaque and smiling so that he could send it back to the organisation who had awarded him. They would make a social media post on behalf of the hospital. Father and the administrator held hands for the photo, but the moment after the agreeable picture was taken, the administrator let go of his hand. The fake smiles went away, and the administrator’s face returned to being lifeless. He was probably wondering when he would have his next sandwich, Father thought. Father only wished he could become a little more inspired, have a little more jealousy so as to wonder how he could do better and improve his service to the hospital to win awards like this in the future.

It bothered Father, but it also did not. He let himself enjoy the smoothness of the plaque in his hands. He thought about how his wife would feel upon seeing the plaque. She would smile at him all night and give him a warm kiss on the neck and cuddle with him in bed as they beheld the plaque on the wall.

And then he thought about how his own mother, who was now staying at home with them, would react. His mother had always been proud of him for being the most educated person in their household, and for generously sending money back home to support her and his brothers. But he had never won an award, had never been recognised so publicly for his work. Now his mother had dementia and probably wouldn’t understand the importance of it.

But Father imagined a version of his mother from a few years ago, that beautifully active, bronzed woman who kept her grey hair in a tightly knit bun and her full body in a red flower dress. This was the version of his mother who’d pace up and down the kitchen waiting for a call from her grandson. This was the version of his mother who’d spend all morning flipping the fish on the grill to make sure it would not get burnt, only toasted. He imagined this version of his mother holding the plaque, crying because she was so proud of her son, holding him in a way she had never done when she was lucid enough to do such things. Father imagined himself telling this version of his mother that he would have never been able to do any of this without her support, and that he loved her.

How he wished he could have had this moment with his mother.

Father held this plaque for some time, then he put it back in its bubble wrap. The time to celebrate was over. It wouldn’t be until the evening when his shift ended and he would be able to show it to his loved ones.

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.”