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Targeted by racist fliers, Ravi Bhalla becomes the first turbaned Sikh mayor in New Jersey

Three candidates in New Jersey were targetted by racist ads leading up to election day. All three were declared winners on Nov. 8. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ravi Bhalla was the first Sikh mayor of a major U.S. city. This version has been corrected.

Days before the New Jersey elections, someone distributed anonymous fliers around Hoboken. “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our town,” the fliers said, while featuring a photo of Ravinder Bhalla, wearing the turban that he always wears as a hallmark of his faith.

On Tuesday night, Bhalla was beaming in that turban, waving his arm in the air to celebrate his election as one of the first Sikh mayors of a U.S. city.

Bhalla, a Democrat who has served two terms on the Hoboken City Council, inspired enthusiasm not just in Hoboken but in the nationwide Sikh community of about 200,000 people, which has suffered frequent racist slurs and acts of violence since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. People tend to mix up Sikhs — members of a 500-year-old monotheistic Indian religion that is not related to either Islam or Hinduism — with Muslims.

The community celebrated Bhalla’s election on Tuesday night.

“Given how much we’ve endured in this country, and frankly the fact that we have been here for more than a century now in the U.S. and have felt largely ignored and neglected as a minority community, this is for us a signal shift, where we feel like we’re getting on the map. This is a major development for us,” Simran Jeet Singh, a religion fellow at the Sikh Coalition, said. “And it comes in a context where, like many minority groups, we’re facing xenophobia.”

Singh said his parents, who immigrated to the United States, could scarcely have imagined someone who looked like them winning elected office, and he’s thrilled that his 18-month-old daughter will grow up seeing a turbaned Sikh as the city’s leader.

Gurwin Ahuja, executive director of the National Sikh Campaign, said Bhalla is one of the first Sikh people to become mayor of a U.S. city. Satyendra Huja served as mayor of the city of Charlottesville, and some small towns have had Sikh mayors.

In Hoboken, a city of more than 50,000 people across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Bhalla ran against five other candidates. He tweeted Saturday that the fliers about terrorism were “troubling, but we won’t let hate win.” CBS News reported that the fliers did not name the group that paid for them, a violation of state election law.

Ahuja said that whoever made the fliers implying that “turban” meant “terrorist” interpreted the turban completely wrong. “Sikhs are instructed to be actively involved in their communities…. In fact, the reason why Sikhs wear a turban is because it represents our value of equality and to stand up against injustice wherever we see it,” he said. “The turban represents our commitment to those values of equality — gender equality, racial equality and religious tolerance — and our duty to stand up for those rights. In India, back in the day, when people would see a Sikh, they knew that was someone they could go to for safety.”

The Sikh faith’s historic emphasis on equality, borne out of resistance to India’s caste system, lends itself to participating in American democracy, Ahuja said. “When I see him up there, I see someone that has committed himself to those values. It makes us more proud when we see that,” he said. “The turban actually represents the ethos of American values.”

This post has been updated.

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