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Anti-Hindu attacks grow, from N.Y. to a California Taco Bell

Hindus pray at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Beltsville, Md., in honor of Diwali, the Hindu new year, in 2018. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

A tirade recorded at a California Taco Bell punctuated a string of discriminatory incidents this month aimed at Indian Americans and Hindu temples, deepening concerns that “Hinduphobia” is on the rise.

Krishnan Iyer had stopped into a Fremont, Calif., Taco Bell near his home on Aug. 21 to pick up an online order for his son, when a man in a black T-shirt and shorts and red sneakers began attacking his religion, according to eight minutes of video filmed and uploaded by Iyer. The man berated him unprompted, Iyer said, spewing slurs and chiding him for his vegetarianism while making much of ordering beef for himself. Many Hindus refrain from eating any part of cows.

The man insulted Iyer’s appearance, repeatedly calling him “dirty Hindu” and “ugly Hindu” and telling him he “bathes in cow urine” and eats “cow s---.” The man also spat in Iyer’s direction, Iyer said, but missed and hit the food service counter instead.

“It was very abundantly clear to me that he was trying to stir the pot and try to push his agenda,” said Iyer, who called the attack “disgusting.” “I didn’t have any reason to react to him. I do a lot of meditation and yoga, and that gave me a sense of perspective that his soul was in distress.”

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Iyer said he had no idea what had spurred the man’s ire. After posting his video, he said, he learned from friends that an independence movement in the northern Indian state of Punjab has been stirring high feelings among Punjabis in North America. In Iyer’s video, the perpetrator can be heard speaking Punjabi and denouncing Indira Gandhi, the former Indian prime minister who was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, and displaying tattoos of a phrase from a Sikh prayer.

Two Fremont police officers responded to a call from another patron, and the perpetrator was forced to leave the establishment. Sgt. Kim Macdonald of the Fremont Police Department said an investigation is ongoing.

The incident in California was followed days later by a similar one in Plano, Tex., and both came just weeks after a Gandhi statue was vandalized and desecrated outside a Queens temple twice in less than a month. After the second statue toppling, New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) and several faith leaders from the surrounding Hindu, Jewish and Sikh communities gathered at the temple to denounce what the New York Police Department is investigating as a hate crime. In a statement from the Hindu American Foundation, Executive Director Suhag Shukla noted that surveillance videos recorded the attackers using phrases supportive of the same Punjabi separatist movement.

According to the FBI’s hate-crime data explorer, last updated in 2020, there were 11 hate offenses recorded that year as “anti-Hindu bias,” compared to 110 anti-Muslim and 89 anti-Sikh incidents.

But a study from Rutgers University’s Network Contagion Lab, published in July, found that anti-Hindu sentiments are on the rise. In a briefing Thursday, hosted by the Coalition of Hindus of North America, lead researcher Joel Finkelstein pointed to memes and online social cyber signals referring to perceived “dirty” and “scamming” qualities of Hindus, as well as depictions of Hindus being brutalized. Many of the memes, he said, were manufactured out of commonly used tropes against Jewish people, using tilaks, swastikas and bindis to signify Hindu culture.

“The internet has provided a fertile ground for the large-scale organization and weaponization of Hinduphobia by extremist communities, state actors and hateful players in the online space,” Finkelstein said.

Because the verbiage and tropes surrounding Hinduphobia are not yet recognized by social media platforms like Twitter, this kind of targeted hatred, which “reliably precedes real-world violence,” largely goes unchecked, he said.

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“Unfortunately, these incidents are evidence of the untackled Hinduphobia that refuses to be given mainstream acknowledgment,” said Pushpita Prasad, of the Coalition of Hindus of North America. She said COHNA often battles with academics, activists and journalists to acknowledge the existence of anti-Hindu hate.

Iyer said both COHNA and the Hindu American Foundation contacted him, and the latter group contacted the FBI and the Fremont City Council. He said he is “truly grateful” for the outpouring of support he has received from people around the world.

“Being a Hindu means you are a universal human,” Iyer said. “At the end of the day, everyone has a soul, and every soul has a light. That’s the true spirit of Hinduism.”

— Religion News Service