A bulldozer among the floats at Indian parade divides New Jersey town

·3-min read

By Atul Dev

EDISON, New Jersey (Reuters) - Every August crowds clutching saffron, white and green flags line a parade route through Edison, New Jersey, to watch local business owners, politicians and the occasional Bollywood celebrity march past to commemorate India's Independence Day.

Normally a celebration, this year's parade instead divided this suburban, heavily immigrant town 30 miles (50 km) from New York City when a yellow bulldozer - a symbol that has become offensive to many Indian Muslims - appeared among the floats.

India's vast diaspora is made up mainly from its majority Hindu community but includes many Muslims.

Hung from the bulldozer during the Aug. 14 parade was a sign that read "Baba Bulldozer" in the Hindi language alongside pictures of Indian politician Yogi Adityanath.

A Hindu hardliner, Adityanath is a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and chief minister of the country's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where a number of Muslim homes have been razed by bulldozers.

Some homes have also been demolished in Delhi, which is ruled by the opposition Aam Aadmi Party.

Adityanath denies being anti-Muslim.

"The chief minister has been using bulldozers to destroy illegal structures," said an aide in Lucknow, the state capital. "Clearly people of Indian origin understand his commitment and that is the reason they chose to praise him during the rally in New Jersey."

Some Muslims in India say the community has been humiliated and put under pressure since Modi came to power in 2014. Earlier this year, Muslims took to the streets to protest against anti-Islamic comments by two members of the BJP.

"We were hurt to see that hate migrating from India to the United States," Mohammad Jawad, the president of the Indian American Muslim Council who has lived in Edison for two decades, told Reuters. "That hate is now in our backyard."

The event organizer, the Indian Business Association (IBA), a New Jersey-based group of Indian Hindu businessmen, has apologized and did not respond to follow-up calls asking why the decision to include the bulldozer was made.

Even so, residents said they remained concerned that the parade illustrates how India's political strife and religious tensions are seeping into expatriate communities in the United States. Some objected to the organizer's decision to feature Sambit Patra, the BJP national spokesperson, as a special guest.

Patra could not immediately be reached for comment.

Other groups that appeared in the Edison parade, according to attendees, included Overseas Friends of the BJP as well as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, both of which are hardline Hindu groups.

"If this is not nipped in the bud, if this seed of divisiveness blossoms, then we are going to have the same situation here that we have back home," said Imtiaz Siamwalla, a 56-year-old Muslim who is a technology consultant and Edison resident. "We are seriously concerned about that."

Nearly half of Edison's about 110,000 residents identify as "Asian," according to U.S Census data. A long stretch of shops and small businesses connecting Edison and the neighboring town of Woodbridge has become known as “Little India.”

Two weeks after the parade, the IBA issued an apology, saying: "Unfortunately there was a bulldozer among the floats in the parade which is a divisive image that did not reflect our mission. It was seen quite negatively by many who are deeply impacted and insulted by certain activities that have been happening in India."

In letter to the mayors of Edison and Woodbridge, the IBA promised to keep any divisive symbols out of the parade in future years.

Edison Mayor Samip Joshi said in a statement: "I want to be clear that any symbol or action that represents discrimination is unwelcome in Edison Township."

(Reporting by Atul Dev in Edison and Rupam Jain in Mumbai, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)