Sunnyvale, May 31, 2019: In the heart of Silicon Valley, an Indian-American teenager with severe brain injuries brought Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs together as part of a rainbow coalition of ethnic, religious, and immigrant networks, on May 29.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF), the Islamic Networks Group, and the Sikh Coalition shared stage with a Zen Buddhist leader, a Rabbi, a reverend from the Episcopal Church, and immigrant rights organisations.
The Unity Gathering, organised by the city of Sunnyvale, and the Islamic Networks Group, took place at a community centre in Sunnyvale—best known for the Yahoo! headquarters and its large Indian population, for which the city is often jokingly called Suraj Nagari.
The interfaith meet was a show of solidarity against a hate crime that took place a little over a month ago, not far from the community centre, in which an Iraq war veteran called Isaiah Peoples drove his car into pedestrians at a crosswalk because he thought they were Muslim. Eight people were injured.
Worst affected was 13-year-old Dhriti Narayan, who went into coma after her brain was left swollen and bleeding. Her father Rajesh and younger brother Prakhar were also injured.
The last time Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein met Dhriti was at a Holi celebration at the city’s Shiv Durga temple. On April 23, when Klein heard news of the car crash that took place a block away from his home, he first attributed it to an accident caused by a drunk driver. He says he never thought that it could be an act of hate or extremism. He spoke passionately about how Sunnyvale would not tolerate racial violence and extremism.
Klein and other members of the local government were quick to point to the region’s diversity. They spoke of how Santa Clara county, to which Sunnyvale belongs, is a majority-minority county, one where no one community is a majority, over 40% residents are foreign born, and half speak a language other than English at home. Officials spoke of the need to make diversity a strength and not a source of division.
The diversity they spoke of was evident among the audience that spilled out of the hall, one that represented every possible race, religion, and ethnicity, where headscarves and purple-streaked hair sat side by side. Klein points to the fact that this very same diversity was present at the crosswalk where pedestrians were attacked last month. The victims were South Asian, East Asian, Latino, and Caucasian. The morning after the Unity Gathering, hate crime charges were filed against Peoples.
The crime evokes the inescapable irony of a Hindu girl being attacked because an American thought she looked Muslim. Many Hindus in Silicon Valley believe they are immune to the rise in hate crimes in the country, as they believe these crimes are not targeted at them.
Dhriti Narayan, lying in hospital with an injured brain, is a grim reminder of the fact that an Islamophobe cannot tell the difference between a brown Hindu and a brown Muslim. At a time when Hindu organisations in America are being accused of supporting Hindu nationalism in India at the cost of minorities, social media conversations talk of the growing need for Indians to speak out in larger numbers against Islamophobia, irrespective of whether they believe they are the target.
Nirvair Singh of the Sikh Coalition talked of the spate of attacks on Sikhs in America, often targeted for their turbans and facial hair. He, too, believed in the growing need to stand up against hate crimes and Islamophobia.
While “Never Again” is a phrase long-used by the Jews to remind them of the holocaust, Rabbi Amy Eilberg said that, for many Jews, the phrase meant that no genocide should occur again.
At the Unity Gathering, an Indian in the audience spoke of the need for everyone to speak out against all hate crimes, irrespective of the community to which the victims belong. “While there are people who feel the need to speak out against hate towards all communities, the time to do so is not just when your own community is attacked,” said an Indian woman who has lived in Sunnyvale for the last 15 years.
Samir Kalra, managing director of HAF, talked of a spike in hate crimes against Hindus, including hate speech and the desecration of temples. He spoke of the community having witnessed both anti-Indian and anti-Muslim bias.
When asked whether Indians in America need to be more vocal when it came to condemning Islamophobia, he said, “We have been focused on speaking out against crimes against anyone.” He added that Hindus were speaking out against attacks on synagogues and mosques. “Violence against any group or faith affects us all,” he added.
While the HAF has, in the past, been accused of links with the Hindu nationalist BJP, currently India’s ruling party, and its parent body, the RSS, it denies the allegations, and its members have written of the distinction between being Hindu and supporting Hindutva, a strain of Hindu nationalism to which the BJP belongs.
In the wake of growing hate crimes in America, Maha Elgenaidi, CEO of the Islamic Networks Group, referred to studies showing the incredibly negative stereotypes that many Americans had about Islam.
She felt the need to address the source of bigotry and revisit false narratives about various communities that were constructed during European colonisation. She pointed to the manner in which Islam was misrepresented in public schools.
Elgenaidi was the last to speak as the sun set, and Muslims observing Ramzan broke their fast with samosas, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Everybody else was invited to join the feast. Sunnyvale, with its Indian grocery stores and chaat shops at every street corner, is, after all, the best place in Silicon Valley for a samosa.