For some Queens Hindus, acts of hatred against their faith are nothing new — still, they expressed disappointment at the burning of 40 Jhandi flags outside a Woodhaven home last Thursday.
“It’s sad to say, but it’s not unusual in New York City. But it hasn’t happened at such a magnitude, at least to my knowledge,” Aminta Kilawan, co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, said in an interview on Tuesday.
Early Thanksgiving morning, according to cops and surveillance footage, a man stepped into the front yard of a home at 80th Street and 89th Avenue at about 1:20 a.m. and torched dozens of Jhandi flags. In Hinduism, Jhandi flags are put outside a home after prayers have been said. They come in different colors and bear the image of deities and can be seen across South Queens, which has a heavy Hindu population.
“This would be similar in the Christian faith to having a statue of Mary or Jesus and having someone kicking that statue or putting graffiti on it,” Sadhana’s other co-founder, Rohan Narine, said.
Sadhana, in coordination with elected officials and other Hindu organizations, will be hosting a rally near the house to call for peace and for the arson suspect to come forward. That rally will take place on Friday at 7 p.m. at the corner of 89th Avenue and 80th Street, near the victims’ house.
The suspect, who at press time had not been arrested, was last seen wearing a baseball cap and a three-quarter-length jacket and had a medium-sized travel bag.
Surveillance footage does not provide a clear shot of his face.
Narine echoed Kilawan’s remarks that hatred toward Hindus has been seen before, but not to the extent of last week’s act.
“When I was 10 or 11, I had heard that someone stepped on a flag,” he noted. “But to burn 40 flags is sending a message that whoever did this is not in partnership, or that it’s a sign of ignorance.”
The leaders of the Hindu group surmised that a rise in Islamophobia — following the terrorist attacks carried out in Paris last month by members of the Islamic State — could be part of the reason why the suspect carried out the act.
“I think it’s unfortunate that anyone who is perceived to be a ‘terrorist’ can be susceptible to attacks,” Kilawan said, adding that members of the Sikh religion are also improperly perceived by many to be Muslims.
She and Narine are hoping Friday’s rally lets people unfamiliar with Hinduism know what it is about.
“Hinduism is a peaceful religion. We believe in nonviolence,” Narine said.
And it’s not just Hindus who are speaking out against the hateful act.
The Indo-Caribbean Alliance is partnering with Sadhana to put on Friday’s event.
“This is an Indo-Caribbean family that was targeted by this perpetrator,” the ICA’s Executive Director Kenrick Ross said.
Ross spoke strongly about the ties that those of Caribbean descent have with the Hindu community, even if they are not practitioners of the faith.
“If you’re Guyanese, you have Hindu friends, you have Hindu neighbors,” he said. “ [The meaning of Jhandi flags] is something every Caribbean person would have familiarity with. I don’t have a Hindu background, but I know it by heart.”
Richard David, the ICA’s former executive director and a member of Community Board 9, noted that the area is home to a number of Hindus and other people of Caribbean and South Asian descent.
“The striking contrast in South Queens is probably more prominent than anywhere else,” David said of the different ethnicities that call the same part of the borough home. “And we may argue on things like zoning and other issues, but we come together on something like this.”
David and Ross said Indo-Caribbean people are often confused for an ethnicity or religion that they are not.
“From the airport to everywhere else, you get perceived as something you’re not,” the CB 9 member said.
Ross said attacks similar to this “are happening in immigrant communities and in brown communities on a fairly regular basis.”
He believes people unfamiliar with the differences in the diverse cultures should learn about them.
“This is an opportunity to assess the language and rhetoric we use when we talk about immigrants and people of color,” he said.
Both also want Friday’s event to be about the family, and to show them that people outside the Hindu faith are supporting them.
“They’re so shaken up. Their house could’ve been burnt down if the fire spread,” Ross said.
“We’re taking a firm stand against this,” David said.
Elected officials representing Woodhaven have condemned the arsonist’s act.
“The burning of these Hindu flags near someone’s home is an unacceptable act of hatred that our community will not tolerate. Queens is one of the most diverse places in the world, and we as a borough should be extremely proud of that,” state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) said in a statement. “My support is with the family whose culture and beliefs were targeted by this inexplicable crime and I thank the NYPD for not only naming this a hate crime, but for working diligently to ensure those responsible for this act are brought to justice.”
“Crimes which target religious expression are hate crimes, and should be treated as such,” Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) said in a statement issued on Tuesday. “Whoever is responsible for the burning of these flags must be held accountable. We simply cannot tolerate any form of religious persecution.”