#WeAreOne Protests Hindu Flag-Burning

At the rally on Dec. 5, from left to right: Indo-Caribbean artist and activist Simone Devi Jhingoor, Public Advocate Letitia James, MOIA Commissioner Nisha Agarwal and Indo-Caribbean community advocate Vishnu Mahadeo (Photo by Anand Mohanlall via Sadhana Facebook page)

At the rally on Dec. 5, from left to right: Indo-Caribbean artist and activist Simone Devi Jhingoor, Public Advocate Letitia James, MOIA Commissioner Nisha Agarwal and Indo-Caribbean community advocate Vishnu Mahadeo (Photo by Anand Mohanlall via Sadhana’s Facebook page)

Hindu prayers and chants of “We are one” echoed through Woodhaven Friday night as faith leaders, elected officials and concerned neighbors protested a Thanksgiving attack on a local Indo-Caribbean Hindu family originally from Guyana.

Sadhana, a Hindu social justice advocacy group, organized the rally to protest the burning of Jhandi flags outside the house of the Narine family. Security cameras captured images of a man setting the Jhandi flags on fire at 1:20 a.m. Thanksgiving morning. No one was hurt, but 40 flags were destroyed. The NYPD is investigating the attack as a hate crime.

Jhandi flags are a distinctive part of Indo-Caribbean Hindu identity, and have a strong religious and cultural significance. The flags are raised at the end of annual rituals in which Indo-Caribbean Hindu families honor their Ishta Devata, or cherished god or goddess. The colors of the flags represent specific deities: red for Hanuman, white for Saraswati, pink for Lakshmi. “It’s a visual way to honor the deity that is closest to that family,” said Sadhana co-founder Aminta Kilawan, 27.

The Narine family didn’t participate in the rally. Sadhana co-founder Sunita Viswanath, 47, explained to the protesters that the family was in mourning for the death of a family member, and read a prepared statement in which the family expressed gratitude for the support they had received, and asked for their privacy to be respected.

The Narine family also said that they wanted to speak to the perpetrator of the attack on their house.

“We want to build dialogue and trust to help the racism disappear. We have it in our hearts to forgive,” the statement said.

When Kilawan, who is of Guyanese Hindu descent, found out about the attack she felt it was necessary to take some sort of action. She reached out, visiting the family at their home.

“This crime went to the heart of my identity as an Indo-Caribbean Hindu,” Kilawan said.

Aminta Kilawan, co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus (Photo by Hemma Kilawan via Sadhana Facebook page)

Aminta Kilawan, co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus (Photo by Hemma Kilawan via Sadhana Facebook page)

As Sadhana contacted faith and community leaders, Kilawan made sure the Narines were comfortable with the rally.

The family was shaken by the attack. After speaking to Kilawan they lent their support to the rally, on the condition that their privacy be respected.

A number of politicians and city leaders attended the rally, including Rep. Nydia Velázquez, Public Advocate Letitia James, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Nisha Agarwal, City Council member Eric Ulrich, and state Sen. James Sanders Jr. They condemned the attack and expressed support for the family and the Indo-Caribbean community at large.

“Our community will not be broken, it will not be defined by violence or hatred,” said Rep. Velázquez.

Assembly member Mike Miller announced he was pledging $500 to a reward fund to help identify the perpetrator of the attack, and Martin Colberg pledged $500 on behalf of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association. By the end of the rally pledges to the fund totaled $4,000.

“I stand here today with our Hindu brothers and sisters to condemn this act of hate,” said Imam Shaikh Safraz Bacchus, of the Masjid Al Abidin of Richmond Hill, who is of Indo-Caribbean descent himself.

“It has always been my belief that religion should bring us together, it is not supposed to divide us,” he said.

Several speakers mentioned the recent attacks in Beirut, Paris, Colorado Springs and San Bernardino.

For Sadhana co-founder Viswanath, making the connection was important. “We have different degrees of violence, we have massacres and we have 40 flags burned, but the root of it all is hatred. The root of it all is forces that want to divide. The burning of these flags is in exactly the same family of attacks,” she said.

Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus was founded in 2011. Viswanath had long been active in human rights and women’s rights campaigns, but felt the need for a specifically Hindu voice in social justice movements, bringing faith and activism together.

Kenrick Ross, executive director of the Indo-Caribbean Alliance, said Friday’s rally was a significant moment for the Indo-Caribbean community, which has been in New York for more than 50 years but has seen rapid growth in the past two decades.

“In a city where ethnic politics is very important we’re kind of newcomers,” said Ross, 35.

“I don’t think many people in New York know that Indo-Caribbean people are the second-largest immigrant group in Queens and the fifth-largest in the city,” he said.

Indo-Caribbean community advocate Vishnu Mahadeo said that while violence against the Indo-Caribbean Hindu community was not a widespread problem in the area, it was important to react strongly.

“We are nipping it in the bud, because we don’t want it to become a major issue,” said Mahadeo.

“This is an opportunity to educate the wider community,” he said.

In a press release the NYPD has asked anyone with information about the attack to call Crime stoppers at 1-800-577-TIPS (8477).

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