Hindu nationalists tap immigrant guilt

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Ten years ago, in a small town in north India, Ashok Singhal spearheaded the destruction of a 16th-century mosque, sparking the worst religious riots since the country won independence. His supporters tore down the Babri Masjid brick by brick.

A week ago, in a basement in suburban New Jersey, Singhal courted the hearts and pocketbooks of Hindu immigrants to the United States. This American visit and dozens before it, critics say, are part of a campaign to tear down India’s secular political structure – not brick by brick, but dollar by dollar.

The movement Singhal belongs to – Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva – is rising in India. And some say it has risen with the sometimes unwitting help of Indian Americans who have contributed millions to charities in their native country, particularly schools in tribal areas that the Hindu right views as key to its agenda.

Singhal’s visit coincided with the end of an unprecedented government-sponsored conference in New Delhi of prominent Indians living abroad. The country is trying to tap into the guilt, nostalgia and financial resources of its diaspora.

That strategy explains the unlikely spectacle of the silver-haired leader of the World Hindu Council holding forth in the basement of a Voorhees physician last Friday night. Sixty people listened to a man one called “a saint in street clothes.”

Two police officers stood sentinel, since there are some for whom Singhal, whose group has reshaped Indian politics in the last decade, conjures Hitler more than he does a saint.

The 77-year-old – an ally of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee – spoke of the ongoing effort to build a temple over the ruins of the Babri mosque, where Hindus believe the warrior god Ram was born.

“We need the Hindus to unite throughout the world,” Singhal said in an interview, “… because there is a cultural onslaught against the Hindus.”

“People can understand more because of Sept. 11,” he said. “America has suffered the first onslaught by the jihadis. We have been suffering this onslaught for the last 1,000 years.”

According to Human Rights Watch, Singhal’s group helped stoke religious riots in Gujurat state last spring that claimed 2,000 lives, as well as attacks on Christians in 1998 and 1999.
After Singhal’s speech, his host, gynecologist Veena Gandhi, made a pitch: “$365 a year for one school. A dollar a day, for which we can’t even buy a Coke in New York. Talk to your friends. This is our debt to our country where we were born.”

Gandhi is a leader in the U.S. offshoot of the World Hindu Council and a coordinator for a group devoted to starting tribal schools, the Houston-based Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA.

Since the group began, Indians in the Northeast have raised about $500,000 for 1,400 schools, most of it from the Philadelphia region, said Sanjeev Jindal, a coordinator and a Merck scientist from Lansdale.

He says the schools’ main purpose is to combat illiteracy. Critics say more is at stake.
“The schools… help to create a cadre of foot soldiers to fight against the constructed enemies of Hindutva, in this case Muslims and Christians,” said Smita Narula, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

She said more tribal people took part in last year’s Gujurat riots than ever before in the state’s history of religious tensions – a fact viewed by many as a sign of Hindutva’s success in areas where Christian missionaries once held sway.

Gandhi dismissed critics of the schools, saying, “They find this an obstacle to the spreading of their own religion.”

She said the Hindutva agenda was not meant to exclude Muslims, Christians, or other religious minorities: “Hindus have always taken a beating because we are supposed to forgive… . You cannot be tolerant to the point of being a coward.”

A report last year by a group of activists – the Foreign Exchange of Hate – revealed that the bulk of $5 million raised by one U.S.-based charity for relief and development projects in India went to a network of Hindu nationalist groups – including the Ekal Vidyalaya schools.
It came largely from unsuspecting workers with origins in India and from U.S. employers providing matching funds.

Just as many contributors did not realize how their dollars were being used, members of Hindutva groups here seem to join for reasons different from their counterparts in India.
“There’s a whole generation of people who emigrated out – sort of ‘brain drain’ types – who feel guilty for having left India,” said Gautam Ghosh, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The dozens gathered in Gandhi’s basement are battling cultural loss in a nation where they are a minority. The World Hindu Council hooks them on heritage, with 14 U.S. chapters that run summer camps, cultural centers and temples.

That was how Jindal, the Merck employee, got involved.

“I thought it was a neat project, and I wanted to volunteer my time,” he said. “It would be a shock to me that these kids are being taught to hate Muslims or Christians – and to the extent that they should go and become soldiers. Nothing would shock me more if that would be the case.”

© The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

A Hate Crime Threatens New Tragedy

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

He had done only “what every American wanted to do,” Mark Anthony Stroman said.

Four days after the World Trade Center collapsed, he walked into a Dallas convenience store and fired a bullet into the face of its Pakistani owner, killing him.

More than a year later and a thousand miles away, on a tree-lined block in the middle of New Jersey, the only house with an American flag hanging outside belongs to the man shot in the face.

Waqar Hasan – the faithful son, the father of four, the one who paid all the bills – is gone. But the flag still stands, as if silently staking a claim to his adopted country for the family he left behind. His death uprooted that claim.

Hasan’s wife, Durreshahwar, and teenage daughters have lived in their white, one-story frame house in a New Jersey suburb for nearly a decade, their stay tied to his business visa.
Before he was shot, he applied for a green card, a gateway to U.S. citizenship. He had moved to Texas to start a business. The family was to follow.

Now, his wife and children are without him.

And, when their temporary work permits expire in three months, they could be deported.

Congress soon will have an opportunity to intercede. Rep. Rush Holt (D., N.J.) plans to introduce a special bill later this month to make the Hasans permanent residents of the United States.

Lawmakers have granted green cards to survivors of World Trade Center victims – the wife of a British stockbroker from Chatham, N.J., and the husband of a Russian computer specialist from New York.

But Holt’s effort is the first on behalf of the family of a post-Sept. 11 hate crime victim.

“In a very real sense, Mr. Hasan was a victim of the attack on America,” Holt said last week. “He didn’t die in the collapse of the Trade Center… but he was very much a casualty of that day.”

Bias against people who have or seemed to have origins in the Middle East claimed about a dozen lives, according to advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch. The Hasans are the only survivors who lost their right to stay here as well as a loved one.

“For this family to face deportation because of a hate crime… would be a real injustice,” Holt said. “They are just the kind of people we want in America. They’re hard-working, conscientious, proud to be in America, and grateful to be in America.”

The Immigration and Naturalization Service declined to comment. Kerry Gill, a spokesman for the agency in Newark, said he could not discuss specific cases.

*

The walled-in, gated house in Karachi, Pakistan, where Nida Hasan, 19, spent her childhood is rented out now. Strangers live there, amid all the furniture and clothes the family had to leave behind eight years ago. And Nida can’t help but feel that, if she had to return to Pakistan now, she would be a stranger, too.

“I don’t see myself living there,” the Rutgers freshman, a biology major, said. “I don’t see myself having a life there.”
With her sisters and mother, she came to America to join her father in 1994. He had already been here for four years. A robbery by gunpoint on the streets of Karachi had jolted him into emigration – and to a modest life running gas stations in this Middlesex County suburb.

Nida’s first memory here was a sensation – the taste of Ruffles potato chips at the airport.

Since then, she has collected a set of other sensations to associate with her adopted country: the seismic sounds of punk rock, the cold metal of the keys to her black Nissan convertible in her hands, the more intangible feeling of freedom “to be yourself.”

Cousins her age in Pakistan send her instant messages over the Internet about their lives – the schools segregated by gender, the need for a male chaperone every time they leave the house, their limited options for work.

“It’s pretty boring [for them],” Nida said. “Like, my cousin, she’s old enough to drive, but she doesn’t.”

It’s not that Nida and her sisters – Asna, 17; Anum, 15 and Iqra, 12 – reject the country of their birth. Their lives there as descendants of landowners, poultry farmers and gas station owners were relatively prosperous. And they were securely enfolded in the warm circle of friends and family praying and practicing their religion.

“It’s a part of you, yes,” said Nida. “But I’m used to living here now.”

She wears a black head scarf, as observant Muslim women do whenever they leave the house or are around men to whom they are not related. But she combines it with the uniform of American college students – one day last week, a gray Aeropostale sweatshirt and jeans.

*

Durreshahwar Hasan, 37, has lived without her husband before. He journeyed to America alone, after Karachi became too corrupt and too dangerous. And he went to Dallas by himself, to establish a convenience store and stake out a new life for the family.

But for Durreshahwar, this solitude – with only the memory of her husband as a place keeper – is different. Every time she sees a green van like the one he used to drive, she thinks it might be Waqar, the cousin who became her spouse when she was still only 16.

Now she has become something she had never imagined becoming.

“I’m a single parent, a woman,” she said. “I don’t know how to do that in Pakistan.”

She barely knows how to do it in America. She works 12-hour night shifts at a factory in nearby Metuchen, packaging plastic-foam cups for McDonald’s. Her three elder daughters also work: Nida at the dean’s office at Cook College, Asna at a day-care center, and Anum at a local supermarket.

However hard that routine, it nonetheless is a gift, the widow said.

“Here, they’re used to working. They can go to any office,” she said of her daughters. “It would be hard for them to do that in Pakistan.”

She does not want to take her four daughters – an aspiring accountant, scientist, teacher and artist – to lives as gated and walled-in as the house where they spent their first years.

“It’s not Islam,” she explains. “It’s the society and culture. It’s not fair for us to go back. We built everything in the U.S. We’d go back there empty-handed… .

“In America, they just take their car keys and go where they want to go.”

*

In America, an ex-con who belonged to a white supremacist prison gang killed their father while he stood behind a counter at his store, Mom’s Grocery in Dallas, cooking the hamburgers his killer had ordered.

Stroman, 33, is now on death row in Texas.

A jury convicted him last April for the killing of an Indian-born gas station owner near Dallas. During the penalty phase of the trial, prosecutors described a spree of shootings by him in the weeks after Sept. 11, including Hasan’s.

Stroman never expressed remorse.

He told a Dallas television station in a prison interview that he killed the two men and blinded a third – all three from South Asia – to “retaliate on local Arab Americans or whatever you want to call them.”

“I did what every American wanted to do but didn’t,” said Stroman, who would later wave a small U.S. flag at his sentencing. “They didn’t have the nerve.”

© The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

Baby Formula’s Hot in Underground Market

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Call them the Bonnie and Clyde of baby formula.

Erin Hayes, 20, and Michael Paciotti, 22, wheeled a shopping cart full of hundreds of dollars worth of Enfamil and Similac out of a Genuardi’s store in Montgomery County, according to guilty pleas entered earlier this summer.

The serial shoplifters, police said, planned to sell the cans of formula to corner groceries in Philadelphia to feed their heroin habits.

Their heist, however brazen, was not unique.

There is a booming nationwide black market in baby formula on city streets, where thieves sell stolen merchandise to mom-and-pop stores or even just to moms and pops at cut rate.

“It’s big business,” Montgomery County Sheriff John Durante said.

Police nationwide have nabbed baby-formula bandits – either by cracking organized-theft rings or catching solo practitioners – in such diverse places as St. Petersburg, Fla.; the Chicago suburbs; Hartford, Conn.; Milwaukee; and Cleveland.

Retailers have sent loss-prevention agents to police conferences, flea markets and grocery stores, hoping to reclaim formula or other purloined goods – or to prevent them from disappearing off their shelves in the first place.

Redner’s, a discount chain based in Reading, estimates that before it locked up its formula in compartments at the checkout counter this spring, it was losing $5,000 a week in stolen formula from its 32 stores in Pennsylvania.

“Our senior staff decided they weren’t going to take it anymore,” said Eric White, a spokesman for the chain.

Acme also reports losses in baby formula, which it sells for about $24 per 1-pound can of the powdered form.

“It’s an expensive product,” said Walt Rubel, the company’s spokesman. “And it’s a relatively easy item to dispose of. It’s not like you’ve stolen a car.”

Prosecutors, defense lawyers, and law enforcement officers in the region say they have seen the deal before: Corner-store owners make a bigger profit when they resell the formula, and the shoplifters – in many cases addicts – make enough to get their fix.

Pennsylvania troopers who raided seven stores known as bodegas in the Kensington section of Philadelphia in April saw that pattern.

Their three-year undercover investigation unearthed an elaborate criminal enterprise involving drug users, store owners and kingpins.

“The shoplifters were heroin addicts, for the most part,” said Cpl. Steven Davis, a trooper with the state police organized crime division. “Usually, the shoplifters aren’t involved [directly] in the organization. They just know where to take the stuff, through word-of-mouth.”

The value of baby formula hasn’t always been widely apparent, even to big-time crooks.

As recently as a few years ago, according to testimony in a federal racketeering trial, thieves connected to Joey “Skinny” Merlino abandoned a tractor trailer full of formula as junk at a rest stop along the New Jersey Turnpike.

The mobsters did not realize how hot their mistakenly swiped loot was.

But as Durante put it: “It’s something that’s going to turn over and sell fast. Babies eat every day.”

Sometimes, several store owners said, the self-appointed salespeople of baby formula hit them up as frequently.

“It is common,” said Eddie Diaz, an owner of the Duran Food Market in North Philadelphia. “The main thing is, you have to say no. They understand we buy only from wholesalers, so they go to another place.”

Diaz said the hawkers come mainly from outside the neighborhood. But Evelyn Thompson, a housekeeper and mother of four who lives two blocks away from Diaz’s bodega, said there is also a brisk trade among locals.

“They’re still doing it,” said Thompson, who a decade ago resold Similac obtained with Women, Infants and Children coupons to corner groceries for $1 or $1.50 per can. Her son had outgrown the formula, and she needed the money to raise her family, she said.

“That’s the way it is,” she said. “People do it. And sometimes their children need that formula. They sell it for drug money, and the next day their children have nothing to eat.”

Supermarkets in the suburbs are a particularly tempting target for thieves, law enforcement authorities say.

Four suburban police departments – as well as the FBI, the New Jersey State Police, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office – aided Pennsylvania troopers in their raid of the Kensington bodegas.
The departments were from Aston, Delaware County; and Lower Moreland, Towamencin and Whitpain, Montgomery County – all of which sit along highways or major roads that lead into North Philadelphia.

In July, police in Camden arrested employees at a deli and two bodegas on charges of fencing after they seized DVD tapes, cigarettes, baby formula and other items stolen from suburban stores.

“We’ve seen an increase because we’ve gotten more stores,” said District Justice John Murray, whose Whitpain court handles about two cases of shoplifting by bulk each month. “Years ago, we did not have the big supermarkets here.”

The shoplifters cruise the highways, authorities said, targeting more than one store on every run.

“They don’t stop at just one shop,” said Durante, the Montgomery County sheriff. “They may hit three or four places and get trunkfuls of stuff.”

Sometimes a car isn’t even necessary.

Petty thieves carrying formula from Babies “R” Us and other stores in Falls Township, Bucks County, regularly walk across the toll bridges to Trenton to fence their goods, said Jan Vislosky, the Falls Township district justice.

When Durante was affiliated with the county forensics unit, he
said, he took fingerprints from cans of formula and other items seized from small groceries in Philadelphia in an effort to hunt down shoplifters. In some cases, the items still bore price tags stamped with the names of the stores from which they had been stolen.

But the black market for baby formula extends beyond – sometimes well beyond – this region.

In Minnesota last year, three women absconded with $1,400 worth of formula they said they wanted to take back to their families in Honduras.

U.S. Customs agents in Fort Worth, Texas, broke up a ring that paid crack addicts to shoplift cases of formula later shipped to Iran, Libya and Iraq. Economic sanctions in those nations had created a demand, prosecutors in Texas said.

© The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.