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.


No Gloves or Curves: It’s Base Ball

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

It was only the top of the first. There was already a man on third. And with the noonday sun an unforgiving spectator above, Tom “The Squid” Jordan had just knocked a single across the field at Fairmount Park.

“There you go, lad!” shouted his captain.

The cheer from Tom Fesolowich was not the only quirky aspect of the game between the New York Mutualsand the Elizabeth Resolutes, probably the first game of base ball played in Philadelphia in several decades.

Yes, that’s base ball – two words. And, as it was played in the 1860s, without gloves.

Did you say “ouch”? Watch your expletives. If your tongue wags any saucier, it will cost you anywhere from a quarter to $1 in fines.

Cursing is against the rules in vintage baseball, a reenacted sport that, with about 100 teams across the country, is a growing pastime for a subculture of history buffs who blithely don period uniforms made of wool, shrug off the occasional broken finger, and play ball – with an underhand pitch.

As the two teams squared off, the umpire stood removed from the hurly-burly of Saturday’s game, as much a picture of gentility with his marble-inlaid walking cane and black top hat as a New Yorker cartoon figure.

The ump – Brad Shaw of Flemington, who also coaches one of New Jersey’s two vintage baseball teams – provided a snapshot of a time when local pols judged fouls and outs for a crew of mostly white-collar workers who played for pleasure with few onlookers.

“It was a gentleman’s game back then,” said Mutuals player Steve “Even Steven” Sullivan. “If the umpire asked if you were out or you were in, you’d honestly say, ‘I was out.’ Everybody treated each other fair.”

By the end of the decade, paying spectators would arrive, as would immigrant players hoping to actually make a living at the game; the gentlemen would bow out, and the umps would, well, sometimes fear for their lives in a much more rough-and-tumble arena.

The Mutuals – made up of teachers, a tool-and-die maker, a sportswriter, a marketing manager, and others who also volunteer as actors at a Civil War-era village on Long Island – mimic an actual team that played during the brief life of the National Association of Base Ball Players, from 1857 to 1870.
Over the weekend they kicked off a tour of the eight cities where the association held its first games. Philadelphia, where a team called the Athletics reigned, was the first stop.

By the bottom of the sixth, with the Mutuals leading, 16-4, rookie Kip Yates was feeling pretty high about the tour.

He said playing in a regular – that is, circa 2002 – league wouldn’t do as well to satisfy his love of the game.

“Here, you’ve got history on your side,” said the 32-year-old Web publisher from Brooklyn. “Sometimes you feel like there’s a ghost breathing down at the back of your neck, making sure you’re doing it right.

“That, and I can’t hit a curveball.”

The Mutuals and other vintage baseball teams are almost like 19th-century actors who use the props of the past, such as handmade balls stitched in such a way that curveballs are nearly impossible to throw.

They keep modern trappings out of their game.

The catchers (called “hurlers”) don’t wear protective gear. The batters (called “strikers”) swing an old-fashioned mallet with iron at the end, rather than weights, to warm up. The flag they hang has 48 stars. And they wear only black shoes without logos or brand names.

“They didn’t have Nike back then,” said Tom “Kid Speed” Heinlein.

To some onlookers at the game, the flashback was fascinating.

“I’ve never seen nothing like this before,” said Bill Miller of Philadelphia, who had wrapped up his own game of ball, played by modern rules, earlier in the day. “It’s like 100 years of history rolled right back from you. I’m upset there’s no team from Philadelphia.”

Dan Gutman of Haddonfield went to Saturday’s game to research the next installment in his series of children’s books chronicling the adventures of a boy who travels through time using baseball cards.

He said the surge in vintage baseball in the last decade suggests fans, disillusioned by the baseball strike in 1994, might prefer to go back in time, too.

“People probably enjoy looking back to the good ol’ days before baseball players took steroids, earned million-dollar salaries, and charged little kids $50 for their autographs,” he said.

© The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.


Condo Rules Chafe, Then Comes a Lawsuit

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Enter the gates of the Blue Bell Country Club, into a cluster of condos in Montgomery County and nothing seems to break the harmony of the landscape. Gray shingles cap every roof, and wrought-iron lanterns hang next to every front door.

Then comes Steve Blaustein’s house.

Here, the curtains required by the development are conspicuously absent, and passersby, strolling to the club’s tennis courts or cabana, can see piles of cardboard boxes filling the homeowner’s garage.

“It looks like a warehouse inside,” said Ed Gold, who lives down the street. “He signed the same document I did… . If you’re an individual and this isn’t for you, you don’t move here.”

Blaustein and his lawyer won’t discuss the issue, but his bare windows are the subject of a Montgomery County Court case that offers a glimpse into a conflict that is becoming more common nationwide.

The country club, like an increasing number of housing units being built in the United States, is managed and run by an elected board of homeowners that enforces a “covenant,” or rules and restrictions.

And as the developments mushroom, so do legal disputes between the boards and homeowners over those rules.

A Bucks County development sued a homeowner because his tenants’ children scribbled hopscotch squares on the sidewalk. A doghouse in the backyard set a Chester County homeowner on a legal collision course with his development’s elected board.
Debate over a homeowner’s right to park his Toyota pickup truck on streets inside Maryland Estates, a development in Missouri, made its way to the Court of Appeals there.

It took a bill in the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1998 to give condo owners – and anyone else – the clear right to fly the American flag.

State Rep. Robert Godshall (R., Montgomery) entered the fray after a Montgomery Township complex tried to force Gloria and Lee Tobak to move or cover the flag that hung inside their window as a memorial to Gloria’s father, a World War II veteran. The association cited its ban on window coverings that were not white, cream or tan.

And, in what could be a landmark case in Mercer County, N.J., the American Civil Liberties Union and several homeowners have joined in a suit protesting the association’s ban on political signs.

In 1970, only about 1 percent of Americans lived in condos and planned developments. Today, about 17 percent do, according to Robert H. Nelson, a public-affairs professor at the University of Maryland who is writing a book on such developments. He said that one in every two units built today is in a planned community, with the highest concentration in the Sun Belt.

And the pervasiveness of planned communities is now forcing courts to grapple with questions about how they are run, says Evan McKenzie, a political science professor at the University of Illinois and author of Privatopia, a book that characterizes the communities as mini-governments gone awry.

“Most of the time, associations have prevailed under the theory of contract,” McKenzie said. “Ultimately, judges say, ‘Look, a deal is a deal.’ But as the phenomenon gets more and more widespread, there’s a little more questioning of this.”

The head of the Community Associations Institute – a national lobbying group based in Alexandria, Va. – agrees.

“There’s starting to be some more sensitivity in thinking of the associations as more a community than a corporate entity,” said Dave Ramsey, the group’s president-elect and a lawyer in northern New Jersey.


“Welcome to Twin Rivers: A Private Community,” read the granite signs that border the first and largest planned community in New Jersey. Between the markers – along streets spread out alphabetically over 700 acres, with British-sounding names such as Avon, Canterbury and Covington – lie two elementary schools, a county library, a firehouse, a synagogue, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and several miniature parks.

With 10,000 residents, the development is larger than some surrounding towns. It has a monthly newspaper, called Twin Rivers Today. It collects trash and clears snow. Its homeowners pay a $100 monthly fee for those services and others.

In court documents filed in Mercer County Court in 2000, five dissident homeowners used those details to argue that Twin Rivers acts like a local government and, as such, should end practices and rules that conflict with constitutional guarantees.
“It’s a fantastic setting for a dictatorship,” said Bruce Fritzges, a townhouse owner at the development and a plaintiff in the ACLU suit against the nine-member elected board.

He and the others are challenging rules barring them from posting political signs beyond a three-foot radius of their houses.

They also claim the rules of open government, including access to financial documents, should apply to the board’s meetings.

Fritzges and his wife, Terry, Twin Rivers residents since 1973, can’t vote. For the last two years, they haven’t paid the $3 of their monthly maintenance fee charged for cable TV, because they don’t subscribe to the service.

The association is “trying to insinuate themselves into people’s homes,” said Terry Fritzges. “Heaven forbid you should have a holiday wreath on your door past a certain date.”

Robert J. Hudak, a vice president of the board, characterizes the plaintiffs as troublemakers who have cost the community $300,000 in legal fees. “Obviously this is America, and we live and die by democracy,” he said. “However, this… is not a town. It is a homeowner’s association.”

“Nobody wants to live next door to someone who might paint their front door shocking pink,” Hudak said. “That’s the contract. When you buy into one of these communities, you’re signing off on that.”

© The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.