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Of the 13 “Little Indias" in New Jersey, the one that offends Gloria Nisbet most is a 15-minute drive away, on Oak Tree Road in Iselin.  

Nisbet is mixed race and reluctantly admits she has a bit of Indian ancestry. She lives in Woodbridge, New Jersey, and visits this particular Little India often. “I have to tell people, ‘Please clean up the place! This is not India!’ They litter, they are pigs!"  

Just before this exchange, Nisbet had handed me her card, which featured an American Eagle overlooking her title: Conservative Tea Party Republican. I met Nibset last Saturday, at the “Hindus United Against Terror Charity Concert". I found her sitting by herself, as if she was sulking, closest to the exit at the large New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center.  

“I am here for (Donald) Trump, but I am not excited about all the things that’s going on here, because I am not Hindu," she said.  

Around us, a transient Little India had begun to take shape among the foldable chairs, possibly explaining Nisbet’s mood. “When the British were there (in India), everything was good," she said. “Why did they grant independence? If India was so good, why are they (Indians) not there? Why are they here?"  

The lanky pair of legs attached to 43-year-old South Indian choreographer and actor Prabhu Deva, hired by Hindu nationalists in America as a prop to woo Indians to that convention centre in Edison, New Jersey, had just taken the stage.  

Nisbet and I parted ways. Deva’s body twisted and turned to the song Gandi Baat, which I ran through Google for a rough English translation: “Smoking a beedi on the corner of your street, I’ve waited for you. Without any reason, while waiting, I drank 18 cups of tea also. When I behaved with nobility/decency, you called me a ruffian, shoved me aside and didn’t give me any attention…I’ve talked nicely for too long, now with you, I’ll do dirty talk…"  

A white man with “Hillary for Prison" emblazoned on his T-shirt, holding a sign “Trump is Great for India", stared at the stage as if in a trance and rocked back and forth. Another white man, this one with “Benghazi" printed on his T-shirt, slapped his butt to mimic a dancer’s step on stage, then stuffed his mouth with popcorn.  

Mobile phones captured Deva’s every move—including his admission that he was still jetlagged. The crowd cheered and hooted as he danced his way through a set.  

Around me were walking visa statuses: H1B workers, many of them “in the IT sector", H4 housewives, some holding onto infants, those in the US on their green cards walking past signs that said “Trump for Faster Green Cards", and American citizens. (Just for fun, I took the citizenship test online when I got home. I got 55%.)  

But the entire audience jumped to its feet when Star Spangled Banner played through the speakers—after a surreal skit that showed terrorists with lightsabers attacking couples, possibly Hindus, doing a waltz, only to be saved later by US Navy Seals.   

‘Hindu’ in the US  

The term “Hindu" first entered the United States Census in 1920, marking the only time that a religious term has been included as a race question in the US’s once-in-a-decade census. It stayed there for two more census rounds before being abandoned 30 years later.  

Today, all Indian immigrants in the US are classified as “Asian Indians" and there is no official government statistic on the number of adherents of any one religion. But on 15 October, in that convention centre in New Jersey, the term “Hindu" had entered modern politics through a man who wears an “Om" pin on his suit and says the zero, the decimal point, astronomy and surgery all came from India.

Shalabh Kumar. Photo: Nisha Masih
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Shalabh Kumar. Photo: Nisha Masih

Chicago-based businessman Shalabh “Shalli" Kumar founded the Republican Hindu Coalition to provide a voice for the “three million Hindu Americans", which is nearly all of the Indian Americans there are in US, and the charity concert was for the benefit of Kashmiri Pandits and terror victims. Tickets ranged from $29 to over $100 but the sustained lack of enthusiasm in the weeks leading up to the show forced the organizers to put out $10 early-bird tickets.  

Kumar took the stage after several pre-recorded messages that ran through the evening—from Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, who talked about the horrors Kashmiri Pandits faced when they were forced to flee Kashmir, Art of Living’s Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who extended his support to the charity event and called for “peace and solace for the victims of terror", and former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich, who telegraphed his support to his buddy Shalli. In between, the 17-year-old winner of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa also performed, which prompted a white woman to nudge her partner to get him to clap for the young boy.  

Taking the stage, Kumar said: “Conservative values are Hindu values as well, and I am proud to be a Hindu," a statement met with loud cheers and applause.  

“I will repeat it again: I am proud to be a Hindu. I am proud to be a Hindu American. I urge my fellow Hindus to think about who truly represents you in Washington. Is it a president who celebrates Diwali in the White House and the next day sanctions aid and F-16s worth $658 million to Pakistan?" The crowd booed.  

“Or is it the party that wants to cut aid to Pakistan, declare them a terrorist state and prevent them from acquiring nuclear-capable F-16s?" The crowd cheered.  

I happened to be standing next to the only non-Indians in the convention centre—five white people, who cheered the hardest, and a tall black security guard who stood next to them and glanced around nonchalantly.  

Kumar continued: “I believe Hindus should have a powerful presence, modelled after the Republican Jewish Coalition, who are unified and well-organized. Like Jewish people, we understand the threats of radical Islam. It is not a distant threat to us, it affects our relatives back home, every single day. If you go to Delhi, you will see the malls are under lockdown. So much police security. Our strength will be multiplied if we come together as Hindus and Americans, rather than be divided by language and state and family background. We have made great contributions to America as individuals and as communities and it is now time to contribute as Hindus."  

Pro-Modi, pro-Trump  

Earlier that evening, soon after I arrived at the event, I had been referred to Bipin P. Patel, a 74-year-old radiologist from Baroda, Gujarat, who is now a US citizen. He had begun by telling me he was “neutral", and then quickly admitted to being “pro-Modi and anti-terrorism" and therefore “pro-Trump and anti-Hillary".  

I caught up with Patel after he and another older Gujarati “uncle" had been screaming at a group of peaceful protesters holding “South Asians Dump Trump" signs outside the convention centre. Their firm handshakes lingered a second too long as they looked me up and down.  

“They are paid terrorists," Patel’s friend told me, pointing at the protesters.  

“See the extent of Congress. They have extended here also," Patel interjected.  

“You know that Hillary did the 2002 Gujarat riots and she stopped Modi from coming over to the US. Actually, being a journalist, you should not hide behind the curtain. You should come forward and support Modi." I began explaining the nature of journalism, but the Gujarati “uncle" knew better: “Give truth, don’t support lies. But you people also get money and tell lies."  

Just outside the entrance to the convention hall, a life-sized banner illustrated in graphic detail what the two had just told me: Sonia Gandhi and Hillary Clinton, wearing devil horns, pointed at Narendra Modi, his hands raised above his crisp white kurta-pyjama, the words “Hillary Clinton Behind ‘Get Modi Plan’" scrawled in red over his chest.  

In the foreground was a train coach on fire, security agents alongside it dressed in black with automatic rifles. A young Sherlock Holmes lookalike was there too, using a magnifying glass to examine skeletons of cows. He had “Hillary’s NGOs" printed on his arm.  

After tweeting about the skeletons, I was helpfully corrected: Apparently, they were buffalo skeletons.  

A young woman, Aditi Sharma, stood next to the banner, holding onto its sides and preventing it from toppling over in the wind. She pointed over to Vincent Bruno, project manager of Hindus for Trump, when I asked who made the banner. Bruno identifies as a Hindu and said the group has existed since December 2015 and pointed out that there are several other equally parochial groups that support Trump.  

“There are Jews for Trump, Catholics for Trump, Muslims for Trump… even that exists! Sikhs for Trump, and every group in America has to take a stand. This is a democracy and we run on votes, and politicians need to know that you exist," he said.  

A gust of wind shook the banner, with nearly half of it crashing onto the floor. On the flip side, I spied Trump sitting on a lotus, looking upward for divine intervention.  

***

Nearby, a group of Indian tech workers stood huddled together at the entrance. “Quick question: You are not going to put up our pictures and call us Trump supporters, right?" Chandu Kashyap asked a journalist friend of mine who had just interviewed them.  

“We only came here for the entertainment," he explained to me. “More for Tollywood. We wanted to see Shriya (Shriya Saran, an actress) and Prabhu Deva".  

I took up the opportunity to ask them to point out all the other celebrities on the poster that I couldn’t recognize. “Who is this Ram Charan guy?" Chandu’s friend Sashi helped me out: “He is a famous Telugu actor. Do you know Chiranjeevi? That’s his son. There is also another guy who is supposed to come called Akhil. He is Nagarjuna’s son."  

It was still early in the evening and the warm-up acts had just begun. An Indian Michael Jackson was entertaining the crowd, but New Jersey’s Indian tech guys had their own set of questions: “The bigger question is how does that guy (Trump) fit into this Bollywood night?" “When did this Republican Hindu Coalition begin?" “How much money has been raised?" Reports claim that the Republican Hindu Coalition has donated about $1.5 million to Trump’s campaign.  

A couple of hours later, Donald Trump lit the ceremonial lamp and later proclaimed he was a “big fan of Hindu" and Twitter users spent the next day congratulating a well-known Indian daily.  

He also said: “We are going to be best friends. You love us, we love you, there is a lot of love in this room. A lot of love."  

Families lined up in front of the giant screen to take selfies with Trump in the background like they would with a rock star or a gorilla at the zoo. Towards the back of the hall, five little boys had gathered up all the signs advertising for Trump and began to whack each other with it. “Trump against Terror" came crashing over a little boy’s glasses.  

Sowmiya Ashok is an independent journalist based in New York. She tweets @sowmiyashok

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