Sikh defies racist taunts to be mayor of New Jersey city

New Jersey Mayor-elect Ravi Bhalla works at his campaign headquarters in Hoboken, New Jersey, US on Nov 9, 2017.
New Jersey Mayor-elect Ravi Bhalla works at his campaign headquarters in Hoboken, New Jersey, US on Nov 9, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Last Tuesday night (Nov 7), Mr Ravi Bhalla was tracking the vote count in the mayoral election from his campaign office when one by one, his opponents called him to concede.

He had become one of only a few Sikhs to be elected mayor of an American city - and the first-ever for Hoboken, a city of some 55,000 people west of Manhattan in New York, across the Hudson River in the state of New Jersey.

Shortly afterwards, Mr Bhalla and his team descended on Moran's, a gastro pub in Garden Street opened in 1989 by Mr Len Hehir of Limerick, Ireland. Family, friends and supporters jammed into the pub, where many pints would have been pulled.

"It was exhilarating," Mr Bhalla told The Straits Times over the phone as he recollected that night. "Everyone was really thrilled."

In a stirring speech to those gathered at the pub, he said: "Thank you for having faith in me, for having faith in our community, faith in our state, and faith in our country; this is what America is all about.

"We've been through a bruising campaign. But now is the time we come together."

The campaign was bruising, and not just because the 44-year-old New Jersey-born son of Indian immigrants was up against five challengers.

The previous weekend, fliers appeared on car windshields and some doorsteps, bearing a picture of Mr Bhalla with the words: "Don't let TERRORISM take over our town!"

The words were all too familiar to Sikhs in the United States, who have often been the target of racism - but even more so since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.

Sikhs number just around 500,000 in the US. Frequently, they are mistaken for Muslims and fall victim to increasing Islamophobia, mostly because of their beards and turbans - articles of the Sikh faith.

After the election of President Donald Trump, hate incidents against minorities in general have gone up sharply.

But the fliers also should be seen in the context of Hoboken's tradition of "colourful" politics, a 60-year-old writer and resident of Hoboken since 1992 told The Straits Times.

"It was an ugly campaign, on all sides, and that is nothing new here - and it is still not clear who was behind those fliers," said the writer, who asked not to be named. The police are investigating the incident.

Mr Bhalla, a 17-year resident of Hoboken, is a practising lawyer in the states of New York and New Jersey. He studied political psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to do a master's in public administration and public policy at the London School of Economics. He got his law degree from Tulane University Law School in New Orleans.

He has held public posts in Hoboken since 2010 and received the endorsement of his predecessor, Ms Dawn Zimmer, in the race for Hoboken.

Mr Bhalla and his wife Bindya have two children - daughter Arza, 10, and son Shahbegh, five. Mrs Bhalla works at a non-profit focused on women's rights.

Hoboken is the best city he has ever lived in, Mr Bhalla told The Straits Times. And he wants to work to make it even better.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I'm very grateful," he said.

"After the 2016 (presidential) election, there was a very substantial spike in the number of hate incidents against a host of communities - the immigrant community, Jewish-American community, the gay community, Muslims, African-Americans.

"Unfortunately, the tone that was set in the presidential campaign was quite divisive and led to people expressing things that really don't reflect what America's about."

Mr Bhalla's win made several important statements though, says Dr Simran Jeet Singh, an assistant professor at the department of religion at Trinity University and a Fellow of Religion and International Affairs at the NYU Centre for Religion and Media.

"Especially in this political moment where xenophobia has become such a powerful force, to elect somebody who looks quite different from the standard normative understanding of what an American looks like, that's incredibly powerful for all Americans," Dr Singh told The Straits Times.

"That there was overt racism against him shows that while there may be some who are unwilling to accept people who look different or believe differently, a majority of people in Hoboken are able to overlook that and see candidates on the basis of their character and values; that's a powerful affirmation."

The morning after the fliers appeared, Mr Bhalla tweeted that he wanted to use the incident to affirm the value of living in a diverse community where "we're judged by content of character, not by colour of skin or how we worship".

"Of course this is troubling, but we won't let hate win," he tweeted.