A large Indian Independence Day parade and festival in Anaheim, California, earlier this week devolved into shoves and Islamophobic slurs after a group of demonstrators brought signs protesting Hindu nationalism and discrimination in India.
In a video viewed by NBC Asian America taken during the physical confrontation on Sunday, men can be seen jostling and grabbing at the young group of protesters, some shouting things like “stupid Muslims” and “get out” along with various nationalist chants.
The parade celebrates India's independence from British colonialism in 1947, which transpired along with the violent partition between India and Pakistan. On the 75th anniversary, activists said they came out to uplift oppressed minority voices on the subcontinent.
“It felt really urgent, especially around India’s Independence Day,” said Shanelle Gulabi, one of the protesters. “Because whose independence is being celebrated? Who gets to celebrate freedom? And freedom from whom when there’s been so much active violence and targeting of Muslim, caste-oppressed communities, Christian communities, Sikh communities.”
They intended to simply walk through the festival with their posters, they said.
“I don’t think we went in with any expectations except to hold our signs,” Gulabi said. “Maybe we can have some conversations or plant some seeds. At least that was the intention going in. Within seconds of walking in, there was just so much alarm from these older men.”
The 14 or 15 protesters were easily outnumbered by the hundreds present at the event, they said. But the event was at a public space in Anaheim, and it was advertised as being open to all.
“They just started pushing and jostling us,” another protester, who chose to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said. “It was just a line of men. They were pushing at us, grabbing us, grabbing our signs, and yelling obscenities in Hindi and English.”
The yelling soon turned into slurs, the protesters said.
“We were being called terrorists. We were being asked questions like, ‘Are you Pakistani?’” Gulabi said. “A lot of Islamophobic slurs were being thrown at us as a group.”
“One guy said ‘stupid Muslims,’” the anonymous protester added. “There was nothing to mark our identity. It was just that assumption.”
The video shows that the men rushed the group of protesters, knocking their phones out of their hands and ripping their signs from them.
But event organizer Manoj Agrawal denied any physical violence happened, telling NBC Asian America in a statement that the protesters were scaring children at the event.
“All of them were in masks and did not want to show their identity and were recording on cell phones,” he said. “This was a very planned and coordinated activity. One person recognized two girls from Pakistan and he shouted and that might have caused other folks to say something about religion. Our event was not religion biased and we had booths and event coordination from many Muslim vendors. As I said, it was their intention to create trouble and then record something which can help them to showcase something.”
But the activists say that before they were attacked by event attendees, they were walking quietly through the space.
“We walked in completely silent,” said Rita Kaur, who was also present at the protest. “We could have walked all the way through in 30 seconds. But they started to hound us. They stopped the music and they started to chant ‘bharat mata ki jai.’”
Bharat mata ki jai, which translates to “victory for mother India,” is an Indian military chant that has become synonymous with Hindu nationalism and silencing Muslim and caste-oppressed groups on the subcontinent.
When parade attendees converged on the group, they said they had to use their signs to shield themselves from being physically violated.
“They kept feeling entitled to grabbing us,” Kaur said. “They could have just looked at our signs, they could have come up to us and engaged us. But that their knee-jerk reaction was to become physical…that was really alarming.”
The group was shocked at the level of anger that was immediately directed at them, they said, and that they felt it concealed a much more deeply rooted problem.
“This action just really showed us how present Hindu nationalism is here in the diaspora,” Gulabi said. “Those uncles, those men that were aggressive with us, exist in community with us. They’re folks at the grocery store and at shared religious institutions. And the dynamics that we see in India are very present here.”
As Americans with roots on the subcontinent, Kaur says they should have been as welcomed into the parade’s space as anyone else there.
“We all consider ourselves voices of India,” she said. “We should be able to come and represent India too. We should be allowed to criticize.”