A business association that runs the annual India Day Parade in Edison, N.J., included a bulldozer, which has become a symbol of oppression in India.Credit…via Minhaj Khan

EDISON, N.J. — The India Day Parade featured a pretty standard lineup of festival fare.

A Bollywood actress waved to fans from the top of a handmade float. Indian flags fluttered in the breeze. Flashy cars and quirky ads (“Kidney donors are sexy,” read one) passed by.

Then, toward the middle of the caravan, came a small yellow bulldozer, decorated with photos of India’s prime minister and a hard-line protégé.

To some bystanders, the solitary piece of construction equipment was no more than an oddity as it rumbled past during the parade last month in Edison, N.J.

But to those who understood its symbolism, it was a blunt and sinister taunt later likened to a noose or a burning cross at a Ku Klux Klan rally.
“I felt disgusted,” said Deepak Kumar, 50, a co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, who attended the parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of India’s independence from Britain.

In India, where a divisive brand of Hindu-first nationalism is surging, the bulldozer has become a symbol of oppression, and a focus of the escalating religious tension that has resulted in the government-led destruction of private homes and businesses, most of them owned by members of the country’s Muslim minority.

But now the bulldozer was here, in Edison, a sprawling suburb that is home to one of the largest Indian American communities in the United States. To Indian immigrants outraged by its presence, it represented a threat to the highest ideals of their adoptive country and exposed subtle fault lines within the region’s Muslim and Hindu communities.

Mohammed Nisar, a Muslim oncologist who emigrated from India and has lived and worked in Edison for 45 years, said the bulldozer was as offensive as a hooded Klansman would be to African Americans or a swastika to Jews.

“We have enough hate groups here,” Dr. Nisar said. “We don’t need any more.”

Officials with the Indian Business Association, a private group that organized the Aug. 14 parade, said at first that the bulldozer was meant to represent law and order in India, where they said it was used to raze illegally constructed property — echoing the explanation India’s government frequently offers to justify demolitions that circumvent the legal process.

“What is the bulldozer’s meaning?” Chandrakant Patel, an Edison restaurant owner who leads the association, told the township council. “Illegal land construction.”

Others dismissed the claim that the bulldozer was a symbol of hatred and expressed strong support for India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi.

“Nobody has a right to disrespect our prime minister,” said Bimal Joshi, who has lived in Edison for 30 years and is not affiliated with the business group.

But within two weeks, at the urging of the mayors of Edison and the neighboring town of Woodbridge, where the parade ended, Mr. Patel had apologized. In a letter, he called the bulldozer a “blatant divisive” symbol.

Mr. Patel added that his group was aware it had “offended the Indian American minority groups, especially Muslims, from the local area and across the state and country” and vowed to never again include anything similar in future parades. He did not respond to requests for additional comment.

For many, the apology was too little, too late.

Muslim leaders had already filed a complaint with the Edison Police Department, citing intimidation and bias. Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. arrived to hold meetings with community members.

The State Legislature’s Joint Asian Pacific American Caucus issued a statement condemning the bulldozer as a “symbol of division and hate,” as did the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

One Edison township council meeting ran nearly three hours long and another four as dozens of speakers waited for a turn at the mic to discuss the bulldozer. A Muslim high school student warned that the simmering religious tension in the community was likely to seep into the classroom. And an Episcopalian pastor who is a member of a human rights group in town said the rift was the most alarming thing he had ever witnessed as a lifelong resident of Edison.

Days after the parade, Minhaj M. Khan, a past president of the Indian American Muslim Council of New Jersey who has led much of the local opposition to the bulldozer, said he felt wary buying ice cream in Edison with his oldest daughter, who wears a hijab.

“I feel scared,” said Mr. Khan, 48, a father of four who immigrated to the United States from India 25 years ago, and settled in New Jersey a year later. “We all love this place. We chose it for a reason. I don’t want this ideology spreading any further.”

This story was originally published in nytimes  . Read the full story here