Attack on Indian priest in New Jersey being investigated as bias crime

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Hindu Samaj Temple of Mahwah. Photo courtesy of the temple.

JERSEY CITY, NJ – Devendra Shukla, 43, priest at the Hindu Samaj Temple of Mahwah, New Jersey, where he lives too, drove down with his six-year-old daughter, to the shopping center on Route 17 in Ramsey, on the evening of April 3, 2019.

Shukla had just pulled into the parking area of the TD Bank on the premises, around 7:30 p.m., and was still in the car, when a Caucasian man, now identified as Nicholas Dow, 30, and who lives adjacent to the temple, in Mahwah, walked over to Shukla’s side of the car.

What transpired next has now led to outrage, anger, and activism in the local Indian community, to punish the culprit to the maximum extent of the law.

Shukla alleged in a police report filed later that Dow came over to the driver’s side of his car, and after screaming racial obscenities, including ‘dirty Indian’, without any provocation punched him in the face, causing injuries and bleeding. Shukla’s daughter, sitting in the back of the car, started to scream. She is still traumatized by the attack on her father.

Dow then got back into his car and drove away, but not before Shukla had the presence of mind to stumble out of his car, take photographs of the speeding car, and its registration number, which helped police to apprehend the culprit the next day. Dow was booked into the Bergen County Jail.

“Mr. Shukla was visibly upset, crying and had a laceration on his lip, with what appeared to be blood coming out of the laceration,” said the subsequent police report filed on the night of the incident, after the victim was treated for his injuries, at Valley Hospital, in Ridgewood.

Shukla also told the Mahwah police that Dow shouted obscenities and called him a “dirty Indian.”

“My six-year-old daughter crouched in the back of the car, screaming as I was attacked and is totally traumatized by the incident,” Shukla told the police.

His daughter verified what happened to her father asking police again and again, “Why?  Why did he hit my papa?”

Camera footage from a nearby Shoprite corroborated Shukla’s version of events that unfolded on that evening. Footage showed an unidentified man approaching the driver’s side of Shukla’s car.

“The hatred that was directed at me is something that I will never understand. I am just concerned for my family’s well-being and safety at this point, especially given the fact that the assailant lives just down the street from the temple and my residence,” Shukla said in a statement to the media.

In an interview with WNYC, Shukla, 43, said he regularly took walks in the area of the temple, for health reasons, and often in Indian clothing. These walks usually took him past Dow’s home. He worried that Dow had witnessed him during these walks and developed animosity toward him. Since the assault Shukla said he has stopped going on walks.

“When I’m talking with you, my heart is shaking. I’m not really in good strength right now,” Shukla added.

“Ten years we’re living here and we’re not bothering anyone, and this happened,” said Shukla, who does not take his daughter to the nearby playground anymore. “I don’t understand why they do this.”

The fear and apprehension in the Indian community after the apparently hateful attack soon turned into outrage, though, after police charged Dow with only simple assault and burglary, and the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office viewed the attack as a ‘road rage’ incident. They were prepared to offer Dow a plea deal, resulting in two years’ probation, without any further time behind bars.

Community members had in the meantime also found evidence on social media that Dow was likely a White Supremacist.

Nicholas Dow. Photo courtesy of Bergen County, New Jersey Sheriff’s Department.

A resident of nearby Upper Saddle River found two images of Confederate flags on Dow’s Facebook page, and on one of them the caption read: “Doesn’t stand for hate it’s about pride.” Those images have since been removed. Dow has changed the name on his Facebook account.

“The prosecutor and police need to be on this guy,” said the woman speaking to WNYC, “because God forbid something happens.”

Dr. Dinesh Khosla, Founder Trustee of Hindu Samaj Temple, Mahwah, and Founding Professor of Law, CUNY School of Law, in a phone interview to News India Times, said the community initiated a Change.org petition, calling for “a criminal trial with maximum punishment” in Shukla’s case.

The petition, with the headline, ‘No plea deal for Pt. Shukla’s attacker, we demand a criminal trial with maximum punishment’, with a goal of 5,000 signatures, had already crossed 3,500, morning of April 30, and counting.

Khosla tried hard to get justice for Shukla with local authorities. He requested to meet with Bergen County Public Prosecutor Michael Paccioretti, and when he that didn’t happen, sent an email asking him to withdraw the plea deal offered to Dow, and initiate criminal proceedings.

Khosla also pointed out that Shukla had a tough time getting hold of the police report filed in the case by the Mahwah police. He was given a runaround, told that the report couldn’t be found, had been misfiled; the incident was one of ‘road rage’.

Khosla and some other community members later reached out to state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s office, for action.

Grewal was quick to respond to the plea, noting the sensitivity of the case.

“Earlier this month, my office released bias incident investigation standards that reaffirm our commitment to these important cases,” Grewal said in a statement, earlier this week. “I have every confidence that the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office will conduct a thorough investigation.”

According to Khosla, hostility and hatred against the temple, and the local Indian community, had been an ongoing issue over the years.

Since the temple was built in November, 2008, in a span of two to three years, the temple premises and facilities was vandalized at least four to five times, resulting in total damages of over $70,000.

“Eggs and beer bottles thrown on the front porch; our sign designating Hindu Temple stolen; and recreation vehicles used by unidentified individuals to rip our crushed stone drive way and parking area. Tired of constant unaddressed terrorizing harassment , we were compelled to seek FBI intervention. Cameras were installed to find out who was behind those acts,” Khosla said in an email to Paccioretti, a copy of which is with News India Times.

“On December 14, 2008, the temple was vandalized by two white men; the then priest was cursed and threatened; most exterior lights broken with baseball bats. One individual was arrested on site and the other showed up few minutes later at the temple to retrieve his accomplice with an open knife on the front seat of his car. He was also arrested. We sustained economic damages over 40,000 dollars to our Temple. However, the damage done to OUR DIGNITY still linger and, is simply beyond measure.  The joy that we experienced in November was overshadowed with lingering sadness in December of 2008,” Khosla wrote.

“We have left some broken light fixtures in the condition that we found them after the attack on our Temple as a constant reminder of latent hatred and racism that exists. We light them every evening as a reminder that we should all work to bring understanding and peace to our world. We spent over 31,000 dollars to put security cameras to protect ourselves,” he added.

Khosla said: “The two individuals were caught that night. And, past midnight, we were assured by Mahwah Police that the culprits will be charged with hate and bias crimes. Much to our shock, they were not. Both belonged to very influential families, we learned later. In the court, they were let go without even a minimal punishment.  The judge said it was their first offense and they were just under 18! They were not even asked to pay restitution for the damage they had done. Ode to black letter of law, damn the spirit of law!”

Khosla also revealed that in 2017, a young Indian family of a physician and a technology specialist with two children moved into a new home in Mahwah. For months they were harassed and “given fingers” by their neighbors. Their driveway was blocked several times.  They informed the police but the behavior of neighbors did not change, wrote Khosla.

The family suffered in silence for months and it was only after they shared their predicament with temple officials, who had local law enforcement intervene, that the situation changed.

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