Queens lawmakers joined several community leaders outside of the Shri Tulsi Mandir in South Richmond Hill on Tuesday, Aug. 9, to denounce a suspected hate crime incident that recently occurred at the beloved Hindu temple.
On Aug. 3, three people allegedly vandalized and toppled a Mahatma Gandhi statue outside the mandir, located at 103-24 111th St., according to the lawmakers.
This comes after the vandalism of the Gandhi statue in Union Square in February, among other Gandhi statues desecrated around the world.
State Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar, who organized the press conference to address the issue, said the desecration of Gandhi statues and anti-Hindu hate crimes will not be tolerated in Richmond Hill or anywhere in New York state.
“At a time when our city is experiencing a 127% increase in hate crimes, elected officials and community leaders gathered together in my district at Tulsi Mandir to condemn hate crimes against any group based on their religion or ethnicity,” said Rajkumar, who passed a law creating the first-ever Asian American and Pacific Islander Commission in New York state, which will develop solutions to the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes.
A central tenet of Hinduism is inclusivity and mutual respect toward people of all faiths, Rajkumar said.
“Hindus believe not just intolerance, but in one step more than tolerance — actively loving and respecting people of different backgrounds and faiths. This was Mahatma Gandhi’s dream– a peaceful, loving world. We have achieved Gandhi’s dream in Richmond Hill, where Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Christians live together in harmony, often on the same block,” Rajkumar added.
Rajkumar called for the vandalism to be investigated as a hate crime and for the perpetrators to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Pandit Lakhram Maharaj, founder and spiritual leader of Shri Tulsi Mandir, said their statue of Gandhi represented their Hindu values of love, respect, and peace.
“The statue may be gone, but the values it embodied will endure forever, and they must guide us as we respond to this incident,” Maharaj said. “What we want is not revenge against the perpetrators, but mutual understanding; not punishment, but healing. We are grateful to have Assemblywoman Rajkumar on our side as we embark on this healing process.”
Two national Hindu groups, the Hindu American Foundation and the Coalition of Hindus of North America, also joined to support the Hindu-American community in South Richmond Hill. Both organizations are calling upon local and federal law enforcement to investigate the attack and whether it is related to similar attacks on statues of Gandhi in other parts of the country.
“Mahatma Gandhi’s message of peace and oneness emanates from the core of Hindu teachings. For those who wish to divide and sow seeds of hate, that message is a threat, and so we see these ugly attacks on a prominent symbol of our legacy and that too at a temple — the most sacred of spaces for Hindus,” said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation.
Nikunj Trivedi, president of the Coalition of Hindus of North America, said they stand in solidarity with Rajkumar in calling for a swift investigation.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing a surge in Hinduphobia and anti-Hindu hate crimes, including the desecration of Gandhi statues and attacks on Hindu public officials in multiple places. We call upon leaders, law officials and the general public to stand against such hate and bigotry,” Trivedi said.
According to local residents, hate has no place in their society.
“When anyone is a victim of a hate crime in Richmond Hill, it is a crime against the very values that define our neighborhood,” said community leader Romeo Hitllal. “I love Richmond Hill because people of every faith and background live together in a spirit of camaraderie and community. The hatred that drove the abhorrent vandalism at Tulsi Mandir is not who we are, and we will work together to make the mandir, and our whole community, stronger and more welcoming than ever before.”
Community Board 10 Chair Betty Braton said they condemn the “hateful behavior” that occurred at the religious institution.
“Any act of vandalism towards any item of religious or cultural significance to anyone, most especially one located at a religious institution, is unacceptable behavior,” Braton said.
Frank Dardani, president of the 106th Precinct Community Council, said he condemns “every type of vandalism and especially against any religious group, statue or artifacts that represent them.”
Meanwhile, elected officials such as Congressman Gregory Meeks, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, Senator Joseph Addabbo Jr., City Councilwoman Joann Ariola, Assemblyman David Weprin, and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards offered their sympathies to the mandir and committed to aiding Rajkumar’s work to end hate crimes.
Adams said the city council will continue to invest in preventing hate crimes and supporting the communities that too often experience it. Furthermore, they will continue working together in unity to make communities safer.
“I’m horrified that a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was vandalized outside of a Hindu temple in my district last week,” Adams said. “Hate has no place in our community, Queens, or New York City. I join my colleagues, community, and faith leaders to unequivocally denounce this troubling act of hate. As a city, we must root out hate with love and acceptance.”
On the federal level, Meeks vowed that he is committed to work with Rajkumar, local elected officials, and his colleagues in Washington, D.C. to fight against the scourge of hatred and intolerance permeating communities.
“Acts of hate have no place in our community and nation and the perpetrators need to be held accountable. Let this moment stand as a testament to our ability to unite and strive for peace in our neighborhoods throughout Southeast Queens,” Meeks said. “We cannot stand idly by and let dangerous rhetoric and actions inspire fear, but we can come together to support each other in this tragic moment.”
While referencing Queens as ‘The World’s Borough’ that respects the many different cultures of its residents, Richards said “when an act of hate is committed against one group, our entire borough stands together as one community in denouncing the hate.”
According to Addabbo, whenever places of worship are defaced, vandalized or attacked, one must ask why the perpetrators did it and address the situation.
“That is what we are doing here at the Tulsi Mandir temple since their Gandhi statue was vandalized and knocked over last week,” Addabbo said. “I will work with my colleagues on the governmental level, the police force and the community so we can find these vandals and make sure justice is served, while continuing to promote the awareness and education that vandalizing religious sites and statues hurts not only the house of worship, but the entire community.”
While he doesn’t come from a Hindu background, Weprin said that he viewed the vandalism as if it were an attack on his own synagogue.
“I am appalled that we have to keep convening in circumstances like this again and again,” Weprin said. “Vandalism, threats, or intimidation against any of our houses of worship will never be tolerated. Mahatma Gandhi was a dedicated servant of peace in the face of violence – we must embody his values and stand in solidarity with the attendees of Tulsi Mandir and our neighbors in the Hindu community.”
Ariola said the desecration of any religious statue, symbol or artifact is a crime against all.
“The symbols have deep meaning to many and much significance to their religion. I hope that the perpetrators of this crime are brought to justice quickly,” Ariola said.