"How the hell did Hoboken allow this guy to be a councilman? Shouldn’t even be allowed in the U.S. #terrorist."
That was a hateful tweet out of the blue for Hoboken Councilman Ravinder Bhalla, the first of its kind during his multiple terms as the only Sikh Councilman sporting a beard and turban. The tweet came from a Robert Dubenezic, who according to Bhalla, is from Jersey City, and a Trump supporter, he told Desi Talk.
Bhalla didn't take it lying down, wanting to nip in the bud what he sees as a rising tide of hateful speech encouraged by the tone set by Republican Presidential nominee-in-waiting Donald Trump.
“Sir, I am born & raised in America. You clearly don't know what it means to be an American. #ignorant @dubenezic @TotallyHoboken @HobokenInc” Bhalla tweeted back unfazed , adding, “Unfortunately, ignorance and racism are alive and well, even in Hudson County. ... I am not deterred but more determined to serve my community in Hoboken - as a proud American and a proud Sikh.”
In the face of a cascade of responses from loyal Bhalla constituents, Dubenezic continued relentlessly. “No towel on my head," he tweeted, according to the Hoboken Patch online news. According to news reports, Dubenezic's Facebook page shows he is a Trump supporter.
“As always, Councilman Bhalla is a total class act. I'm not though, and I can say this guy is an ignorant clown," said one; “Please educate yourself and do not hate. Hoboken will not stand for it," said another; “Sad, un-American behavior that cannot be tolerated. I'm happy majority of Hoboken is progressive and rejects racism.”
“Proud of you Ravi and proud of our hometown Hoboken for electing you twice," one tweet maintained.
“Prouder of you than ever Ravi! Inspiring to see you set an example of American civic duty at a time when America needs it most," added another. "Proof that racism requires ignorance,” said yet another.
An attorney born and raised in New Jersey with a practise in Rochelle Park, Bhalla is a familiar figure on the streets of Hoboken. He is a Councilman-at-Large and Council President for the City of Hoboken. He is a former chairman of the Hoboken Democratic Party from 2010-2011. Bhalla served as a local Democratic Committeeman for the 2nd Ward, 3rd District of Hoboken from 2007-2009, prior to his service as a Councilman.
"We are turning a negative into a positive," Bhalla told Desi Talk, about the flood of public support from his constituents upset at the tweet from Dubenezic, who is from Jersey City. "Clearly in Hoboken we live in a society that elects people not because of what they look like but for what they can do," he said. "We want to make this an opportunity to educate the public at large about Sikhs."
But he admitted it was a shock to get the hateful tweet, the first in his 7 years of using Twitter to communicate routinely with his constituents.
He is no stranger to anti-Sikh speech, however. In the 1970s, during the crisis with Iran, he was called "Ayatollah;" when the war in Iraq took place, he was called "Saddam Hussain." With 9/11, he was branded "Osama."
This time round, he said, because of the nature of the presidential campaign, "People feel more emboldened to say these things when one of the people running for President condones this kind of behavior." Bhalla was referring to Trump's hateful campaign rhetoric.
“Wow. This is the impact of a Donald Trump candidacy. People feel more empowered to publicly express their ignorance and hatred. You're doing a great job. Keep up the great work you do,” one supporter messaged Bhalla.
And one Bhalla supporter is quoted in rawstory.com, pointed to Dubenezic's name saying, “Your last name is as foreign as it gets! BTW, he’s not Muslim. Educate yourself.”
During his tenure in council, Bhalla is proud of his accomplishments. Among them, he said, was getting the city's fiscal house in order. "We have been able to stabilize our financial standing. Our credit rating has risen from junk status to a double A plus," he said.
"We have also been able to root out government corruption. Hoboken had a big problem," he said.
And the hospital that was on the brink of collapse, was saved by selling to a private entity, thus saving 1,000 jobs, he noted.
More Indian-Americans are moving into Hoboken, young professionals wanting to live in the "miniature Manhattan," he said. These growing numbers have combined with some of the old timers who did not flee Hoboken when violent hate crimes against Indians spilled over from neighboring Jersey City that spawned the "Dot Busters," gangs of the 1980s.
For his Sikh community he helped bring a major change. "Last year, we were able to get the Hoboken City Police Department to change its policy and allow turbans and facial hair to be work by recruits," he said.
"So we have the ability to have a very diversified police force," he added, and urged Indian-Americans to apply for law enforcement jobs.
Bhalla graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, got his Master of Science degree in Public Administration and Public Policy from the prestigious London School of Economics in the United Kingdom. He has a law degree from Tulane Law School in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Councilman Bhalla is married to Navneet K. Patwalia Bhalla, and they have two children, daughter Arza K. Bhalla, 9, and son Shabegh S. Bhalla 4.
Photo caption: Ravinder Bhalla at his swearing-in ceremony in Hoboken.
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