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Hindu fund-raiser sparks protest at Flushing temple

Sadhvi Ritambara was met by screaming protesters as she made her way into a fund-raiser at the Hindu Temple...

By Alexander Dworkowitz

About 40 Hindus and Muslims staged an angry rally against the appearance of a controversial Indian priestess at a Flushing temple Friday evening.

Sadhvi Ritambara was met by screaming protesters as she made her way into a fund-raiser at the Hindu Temple Society of North America, the giant 17,000-member religious complex at the intersection of Ash Avenue and Bowne Street.

“Down, down, Hindu terrorists!” the crowd chanted.

While both Hindu and Muslim protesters described Ritambara as a right-wing militant inciting violence against Muslims in India, the people who attended the dinner and talk said she was a compassionate religious leader simply trying to raise money for orphans.

The tense scene in Flushing was rooted in the recent violence in the western Indian state of Gujarat, where more than 1,000 died in riots after a Muslim mob stoned a train carrying activists who belonged to the World Hindu Council in late February.

Hindu mobs retaliated in bloodshed that stretched over two months.

The Hindu activists had called for the construction of a Hindu temple on the grounds of the Ayodhya mosque, which had been destroyed by Hindu mobs in 1992 and is thought to have been built by Muslims on the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram. The 1992 destruction of the mosque led to nationwide riots and resulted in the deaths of thousands at that time.

The protesters in Flushing contended Ritambara was one of many in India who had pressed for the destruction of the mosque.

The reputation of the priestess fanned the flames at the Flushing rally, with several shouting matches breaking out between protesters and supporters as police kept a wary eye.

At one point, leaders of the Flushing temple and a leading mosque in the community faced off at the fence outside the fund-raiser.

Mohammed Sherwani, director of the Muslim Center of New York located on Geranium Avenue, led a group of protesters from his mosque.

“10,000 Muslims are gone!” shouted Sherwani, addressing attendees standing on the opposite side of the temple’s gates. “You believe in that? You believe in terrorism?”

As Sherwani spoke, Dr. Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society, emerged from the temple, flashing a peace sign at Sherwani and the protesters.

Despite Mysorekar’s efforts to calm the crowd, many simply held up signs picturing mutilated bodies even higher.

“It’s like the Ku Klux Klan becoming really popular,” said Sabina Sawhney, a Brooklyn woman of no religious affiliation, about Ritambara and India’s right-wing parties. “We’re appalled by the fact that the temple would be used for something like this.”

Shobna Saleen, a New Jersey resident who came to the fund-raiser, defended and praised Ritambara.

“She’s doing selfless, dedicated charity work for the poor and downtrodden,” she said. “I think we have a few bigots here to cause trouble and spy on the Hindu community.”

Turning to the Muslim Sherwani, Saleen yelled, “We are fed up with being persecuted by your community.”

Ritambara’s visit was organized by a coalition of Hindu groups, many of whom politically back the administration of India’s new president, A.P.J. Kalam, the former head of the country’s nuclear weapons program. Although his parents were Muslim, he reads Hindu scriptures daily and is a vegetarian, CNN reported.

Ritambara’s support of the administration was what led many to call Friday’s event a “terrorist fund-raiser.” Kalam’s party has been accused by the international organization Human Rights Watch of turning a blind eye to the recent attacks on Muslims in Gujarat.

Mysorekar, however, worried about violence not in India but in Flushing. She feared her temple, which had its chariot burned in an arson in November, would be targeted.

“I’ve had a lot of phone calls, threatening,” she said.

Mysorekar explained her temple simply rented the space to the coalition of Hindu organizations and had nothing to do with Ritambara politically. She added she regretted granting the priestess permission to come.

“I had no idea that this was a controversial person,” she said. “If only I knew, I would have canceled.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 141.

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