This Sikh American Overcame Hate To Become New Jersey's First Sikh Mayor

Ravi Bhalla is no stranger to religious discrimination. Growing up in New Jersey, the Sikh American politician told HuffPost he regularly faced bullying and harassment at public school because of his religion and the turban he wears as a sign of devotion to his faith.

Years later, Bhalla is celebrating a remarkable milestone: He’s been elected as his home state’s first Sikh American mayor.

Bhalla won Hoboken’s mayoral race on Tuesday, edging out a pool of five other candidates. The city councilman claimed victory despite being targeted by a racist flyer campaign during the race which falsely linked him to terrorism.

Asked what he would tell his younger self, Bhalla told HuffPost: “I would say that there is no conflict in this country between being a Sikh and being a successful American.”

“I think it’s important for Sikh children to realize that they should have pride in their faith and know that in this country, the sky is the limit,” Bhalla said. “I hope as mayor, I can present a positive image of Sikh to the general public and I hope that it will make it easier for young kids in school.”

Ravi Bhalla is the mayor-elect of Hoboken, New Jersey. (Photo: Ravi Bhalla for Mayor/Facebook)
Ravi Bhalla is the mayor-elect of Hoboken, New Jersey. (Photo: Ravi Bhalla for Mayor/Facebook)

Narinder Singh, interim executive director of the advocacy group, The Sikh Coalition, called Bhalla’s election a “watershed moment” for the Sikh American community.

“In addition to inspiring the next generation of Sikh leaders to recognize that public office is possible, his election reminds all Americans that diversity remains our nation’s greatest strengths,” Singh told HuffPost.

Bhalla, a Democrat and a 17-year resident of Hoboken, previously served two terms as an at-large member of the Hoboken City Council.

Last week, the race for the mayoral post took a dark turn when Bhalla became the target of a racist flyer campaign. The flyers, which were reportedly placed on car windshields in Hoboken, urged residents not to “let TERRORISM take over our Town!”

Language on the flyers claimed they were funded by the campaign of Michael DeFusco, a rival candidate. DeFusco denied having anything to do with the flyers and condemned them as “racist garbage.”

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“It was very disturbing and hurtful,” Bhalla told HuffPost about the flyer campaign ― not just for him, but also for his wife and children.

He said that this wasn’t the first time he’s been called a terrorist, saying that he has received abuse on social media in the past, and experienced bullying during his childhood in New Jersey.

“At this point in my political career, I have a thick skin,” he said. “This is not something that is new to me.”

Sikhs have been part of America’s religious fabric for more than 100 years. But some Americans are still unfamiliar with the religion, or mistakenly believe that the turbans Sikhs wear as an article of their faith mean that they are Muslim.

Since the September 11 attacks, Sikhs have often become victims of racial profiling, bullying, and hate crimes.

Bhalla said that he believed racism and xenophobia towards Sikhs, but also towards other vulnerable minority communities, has been exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s election.

“Unfortunately, we live in a slightly different climate, where some people think this type of conduct is acceptable,” he said. “It’s important for those of us in government to make sure we send a strong, clear message that hate is not acceptable in our communities.”

Bhalla also said that he feels humbled to have won the mayoral race and by the support that he’s received from the Sikh American community at large.

“It means the world to me. The idea that I can uplift people, whether they are young people or older people in the Sikh community, and instill a sense of pride,” he said. “This is in a way a victory for the Sikh community as a whole in that it creates an opportunity to present a positive image for Sikhs in Hoboken and the rest of the country.”

Gujari Singh, communications manager for the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that Bhalla’s win signaled the “start of a new era” for Sikh Americans in the country.

“These victories lay the foundation for our youth and future generations to pursue public office and engage more heavily in the American political system,” Singh said. “This milestone also conveys that Sikh Americans are an integral part of the American fabric, sharing the same aspirations and dreams as all other Americans.”

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Bhalla is one of several Sikh American mayors in the country’s history. Sikhs have reportedly been elected as mayors in Charlottesville, Virginia, Laurel Hollow, New York, San Joaquin City, California, and other cities.

And Bhalla isn’t the only Sikh American politician to emerge victorious during this year’s elections. A Sikh American woman, Satwinder Kaur, was elected to a City Council position in Washington state. Another South Asian American of Sikh heritage, Manka Dhingra, is presumed to have been elected to Washington’s state Senate.

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Shawn Singh Ghuman, communications director for the National Sikh Campaign, told HuffPost that he felt Bhalla’s election shows that Sikhs can and will overcome the religious discrimination they have faced in this country.

“One aim of our organization was to ensure Sikhs in America, now and future generations, can play a larger role in our civic society,” he told HuffPost in an email. “With the success of several Sikh’s in yesterday’s election, we are well on our way to achieving that goal and we hope this election encourages more Sikh Americans to get involved in public service and run for office. ”

Also on HuffPost

Adi Granth or Guru Granth Sahib

<i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Adi-Granth-Holy-Scriptures-Sikhs/dp/8121502446/ref=sr_1_12?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443551263&sr=1-12&keywords=guru+granth+sahib">The Adhi Granth</a>, </i>later known as the <i>Guru Granth Sahib, </i>is the central religious text of the Sikh faith. It is comprised of hymns describing the qualities of God, composed by early Sikh gurus. Our recommenders noted two different translations of the holy text, one by Gurbachan Singh Talib and another by Ernest Trumpp.
The Adhi Granthlater known as the Guru Granth Sahib, is the central religious text of the Sikh faith. It is comprised of hymns describing the qualities of God, composed by early Sikh gurus. Our recommenders noted two different translations of the holy text, one by Gurbachan Singh Talib and another by Ernest Trumpp.

The Sikhs

<i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Sikhs-Patwant-Singh/dp/0385502060/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443552581&sr=1-1&keywords=the+sikhs">The Sikhs</a></i> by Patwant Singh is a detailed overview of Sikh history and tradition that reads like a captivating story. As Navdeep Singh, policy director of SALDEF, said: "Singh’s work remains one of the most accessible and researched books on the history and evolution of the Sikh community. He was writing a counter-narrative to balance depictions of Sikhs as a feared other and provided a more holistic and balanced discussion and representation of the community."
The Sikhs by Patwant Singh is a detailed overview of Sikh history and tradition that reads like a captivating story. As Navdeep Singh, policy director of SALDEF, said: "Singh’s work remains one of the most accessible and researched books on the history and evolution of the Sikh community. He was writing a counter-narrative to balance depictions of Sikhs as a feared other and provided a more holistic and balanced discussion and representation of the community."

Lost In History: 1984 Reconstructed

<i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Lost-History-Reconstructed-Gunisha-Kaur/dp/0976268213/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443552977&sr=1-1&keywords=lost+in+history+by+gunisha+kaur">Lost In History: 1984 Reconstructed</a></i> by Gunisha Kaur investigates a period of attacks on Sikh houses of worship throughout the state of Punjab that included pogroms, police brutality and other assaults on Sikhs in India. "Dr. Gunisha Kaur explores the problems that set off this horrific part of modern day Indian history and how the world’s largest democracy responded to it," said Sumeet Kaur, communications manager for SALDEF.
Lost In History: 1984 Reconstructed by Gunisha Kaur investigates a period of attacks on Sikh houses of worship throughout the state of Punjab that included pogroms, police brutality and other assaults on Sikhs in India. "Dr. Gunisha Kaur explores the problems that set off this horrific part of modern day Indian history and how the world’s largest democracy responded to it," said Sumeet Kaur, communications manager for SALDEF.

Jasmin's Summer Wish

<i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Jasmins-Summer-Wish-Elizabeth-Glines/dp/0982711581/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443554614&sr=1-1&keywords=jasmin%27s+summer+wish">Jasmin's Summer Wish</a></i> is a picture book by Liz Glines that tells the story of a group of children living in New York City and grappling with the realities of climate change. It is one of the first children's books to feature Sikh characters in an urban setting, <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Jasmins-Summer-Wish-Elizabeth-Glines/dp/0982711581/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443554614&sr=1-1&keywords=jasmin%27s+summer+wish">according to Amazon</a>.
Jasmin's Summer Wish is a picture book by Liz Glines that tells the story of a group of children living in New York City and grappling with the realities of climate change. It is one of the first children's books to feature Sikh characters in an urban setting, according to Amazon.

Garland Around My Neck

<i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Garland-Around-My-Neck-Pingalwara/dp/8174763376/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443553666&sr=1-1&keywords=garland+around+my+neck">Garland Around My Neck</a></i> by Patwant Singh and Harinder Kaur Sekhon tells the story of remarkable humanitarian Puran Singh. The book "emphasizes his work with the disabled, destitute, and lower sections of society in the Amritsar area," and provides an "excellent [resource] on Sikh service and philanthropy," <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Garland-Around-My-Neck-Pingalwara/dp/8174763376/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443553666&sr=1-1&keywords=garland+around+my+neck">according to Amazon</a>.
Garland Around My Neck by Patwant Singh and Harinder Kaur Sekhon tells the story of remarkable humanitarian Puran Singh. The book "emphasizes his work with the disabled, destitute, and lower sections of society in the Amritsar area," and provides an "excellent [resource] on Sikh service and philanthropy," according to Amazon.

Spirit Born People

<i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Spirit-People-Prof-Puran-Singh/dp/8172051956/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443554110&sr=1-1&keywords=the+spirit+born+people">Spirit Born People</a></i> is a book of lecture notes by Puran Singh first published in 1928. It served as a wake up call particularly for young Sikhs who had strayed from their faith. It also sought to revitalize and reinvigorate the tradition.
Spirit Born People is a book of lecture notes by Puran Singh first published in 1928. It served as a wake up call particularly for young Sikhs who had strayed from their faith. It also sought to revitalize and reinvigorate the tradition.

The World According To Sikhi

<i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/World-According-Sikhi-I-J-Singh/dp/1894232119/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443554460&sr=1-1&keywords=the+world+according+to+sikhi">The World According To Sikhi</a></i> by I.J. Singh, "examines the Sikh philosophy and applies it to the challenges of modern day society," said Sumeet Kaur. "While taking a closer look at these issues, Dr. Singh offers unique ways for Sikhs and non-Sikhs to find answers to life’s questions for him or herself."
The World According To Sikhi by I.J. Singh, "examines the Sikh philosophy and applies it to the challenges of modern day society," said Sumeet Kaur. "While taking a closer look at these issues, Dr. Singh offers unique ways for Sikhs and non-Sikhs to find answers to life’s questions for him or herself."

The Name Of My Beloved

<i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Name-My-Beloved-Verses-Literature/dp/0060670495/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443553356&sr=1-1&keywords=the+name+of+my+beloved">The Name Of My Beloved</a></i> is a translation of Sikh scriptures by Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh. "This is a great introduction for a non-Sikh looking to begin a study of Sikh scripture," said Sona S. Kaur, communications director for SALDEF.
The Name Of My Beloved is a translation of Sikh scriptures by Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh. "This is a great introduction for a non-Sikh looking to begin a study of Sikh scripture," said Sona S. Kaur, communications director for SALDEF.

Making Ethnic Choices: California's Punjabi Mexican Americans

<i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Making-Ethnic-Choices-Californias-Americans/dp/1566392020/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443554879&sr=1-1&keywords=making+ethnic+choices">Making Ethnic Choices</a> </i>by Karen Leonard explores the hardships faced by early Sikh and Punjabi migrants to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Making-Ethnic-Choices-Californias-Americans/dp/1566392020/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443554879&sr=1-1&keywords=making+ethnic+choices">Amazon writes</a>: "Using written sources and numerous interviews, [Leonard] invokes gender, generation, class, religion, language, and the dramatic political changes of the 1940s in South Asia and the United States to show how individual and group perceptions of ethnic identity have changed among Punjabi Mexican Americans in rural California."
Making Ethnic Choices by Karen Leonard explores the hardships faced by early Sikh and Punjabi migrants to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Amazon writes: "Using written sources and numerous interviews, [Leonard] invokes gender, generation, class, religion, language, and the dramatic political changes of the 1940s in South Asia and the United States to show how individual and group perceptions of ethnic identity have changed among Punjabi Mexican Americans in rural California."

A History Of The Sikhs

<i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/History-Sikhs-1469-1839-Oxford-Collection/dp/0195673085/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1443555124&sr=1-1&keywords=a+history+of+the+sikhs">A History Of The Sikhs</a> </i>written<i> </i>by Khushwant Singh in two volumes fulfills the promise of its title. First published in 1963, the text provides a sweeping overview of Sikh history and tradition.
A History Of The Sikhs written by Khushwant Singh in two volumes fulfills the promise of its title. First published in 1963, the text provides a sweeping overview of Sikh history and tradition.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.

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