North Jersey: Ridgewood church cancels event featuring Hindu nationalist leader amid outcry

A fundraising event featuring Hindu nationalist Sadhvi Rithambara will no longer be held at the Old Paramus Reformed Church in Ridgewood on Saturday, following a public outcry and calls to cancel the event.

The Rev. Robert Miller said late Friday that he revoked approval to use of the church building after hearing from both opponents and event organizers. Critics say Rithambara, known to followers as Didi Maa, has incited hate against religious minorities, especially Muslims. Her supporters say she is a pious leader and philanthropist.

The church was not aware of the speaker’s background when the reservation was made, Miller said. An Indian American seniors association, which had used the space before, contacted the church to book the event, he said.

He said the church got a flood of messages opposing Rithambara’s appearance, including more than 1,000 emails from around the country since Thursday and at least 100 phone calls on Friday.

A protest planned outside the church for Saturday by local advocacy groups was also canceled. Shaheen Khateeb, a founder and former president of the Indian American Muslim Council, said he decided not to hold the demonstration after speaking with Miller and local police to confirm the event would not be taking place.

“I didn’t want this to be misunderstood as a protest against the church,” Khateeb said.

Miller also heard from event organizers who felt they were being misrepresented and said their event was “about peace and love,” he said.

“We felt ill-equipped to discern what was right in this situation,” Miller said.

It was unclear whether the New Jersey chapter of Param Shakti Peeth of America, a charitable organization that organized the fundraiser, would hold the event at a different time or place.

The Indian American Muslim Council and Hindus for Human Rights had called for the event to be canceled and organized a letter-writing campaign to the church via an online action alert titled “Reject hate, say no to Hindu Nationalism in New Jersey.”

To her supporters, Rithambara is a revered spiritual leader, but controversy is not new for her. She was accused of having a role in the razing of the 16th century Babri mosque in Uttar Pradesh in 1992, an event that sparked violence in which over 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. Thirty-two leaders including Rithambara were acquitted in 2020 after a 28-year legal battle over the incident.

In an interview earlier this week, Narsinh Desai of Cresskill, a sponsor of the event, dismissed allegations that Rithambara was extremist as “misinformation.” She talks about protecting the Hindu religion but not violence, he said.

“I don’t hear any kind of hate,” he said, describing her as peaceful, charitable and saintly.

Reached Saturday morning, Desai declined to comment on the cancelation.

Rithambara’s U.S. visit comes on the heels of rising tensions in India, where Hindu nationalism has soared along with discriminatory policies and violence against religious minorities, according to groups like Human Rights Watch.

Those tensions have trickled into to New Jersey, where a nationalist symbol displayed at the India Independence Day Parade in Edison last month sparked fury, condemnations and eventually, an apology. The parade featured a bulldozer, which has become a symbol of anti-Muslim sentiment in India, as the equipment has been used to raze Muslim homes and businesses. The Indian Business Association, which organized the parade, later apologized for the incident.

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