An April 3 attack on a Hindu priest in Mahwah, New Jersey, initially charged as a simple assault and burglary, will now be investigated as a hate crime, following extensive pressure from the Indian American community, which is engaging with the Bergen County prosecutor’s office, as well as circulating a petition.

According to a Ramsey, New Jersey police department report — portions of which were forwarded to India-West by Indian American community activist Dinesh Khosla — Devendra Shukla and his 6-year-old daughter were driving through the parking lot of a local mall. Alleged assailant Nicholas Dow, 30, got out of his car and began punching Shukla. He then got back in his car and drove off.

Shukla told police that Dow called him a “dirty Indian” during the course of the beating with fists. He was taken to the hospital by paramedics for severe facial bleeding; his face was swollen for several days.

Police arrested Dow the following day. He was charged with simple assault and burglary and released the same day without bond. His booking record notes an FBI number, which generally indicates that a person’s fingerprints or prior criminal record are in the FBI’s database. Dow has no prior criminal record.

In a statement to media following the incident, Shukla stated he was attacked without provocation. “My 6-year old daughter who witnessed the incident is still traumatized by it,” he wrote.

“The hatred that was directed at me is something that I will never understand. I am just concerned for my family’s well-being and safety at this point, especially given the fact that the assailant lives just down the street from the temple and my residence,” wrote the priest.

Shukla had not returned calls to his cell phone by press time April 26. Dow could not be reached for comment. WNYC reports that the alleged assailant told police he had gotten into a verbal altercation with Shukla after being cut off by the priest’s car, but denied assaulting him. Security camera footage from the nearby Shoprite revealed someone approaching the driver’s side of the car, but provided no more details, according to WNYC.

Khosla, a founder of the School of Law at the City University of New York, told India-West: “In our minds, this is nothing other than a bias incident (hate crime).” He noted that Dow had posted the Confederate flag on his Facebook page, characterizing it as a symbol of pride and love. Dow has since removed the flag from his page, and has changed his profile name.

Khosla, a trustee of the Mahwah temple, said that after the incident, Dow was allegedly offered a two-year probation, which he characterized as a “slap on the hand.”

In an April 20 email to Bergen County Public Prosecutor Michael Paccioretti, Khosla asked him to reconsider the charges against Dow. Khosla noted his frustration at Shukla’s inability to receive his police report from Mahwah police, and alleged that a representative for the office said the report could not be found and encouraged him to think of the incident as a case of road rage.

Khosla wrote that he was also frustrated by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office inability to meet with him to discuss the matter. He wrote that when he had earlier spoken to Paccioretti, he was told that an investigator from the bias crimes division would be contacting him; he added that he was still waiting for such a call.

Khosla said he was dissatisfied by the plea deal. “These are serious charges and he should not be permitted to walk away with probation even if it his first offense,” he stated to Paccioretti, asking him to withdraw the deal.

Khosla told India-West that the New Jersey state Attorney General’s office — helmed by Indian American Gurbir Grewal — has informed him that the case will be investigated as a bias incident. Federal investigators are not involved, he said.

In a statement reported by WNYC, Grewal said: “Earlier this month, my office released bias incident investigation standards that reaffirm our commitment to these important cases.”

“I have every confidence that the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office will conduct a thorough investigation.”

Khosla noted a history of vandalism and bias incidents at the temple site after the property was purchased 15 years ago. After the attack on Shukla, temple trustees have stepped up security: all security cameras have been checked for functionality, and three to four volunteers sit in their cars each Saturday and Sunday to be alert to possible suspicious activity.

Shukla no longer walks down the street on which his home and the temple are located, as Dow lives nearby.

The local Indian American community has initiated a petition, asking that Dow be given the maximum penalty. More than 3,100 people had signed the petition as of April 26, which can be viewed here: https://bit.ly/2UVDL3w.

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