A Hoboken, New Jersey-based website is facing criticism for publishing a photoshopped image of the city’s first Sikh mayor, Ravi Bhalla, that seems to portray him as an Arab dictator.
The website, Hudson Mile Square View (www.hobokenhorse.com), ran an image of Bhalla that resembled British actor Sacha Baron Cohen’s character in the political satire, “The Dictator.”
The photo accompanied a story titled, “Ravi Bhalla goes to the mattresses... for his tax increase.” It accused Bhalla of “summoning all the powers” of the mayor’s office and its “bloated staff” in an effort to “reinstitute his tax increase of three percent.”
The website, which describes itself as Hoboken’s “biggest website covering government, politics and corruption,” stated that the city council voted at its last meeting to reduce Bhalla’s proposed three percent tax increase down to one percent, cutting spending by less than a million.
That vote, the article said, passed “overwhelmingly 8-1,” but the “pushback” from the mayor’s office to take back the tax reduction is underway.
This is not the first time that Bhalla has been under attack. Just five days before voters in Hoboken went to the polls in 2017, racist flyers were circulated in the city, proclaiming, “Don’t let terrorism take over our town.”
Allegations of terrorism were also lobbed against the Sikh Indian American in 2016, on his twitter handle. (Read earlier India-West story here: https://bit.ly/2Q6MWs8)
In 2018, the mayor acknowledged that he and his family have received death threats.
The photo quickly came under the scanner of Sikh activists and others who condemned the website for using it.
“He’s endured immense racist abuse, from flyers calling him a terrorist to death threats against him and his family. Now, someone is photoshopping Ravi to depict him as a despot. This is racist and wrong,” tweeted activist and speaker Simran Jeet Singh.
Audrey Truschke, an assistant professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University, also denounced the image on Twitter.
“Disagreeing with politics is OK, discrimination and racism is not. Read this thread, and the thread it references at the end, to educate yourself about ongoing prejudice in America. Such hate will cease when we all reject bigotry. Solidarity with @RaviBhalla,” she wrote.
South Asian Bar Association North America tweeted: “A website’s photoshopped image depicting Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla as the movie stereotype of a dictator is racist, and has no place in political, or even polite, discourse. Criticism of leaders should be based on their decisions and not on thoughtless stereotypes. #callouthate.”
Author Deepa Iyer wrote on Twitter: “Shameful. @RaviBhalla, the mayor of #Hoboken, is subjected to so much racism and harassment for his long-standing role in public service. Standing with you and your family, Ravi.”
The website, which has been critical of Bhalla ever since he assumed office, later posted an update, stating that “Today’s story featuring a reader-submitted photo based on the comedy hit by Sacha Baron Cohen ‘The Dictator’ was used in social media to allege worse behavior than the recent tossing out of City Hall two councilmembers who went to the rent office on behalf of a resident.”
The website was also quick to notice the backlash on Twitter, writing: “Utter rubbish. Satire from the movie ‘The Dictator’ based on actions taken at #Hoboken City Hall. Of course, that was kept hidden. Political fun and games, sad!”
This is not the first time that the website has used a photoshopped image of Bhalla. In 2017, the website carried a story that showed Bhalla with a growing Pinocchio nose. That story was titled, “Mayor Ravi Bhalla goes with the big lie, denies existence of his big $$$ law employment contract.”