October 17, 2016: In an understated neighborhood in northern New Jersey, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addressed thousands of Hindus. But, in a country where many people are following Trump’s every move, the New York businessman was not quite the spotlight of the show Saturday night.
Women dressed in their best saris asked each other if anyone had confirmed which Bollywood stars would be in attendance. Children chased each other, screaming across the auditorium. Men ate Indian snacks provided at the venue and caught up with friends.
“I just came for the Bollywood show,” said Nilesh Patel. The evening, a charity event hosted by the Republican Hindu Coalition to give to refugees from Kashmir, had a star-studded list of dance performances.
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Nilesh, a New Jersey resident, can’t vote, but said he was interested to at least hear Trump speak. “Donald Trump is an attraction…. I can’t vote, so I don’t really have a strong opinion. But I do enjoy… well, both of them are characters.”
And Nilesh was far from the only person who couldn’t vote. Between those visiting family from out of the country, those awaiting citizenship, and teenagers, many of the attendees weren’t voters.
Signature, a dancing duo made famous on the reality show “Britain’s got Talent,” and Malaika Arora Khan, a Bollywood dancer and actress, were among the stars who got the audience up on its feet. Choreographer Prabhu Deva performed just before Donald Trump spoke, and was met with much more applause than the presidential candidate.
Other than a brief and puzzling performance that involved dancers dressed as Navy Seals fighting “terrorists” before stopping to sing the U.S. national anthem, no reference to politics in the U.S. was made in the two hours of performances.
When Trump took the stage, introduced by Shallabh Kumar, head of the Republican Hindu Coalition, the atmosphere of the room changed immediately. The handful of white Americans wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and shirts moved closer to the stage and those who had been dancing fell quiet.
Trump started by exclaiming that he loved “Hindu,” and spoke out against terrorism, emphasizing that Indians feel the immediate threat of terrorism, especially remembering attacks in Mumbai that left more than 100 dead in 2008.
But the rest of the rhetoric was familiar: crooked Hillary, I’m going to build the wall, Mexico will pay for it.
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His commitment to combat terrorism was not lost, however, on many in attendance. Of the Hindus who wholeheartedly supported Donald Trump, terrorism is their main concern.
“I’m a strong supporter of Trump. I’m mainly supporting Trump for his stance against terrorism,” Rogi Reddy, a New Jersey resident, said. When asked if he is worried about Trump’s harsh comments against minorities and other social policies, Reddy said, “Those are all secondary for me.”
His son, Ghumi, remained unconvinced ahead of his speech. “I align with him fiscally but not socially, so… I’m not sure if anything he will say today will convince me, but I’m hoping to find out,” he said.
A third group of South Asians, those too staunchly against Trump to support an event at which he was speaking, protested outside the convention center earlier that day.
Mohamed Asker, a New Jersey native and college student at Rutgers University, worked with a handful of local politicians, including Congressman Frank Pallone and South Asian members of Edison’s city council, to organize a rally outside the hall.
“There’s no divide between Hindus and Muslims – we’re all one minority and an attack against one of us is an attack against all of us,” Asker said. “That’s why we’re here today…. I’m a college student, just among other college students who don’t believe a candidate who spews hate should be elected.”
The divide between Hindus and Muslims, although unspoken, was clear inside the convention center. The Republican Hindu Coalition, clear enough in its name, does not exactly draw other religious minorities in India to its events.
And a few of the Hindus supporting Trump made it clear they wanted to distinguish themselves from the radical Muslims against whom he so vehemently speaks out.
After Donald Trump exited the stage to a cover of “You can’t always get what you want,” about half of the audience slowly left, having seen what they came for.
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But the other half, many of whom were filling up on snacks while the political intermission took place, rushed back to watch the next dance.
Signs provided by organizers rest on chairs in the hall ahead of Donald Trump’s speech to Hindu Americans. (E. Sarai/VOA)