Since the onset of World War II, the “hakenkreuz”—the infamous symbol of the Nazi party—is widely identified as a representation of anti-Semitism since Nazi persecution led to the death of approximately 11 million Jews during the Holocaust and signifies trauma for many people today. Although the world is now acutely aware of the symbol’s significance and some countries have even had it banned, the usage of the hakenkreuz, which has been incorrectly called the “swastika,” has alarmingly increased in the United States due to the recent rise of alt-right and white supremacy groups, acts of violence against minorities and hate crimes.
For years, members of the South Asian community, cultural organizations and religious groups have tried to explain that the Nazis did not use the swastika—originally a symbol of divinity and spirituality in Indian religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism—but the Hakenkreuz, which means “hooked cross” in German. According to them, the two symbols are radically different and while the use of the Hakenkreuz should be prohibited due to its association with hate, bigotry and racism, the swastika should not. Recently, legislation introduced in the New York Senate aims to include the swastika—not the Hakenkreuz—as a symbol of hate to be taught to children in all schools in New York, prompting South Asian communities to raise awareness about the need to change the wording in the bill from swastika to Hakenkreuz, and the implications should this not occur.
In August 2019, New York State Senator Todd Kaminsky (District 9) introduced Senate Bill S6648, which requires New York schools to include the swastika as a “hate symbol” in the curricula for grades six through twelve. The bill is intended to better educate the youth on what these symbols represent and thereby foster a more inclusive society. On July 21, the bill was passed by the Senate and now awaits the review of the Assembly Education Committee. If passed into law, the bill will mandate all students in New York to learn that the swastika is exclusively associated with hatred and intolerance.
Originally, the swastika, from the Sanskrit word svastika which means “good fortune” or “well-being,” is a millennia-old religious symbol that stands for peace and prosperity in Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Native American and African spiritual traditions, and is commonly written in red ink or paint or created with flowers. As such, it remains a common sight in many temples and religious practices around the world, including as a welcome sign in many South Asian homes in the United States. When the Nazi Party was formed in the 1900s, Adolf Hitler appropriated the symbolby flipping the swastika, removing the four dots and tilting the symbol to the right, creating the Hakenkreuz and adopting it as the party’s emblem in 1920. The symbol was frequently used as a point of pride for members of the Party and to instill fear and respect in the broader population.
Since the swastika’s history predating the Nazi Party and its association with certain religions is not common knowledge for those not a part of the minority communities that use it, most people in the United States are unable to differentiate between the swastika and the Hakenkreuz. As a result, when rules or legislation attempt to ban the swastika or brand it solely as a representation of hate, bigotry and racism when educating children, it reinforces a singular perspective and forgets the cultural context in which it was used for many years and still continues to be used. Furthermore, students from communities that use the swastika as a part of their traditions are at increased risk of having their practices falsely recast as hateful within the classroom and among their social circles.
In the case of the New York Bill S6648, if this legislation were to pass in the state and classify the swastika as only a symbol of hate, it would create a sense of confusion for South Asian children and those of other religions and cultures who have grown up seeing the swastika being used by their family and friends in rituals, celebrations and more. Additionally, it will propagate more hate towards those communities that openly use the symbol for their religious or cultural practices.
New York has the largest school system in the United States, and so if a bill such as this were to pass into law, it is likely that other states across the country would follow suit, thereby influencing the education of hundreds of thousands of children. Due to the bill’s national implications, organizations like the World Hindu Council of America, specifically their initiative American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD), haveurged the New York Senate to differentiatebetween the original swastika and the Nazi Hakenkreuz.
The organization issued a public statement, saying “To label the Swastika as a symbol of hate would be a grave insult to 1.8 billion Hindus and Buddhists around the world.” It further explains that the bill would perpetuate ignorance and promote Hinduphobia in schools across New York, which could translate to the whole country if other states replicated the New York Bill. Organizations like AHAD are also working closely with Jewish groups like the American Jewish Committee (AJC) to create educational resourcesthat explain the difference between the two symbols.
Meanwhile, the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) has set up a petition on its websitethat calls for the New York Senate to rename the swastika as the Hakenkreuz in the bill, promote and circulate educational materials about the difference between these two symbols and consult stakeholders from the Jewish community as well as the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, African-American and indigenous communities to help develop culturally competent resources and messaging about this issue. As a result of the overwhelming response to the petition, CoHNA announced that the Assembly is reconsidering the bill.
As the United States sees increasing acts of violence against ethnic minorities by groups and individuals who use symbols like the swastika to represent their views, it’s important to be mindful of the trauma that Jewish communities and others who were persecuted by the Nazis face when they see symbols that remind them of horrific past events and ongoing violent acts. At the same time, South Asian communities and others who use the swastika in their daily religious and cultural practices, and have been for thousands of years, need to be allowed to educate legislators, friends and family on the history of the swastika and how important it is to distinguish between the swastika and the Hakenkreuz. In this way, the United States will be able to move forward with crafting policies that educate the youth about hate crimes and symbols while being mindful of the cultural context in which they are used.
For New York residents who want to voice their opposition against the current Assembly Bill that singularly classifies the swastika as a hate symbol, here are some ways to get involved:
Write an email or call the Assembly Education Committee: A list of the Committee members and an email template can be found on the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) website here.
Write an email to your representative: New York residents can find their representative on the New York State Assembly website here. An email template can be found here.
To overcome global challenges, collective investments and groundwork are fundamental in advancing an equitable future across diverse communities. Sustainable development — a development that promotes growth through social, economic and environmental progress without compromising natural resources — is essential for human survival. At the young age of 21, Nirmala Ramprasad founded Green Dupatta, a sustainable development charity organization, and advocated for its importance through multiple pageant ambassadorships. As a philanthropic representative for the Indo Caribbean diaspora, her work showcases how individuals of any age have the ability to be changemakers for social advancement in areas such as environmental and agricultural protection and education.
In conversation with Ramprasad, the following answers have been edited for clarity and concision.
Growing up, did you resonate with your Indo Caribbean heritage? What ideals do you most connect with and want to pass on in creating positive change?
As a mixed-race person who grew up primarily within the Indo Caribbean community, I have always felt deeply connected to my culture and heritage. As a child I was fully immersed in all things Guyanese (I refused to wear anything but a lehenga to every school picture day). From a young age I was exposed to, and learned about, our music, food, political climate, history of indentureship and the importance of our cultural connection to India.
In regards to my nonprofit work, one of the most important lessons I take from my Indo Caribbean culture is the significance of ancestral knowledge and practices. One of the main tenets of my nonprofit work is sustainability and I have found that the most effective and practical sustainability practices can be found when we look back at the way our ancestors treated the land they lived on.
Although we are all changemakers in some way, I always advocate for community involvement in not only development, but also sustainability practices.
Can you describe what Green Dupatta is?
Green Dupatta is a sustainable development non-profit that I started when I was 21 and have since completed projects in Canada, Guyana, India and Trinidad. I work directly with project participants to co-create community-based spaces and programs that increase environmental awareness, food, water security and access to quality education through sustainable development models.
While most of Green Dupatta’s fundraising efforts take place in Canada, community projects are mainly done in Guyana and India.
In 2020, Ramprasad traveled to Guyana to work with locals in the town of Leonora. Together they replaced leaking zinc roofs, restored plumbing to old drains, re-poured concrete exteriors and repaved and repainted buildings to be used for yoga and meditation classes, affordable daycare and community gardens. To ensure donations are maximized, local contractors are always utilized. Green Dupatta aims to repair and reuse as many materials as possible. It does not dictate what the spaces should be used for, instead assists the community in having the agency select programming that benefits residents.
Across India, Ramprasad detailed Green Dupatta’s completion of seven projects in seven weeks in an eight-part YouTube docuseries. With partnership from JDS Public School in Varanasi, Green Dupatta constructed two sports facilities for student health, engaged in community outreach awareness campaigns on women’s empowerment and environmental conservation, aided in scholarship opportunities for students, helped create a community garden and provided the school with a system to harvest and irrigate water.
After this, they traveled to Devdaspur, a village with no clean water, to install a well with a shower enclosure, a water purification system and reservation tank, and a fenced enclosure food plantation. With their new ability to easily access clean water, people in Devdaspur showed an increase in social, economic and health outcomes. The community now had the resources to lower the percentage of water and hygiene-related illnesses, increase food and water independence, increase school attendance for children and increase productivity for adults, seeking work, without having to take time to filter or find clean water for their families.
Through successful sustainable development projects, resources are conserved and enhanced to empower communities to meet their needs, irrespective of their size or location. Like many sustainable development nonprofits, Green Dupatta’s international service delivery was significantly impacted by COVID-19 due to limitations with travel and in-person fundraising.
As a result, Ramprasad turned to her career as a special education teacher and utilized her knowledge to focus on a project that would directly help Toronto’s families and their schoolchildren.
Created as an emergency response to COVID-19 school shutdowns, Green Dupatta’s ‘Furnishing Minds’ project, “is based on a circular economy model in which slightly-used educational resources are redistributed to families in need.”
Since the program began in 2020, more than 1400 pounds of educational resources and curriculum-based materials have been redistributed within the Greater Toronto Area. Its success led to the project being formalized annually. Green Dupatta currently showcases free online guides to the Ontario curriculum, by grade level, for families looking for strategies to help their children’s academic growth and achievement.
Is Green Dupatta currently looking for more educators? How can people get involved?
I am always looking to expand my team! We are really lucky to have dedicated volunteers from a variety of different sectors and backgrounds. Nonprofit organizations can always use all the help they can get — we have general volunteers, event volunteers and sub-committee program volunteers. Anyone looking to get involved can directly message us on Instagram or our website.
What is your vision for Green Dupatta in the next five years?
In addition to co-creating new community projects and programs, I hope to continuously expand current Green Dupatta projects. With a larger team and additional funding, I would like to strengthen and scale our Furnishing Minds program, as well as increase our international presence, to fill needs and advocate for these communities. In order to build organizational capacity we are always looking to partner with like-minded individuals, businesses and other nonprofit organizations. In the past we were lucky to work with supportive organizations that provided valuable services, resources and expertise.
Outside of Green Dupatta and teaching, Ramprasad has a history of competing in pageants that reflect both her Indo Caribbean heritage and passion for service. She won the Miss West Indian Canadian pageant in 2015 and subsequently became the first Canadian representative at the Divali Nagar Queen Pageant in Trinidad and Tobago where she was awarded second runner-up. In 2020, she was invited to compete as Guyana’s representative in the Miss Face of Humanity Ambassador Search, an international event that showcases female changemakers from around the world. Ramprasad believes that competing in pageants offered, “a platform to educate others about my organization, and the importance of sustainable development as well as an opportunity to showcase myself as an individual capable and dedicated to carrying this torch.”
How was it representing Guyana on a global stage at the 2020 Miss Face of Humanity? What platform did you run on, and what message do you have for the next generation of Indo Caribbeans?
The Miss Face of Humanity competition was a unique experience for me as I was given the opportunity to represent both Guyana and the Green Dupatta Charitable Organization. I explored their intersection and looked at how my homeland and culture has impacted both my core values and philanthropic work.
Being part of a diasporic community is a uniquely beautiful, but also quite complex, place to be. All of our experiences are vastly different — some people feel deeply connected to their communities and some feel very far removed. Although there are many struggles that come from being once, or twice-removed, people are facing much different struggles in the places our ancestors called home.
My advice to the next generation of Indo Caribbeans is to remember that a diasporic community is very different from a local one. Although some of us may feel very connected to our communities and cultures as they are practiced abroad, we should make space to amplify the voices of our motherlands and remember to give back to places that have given us so much.
Ramprasad says juggling work and leading a nonprofit can be deeply taxing; often fielding criticism and making personal sacrifices. Nonetheless, she loves what she does and is eager to implement sustainable development practices around the world. Through these projects, communities are equipped with the techniques, tools and knowledge to uplift themselves. Ramprasad is forever grateful that she was drawn to a life of service and believes that it is of utmost importance to actively collaborate with communities in order to preserve the environment and improve the access to quality education.
To learn more about Green Dupatta, visit their website. You can follow Nirmala’s journey on Instagram @nrampsy.