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US official forced to quit over provocative query on Hindus

Source: PTI
December 19, 2007 18:24 IST
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A Michigan official has been forced to quit after her provocative query on Hindus during a debate over planned expansion of a temple sparked outrage among the community.

Catherine Johnson, 71, stunned residents this month by claiming neighbours told her several women urinated outside Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Temple during its 2000 groundbreaking -- and asking whether it was some sort of ritual, the Detroit News reported.

The comments came during an emotionally charged meeting on Dec 3 about the $5 million plans to expand Hindu Temple of Canton, one of three in the community that serves Metro Detroit's growing Indian community, it said.

A defensive Johnson said she was quitting not because she said anything wrong but because she was asked to.

"It was a valid question. It was something that a few citizens contacted me at home about," she said, adding, "I try to ask questions about what citizens in the community would want to know."

But many Asian Indians said the question was an unfair characterisation of their culture and a lie. Others termed it as 'racist' and complained it underscored stereotypes about cleanliness in India.

"There is no ritual like that. Our religion says we are not supposed to urinate or spit in public. It desecrates other people's property just like in any other religion," Mukesh Patel, 56, was quoted as saying by the daily.

"It is a misconception and it's offensive."
 
The controversy comes as immigration from India has made the community one of Metro Detroit's largest ethnic groups.

Metro Detroit residents claiming Indian heritage jumped 25 per cent to 194,000 in 2000, and Canton Township is home to about 3,000 Indian families.

The Hindu temple's expansion plans have caused controversy because neighbours claim the project would look out of place next to 300,000 homes.

Members want to demolish the 20-year-old temple and build an ornate, 35,000-square-foot, double-domed replacement deeper on property at Cherry Hill near Canton Center. Planners delayed a decision this month.

Yack sought Johnson's resignation after reviewing tapes of the public meeting, which airs on the township's public access channel, and receiving e-mails from residents.

Rajeev Ramanan, a member of Hindu Temple of Canton, said the statements came from a fear of the unknown.

"It is hearsay to tar the Hindu community," Ramanan said, adding, "It is a borderline racist comment. It is ganging up against a community. For any race of women, that would be offensive."

Yack praised Johnson's service, but said her comments were 'off-track' and follow complaints about her being 'heavy handed and insensitive.'

"Cathy wants the best for Canton, but sometimes her approach and the words she selects don't always represent the way we had like to see her behave," he said, adding, "With speech comes responsibility. If she had not gone down this road she had still be sitting on commission."

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