Especially during Diwali, Hindus may decorate their homes or outside areas with swastikas to symbolize auspiciousness; some, like this one, are made on the ground out of rice flour.
(Photo/Courtesy Hindu American Foundation)
Especially during Diwali, Hindus may decorate their homes or outside areas with swastikas to symbolize auspiciousness; some, like this one, are made on the ground out of rice flour. (Photo/Courtesy Hindu American Foundation)

New state hate crime bill differentiates Hindu swastika from Nazi emblem

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When is a swastika not a swastika?

According to the Hindu American Foundation: always, because the swastika is the name of a religious symbol for the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain communities, while Hakenkreuz is the name of the Nazi symbol, a potent reminder of evil.

Samir Kalra
Samir Kalra

“This has been a misnomer that’s very entrenched, and it’s going to take a while to get past that,” said Samir Kalra, the Fremont-based managing director of the foundation.

Now the issue is getting a boost from Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, the state Assemblymember for the Lamorinda and Tri-Valley areas and a member of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus. She worked with the foundation to add new language to the hate crimes bill she introduced with Assemblymember Marc Levine earlier this year. The new wording decriminalizes the display of the Hindu swastika by differentiating it from the Nazi version.

“I am pleased that we were able to create air-tight language that is sensitive to these important cultures while at the same time ensuring that those who seek to terrorize in anyway will be held responsible and prosecuted,” Bauer-Kahan told J. in an email.

The introduction in March of Assembly Bill 2282 was motivated in part by the posting of pro-Nazi stickers in Marin County in November 2020.

The bill, which was sent to the Senate after passing the Assembly by a 73-0 vote on Thursday, aims to change hate crime laws by standardizing the punishment for using various “terror symbols,” such as nooses and burning crosses — and swastikas. It would also expand the list of places where the law is applied to include public parks, school campuses, places of worship and cemeteries, among others.

The new language added to the bill in May specifies: “It is the intent of the Legislature to criminalize the placement or display of the Nazi Hakenkreuz (hooked cross), also known as the Nazi swastika that was the official emblem of the Nazi party, for the purpose of terrorizing a person. This legislation is not intended to criminalize the placement or display of the ancient swastika symbols that are associated with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism and are symbols of peace.”

Rebecca Bauer-Kahan
Rebecca Bauer-Kahan

Said Bauer-Kahan: “In traditional Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions, the swastika has been regarded as a symbol of peace for thousands of years. Unfortunately, we know all too well that Hitler and the Nazi regime stole this symbol and used it as a banner of hate, murder and destruction, and subsequently by Nazi supporters who seek to terrorize our community.”

Because hate crimes require the state to show that the accused person had the intent to “terrorize,” taking the Hindu swastika off the list won’t materially affect any future hate crime prosecution.

The bill is expected to reach Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk by the end of summer.

In traditional Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions, the swastika has been regarded as a symbol of peace for thousands of years.

It’s a big deal, said Kalra. California is, as far as he knows, the first state to use clarifying language like this in legislation that affects criminal prosecution (there are states that have made the point in other contexts, he said).

“This is a situation where we’re actually trying to correct the penal code,” Kalra said.

Earlier in May, the foundation wrote to Bauer-Kahan in support of her bill, while suggesting the language be amended.

Just displaying a swastika of any kind, without the intent to intimidate or terrorize, is not in itself prosecutable. But there have been numerous occasions in which Hindus, Buddhists or Jains have faced negative consequences when displaying a swastika, according to Kalra. That might happen during the holiday of Diwali, for example, when people make rangoli, patterns using colored powder that often include swastikas. Some people hang swastikas at their front door for luck.

“Hindu residents in certain communities have to prove this is a peaceful symbol,” Kalra said.

That means many Hindus, Buddhists or Jains might think twice about using the swastika, despite its deep connection with their religion.

“It can have a chilling effect on religious freedom,” he said.

While the swastika is a symbol found across cultures and known for thousands of years, it was newly popular in Europe as a good luck symbol when Hitler hit upon it as his logo. Now in the U.S. it’s an almost universal symbol for fascism, neo-Nazism and white supremacy. But for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, the fact that a religious symbol has been co-opted by groups that spew hate is unacceptable.

The word “swastika” comes from the Sanskrit word “svastika,” which means “good fortune” or “well-being,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Hakenkreuz, or hooked cross, is the German word, but there’s no other word in English that refers to the symbol.

This makes it difficult for the Hindu American Foundation, which is working on a two-pronged approach to change laws and public opinion. They’d like people to stop using the word altogether in reference to Nazis, but Kalra understands that for many people, including the Jewish community, it’s impossible to slough off decades of trauma connected to the symbol.

“This is just the beginning of the process,” Kalra said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.