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Opinion: The city that fell for a hoax

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - Mayor of Newark Ras Baraka speaks at the groundbreaking celebration for a new development in Newark, New Jersey on April 26, 2022.
Bennett Raglin
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NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - Mayor of Newark Ras Baraka speaks at the groundbreaking celebration for a new development in Newark, New Jersey on April 26, 2022.

Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark was gracious in January at a ceremony to make Newark "sister cities" with the "Hindu nation" of Kailasa.

"I pray that our relationship helps us to understand cultural, social, and political development," he said in a joint appearance at City Hall, "and improves the lives of everybody in both places."

However, the city has had to recently — how do the pundits put it? — "walk back" those comments after it was reported that Kailasa does not exist.

In fact, it's worse: Kailasa seems to be just a website and a scheme launched by Swami Nithyananda, a notorious fugitive from India, who has been trying to evade authorities since being charged with child abduction and rape in 2019.

Newark officials said in a statement that they now consider their sister-cities proclamation "groundless and void."

The revelation that Newark had joined hands with a non-existent nation inspired hoots from the left and right.

"How can an entire city get catfished?" Kal Penn, the actor who also worked for a time in the Obama White House, said while hosting The Daily Show. "There must have been so many red flags. The biggest one being that anyone wanted to be sister cities with Newark."

Penn is from Montclair, N.J., about 11 miles but a world away from Newark. Some might say people from Montclair shouldn't throw stones at Newark — especially since unlike Kailasa, Newark is real and someone could get hurt.

On the right, Jesse Watters on Fox News asked, "No one at the city council in Newark thought, 'Hey, I've never heard of this country. ... Let me just do a Google search before we get these guys into a room and make them our sister city.'"

Kailasa's website calls itself home to an "ancient enlightened civilization, the great cosmic borderless Hindu nation." I can see why someone in the urban hurly-burly of Newark's City Hall who may have searched "Kailasa" might read that line and think, "Sounds good!"

Newark's city government may have earned a little ribbing for being naïve. But I find something appealing in it, too. That Newark would say "Yes," without thinking it through too much strikes me as earnest and courteous. It's the hoaxer who deserves jeers, not the hoaxed.

And if Newark is still interested, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell them.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.