New Jersey’s Fake Sister

The United Kingdom and the former Soviet Union were two very different nations. They were separated by different languages, different political systems, and physically, by a continent. But during World War II, their citizens found themselves with a lot of commonality. Not only on the same side of the war but also living through similar conditions. In 1940, German planes were bombing England, while Russia’s relations with Germany relations were tenuous. This put everyday civilians in both nations in harm’s way. After Germany began bombing Coventry, England in 1940, the mayor of Dover decided that misery loves company; he reached out to the government of the Russian city of Stalingrad, sharing the misery his people were experiencing. After Germany invaded Russia, the two cities sent messages of support to each other, and in 1944, they made this relationship official: Dover and Stalingrad became “twinned towns” or “sister cities” of one another, creating a concept that has lasted for nearly a century since.

Today, the concept and tradition of establishing sister cities still exists. It’s mostly nonsense — if your city pairs with another, you don’t get any tangible benefit from it — but the thought is a nice one; sister cities exist to promote the idea that even though two communities may be very different, we can enjoy each other’s differences and also find commonality as fellow humans. The tradition is very common, at least in the United States; each state has a city that claims at least one sister abroad. Some U.S. cities have multiple siblings; for example, Newark, New Jersey, claims 14 such relationships

And for a few weeks last March, that number was one higher. But only because, apparently, the Newark City Hall doesn’t have Internet access — or, at least, no one who decided to use it.

Newark’s sister cities include Freeport, in the Bahamas; Ganja, Azerbaijan; Monrovia, the capital of Liberia; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Xuzhou in China. That’s a diverse group that spans the globe, but Newark is always looking to make even more friends. In early 2023, delegates from the Hindu city-state of Kailasa (here’s a map) approached Newark about establishing a sister city relationship, and the Newark government was interested. None of its current twins are from predominantly Hindu nations, and this seemed like a great opportunity to broaden Newark’s cultural exchange posture. 

There was only a problem, as anyone who clicked that “here’s a map” link already may have figured out: Kailasa didn’t exist. Rather, it’s the brainchild of a wanted man.

In 2010, a Hindu guru and cult leader named Nithyananda was accused of sexual assault; a few years later, he was also accused of abducting children. He was arrested in India and, rather than stand trial, Nithyananda fled the country and went into hiding — some believe he’s in Ecuador because India and Ecuador do not have an extradition treaty, but there are also reports that he is in or has been to Nepal and Trinidad and Tobago. But if you were to ask Nithyananda where he is (if you can find him), he’d say he’s in Kailasa. It’s a nation he made up — it even has a website outlining its constitution, documenting its fictional history, and establishing its credibility with the world by showing off its “certificates of recognition” from other governments. The reason Kailasa wanted to pair up with Newark was to help Nithyananda demonstrate that his fake nation was the real deal.

Newark’s officials had no idea, and on January 12, 2023, held a signing ceremony (which you can watch here, and yes, that link is actually real) uniting the two forever. Well, for six days. Ultimately, someone looked up to see where Kaliasa was, and realized, it wasn’t anywhere — the city had been duped. At a city municipal council meeting on January 18th of that year, the city rescinded the sisterhood (see page 22 here). According to CBS News, the mayor’s office stated that “based on this deception, the ceremony was groundless and void.”

Except for the embarrassment, thankfully, no other harm befell Newark. Per CBS News, “Newark City Hall insists no money was exchanged in this deal to become sister cities” — there was just a lot of egg on everyone’s face. 

Bonus fact: One of Newark’s (real) sister cities is Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. It’s the only capital city, other than Washington, D.C., named after an American president — in this case, after James Monroe. But that’s not for the best of reasons. In 1816, a group of white Americans, believing that freeborn blacks and emancipated black slaves could not integrate into American life, formed the American Colonization Society (ACS). The mission of the ACS was to resettle the black population in Africa. It was controversial even at the time but generally seen as a black-friendly policy (Abraham Lincoln, for example, was considered a supporter.) And it was not wholly unsuccessful. Some blacks volunteered to be resettled by the ACS, which created a private colony in what is now Liberia in 1822. In 1847, the colonists declared themselves independent, establishing the Republic of Liberia. They adopted a very American-looking flag and named their capital after President Monroe (and ACS supporter) as a sign of thanks for the support of their former nation.

From the Archives: The First American Flag Was Very British Looking: 13 stripes, but no stars.