By Vijaylakshmi Nadar
There is tremendous excitement as well as grave concern amongst the Indian community in the US, as names of several Indian Americans are being announced for key staff positions in the White House, by the newly elected US President Joe Biden and his team. Pressure is also being built on the Biden camp to weed out candidates who advance the ideology of extremist Hindu nationalist organizations from India, in the US.
Among those waiting in the wings is Amit Jani, the New Jersey based Outreach Director of Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI), during the presidential campaign.
Soon after his name was announced as the outreach co-ordinator for the Muslim community in November 2019, there was tremendous angst in the community, for his links with not only the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, but also Modi’s extreme right wing nationalist political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Several civil rights activists, South Asian progressive activists and protestors of the Donald Trump administration in the US and the Narendra Modi regime in India, launched a drive against him last year, when his name was announced for the post. In response, support for Jani, came from the international wing of the BJP, the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP), and its affiliates like the Hindu Swayamsevak (HSS), the international wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak (RSS), a Hindu militant organization in India and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF).
Amit Jani’s mother Deepti Jani, mobilized support from those owing allegiance to these organizations, garnering about 3000 signatures. The result of the outrage and subsequent support was that he continued in AAPI, but his role as the Muslim co-ordinator was re-assigned. He is probably in line for a key post in the Biden administration, triggering yet another round of protests.
These activists had first taken up cudgels against the first Indian American appointed by the then president Barack Obama’s closest advisory team, economist Sonal Shah in 2008. She was called out for her links with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), yet another strident Hindu extremist group, which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) declared as a terrorist organization in 2018, in their World Factbook.
She was the national co-ordinator for VHP America, to raise funds for the 2001 Gujarat earthquake victims, which was accused of helping only Hindu victims, not the Muslim victims.
Sonal Shah’s consistent support for Ekal Vidyalayas (a VHP-founded movement with the major objective of countering Christianity among Adivasis in India), had added to fears that she had not fully distanced herself from VHP’s intolerant, anti-minority ideology. Though she had launched a tirade that the target of the attack was actually the then newly elected first black President Barack Obama, also stating in her defence that she was unaware of VHP’s activities, she never on record denounced the aggressive Hindu nationalist agenda of the VHP.
Her father Ramesh Shah was the vice-president of OFBJP and had campaigned extensively for L K Advani, prime minister aspirant and architect of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, which has seared the Hindu-Muslim unity in the country like none other.
She was running for the post of energy secretary. But was moved to the office of social innovation and civic participation in the white house instead, following the outrage against her.
She too is back in reckoning for a key post in the Biden administration.
While Sonal Shah’s father was the vice-president of the OFBJP, Amit Jani’s father Suresh Jani, was the founder member and former president of the OFBJP. Both of Amit Jani’s parents are ardent supporters of the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, an unapologetically Hindu leader. His governance in the last six plus years has been the most destructive regime since Independence, targeting the Muslims, Christians and Ambedkarites, for political mileage, by not only abrogating articles of Indian pluralist constitution but also imposing unfair laws which caused the unleashing of violent pogroms targeting the minorities.
Just a few weeks before Amit Jani’s appointment in Biden’s campaign team, the Modi government thrust Kashmir under the most brutal, unlawful lockdown ever experienced in India, which is still in force since August 2019.
The lockdown besides the widespread unrest unleashed by the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) with plans to dump millions of unverified citizens and immigrants, even if they had been in the country for decades, into large, open prisons, being constructed in the outskirts, where they would be locked up for years, without a relief, has thrust the minority in deep fear.
Narendra Modi government’s relentless attacks on educational institutions, on dissenters, locking up several students, activists and protestors, some of who are well into their 80’s and sick, on frivolous charges without trial, has sparked off accusations of it being a fascist regime.
India, under Modi, is also witnessing one of the largest protests ever witnessed in the world, with millions of farmers parked on the borders of Delhi against the government’s decision to impose farm laws. Both farmers and experts have called these laws as being extremely detrimental to the interest of farmers. Farmers fear losing whatever meagre land holdings they have, if the laws are imposed.
So far around 70 farmers have died in the extremely harsh weather, in the last 55 days, while the government remains unmoved by their plight.
The world is watching shocked, with several international leaders having raised concern for the farmers. But the OFBJP, like the BJP leaders in India are busy trying to clear what they assume are “misgivings” amongst their supporters in the USA. On one hand are civil rights activists and citizens here raising concerns about the systematic breakdown of democratic values in India and on the other hand are organizations like the OFBJP, which is determined to paint a completely opposite picture of what really is happening in India. OFBJP and all its affiliates here, not only celebrated the so-called “friendship” of Trump and Modi, but had several meetings and discussions and counter protests, to defend the Kashmir lockdown, CAA/NRC and now the farm laws.
Amit Jani has been a part of these meets, not just as a participant, but as a speaker. As the outrage against his appointment gained momentum last year, he removed all social media evidence of his participation in these meets, except the ones of his meetings with Modi. A flyer listing Jani’s name as a speaker, in an event in New Jersey, celebrating the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy, along with several BJP leaders too has been removed.
He has also removed pictures of his participation in the much criticised ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston in November 2019, in which Modi had endorsed Trump, as the criticism against Modi gained momentum.
Amit Jani, when accused of his links with these extremist groups, took the “I am being victimised by the other side” approach, rather than denouncing his ties with these groups. He has never criticised Modi’s endorsement of Trump either, despite being on the campaign team against Trump or any of Modi’s anti-people policies, which is sinking the country to new lows everyday.
Several reports during the recent elections, confirming donations from these extremist Hindu organizations in the US, to several high profile candidates like congressman Raja Krishnamurthi, Padma Kuppa, former member of Michigan House of Representatives, congressional candidate Sri Preston Kulkarni besides presidential seat aspirant Tulsi Gabbard, have sparked off fears that these organizations are not only trying to infiltrate US politics, across the board, but on both sides of the political divide as well. This besides using their new found influence to whitewash the image of Modi internationally.
While there are fears amongst the democrats of losing the support of this moneyed, influential group of radical Hindus, if side-lined politically, there are few Indian origin politicians like Pramila Jayapal, Ami Bera and Ro Khanna, who have been openly critical of the Modi government in India, even at the risk of losing support from the Indian American community. Democrats under Biden looking to heal the country of the deep polarization that has happened under the Trump administration, cannot ignore the polarization that has happened in the Indian American community, with Hindu extremism gaining ground either. It does not bode well for US politics in the long run.
Under Modi loyalists here in the US, OFBJP has flourished and now has 22 chapters across the country, with about 500,000 members. HSS and HAF too have grown over the years, more so in the last six years, since Modi became the prime minister. This band of right wing loyalists have played a big role in creating the illusion of Narendra Modi being a tall leader in India and in the US. They not only raise donations for Modi but also actively campaign for him, despite being US citizens and US residents for several decades. OFBJP was in trouble recently when criticism against its activities was questioned. It was forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), after almost two decades of existence in the US. While its official website says it is “under construction”, its facebook too has removed details of when OFBJP was formed.
One of the members of OFBJP, Dev Karlekar too had posted in August, after Kamala Harris was chosen by Biden as his running mate, that “as Biden’s campaign is largely influenced by Pakistani Caucus, they suggested Kamala Harris from a historically blue state California,” – referring to the colour associated with the Democratic Party.
Karlekar also predicted that the move will derail Biden’s campaign as a sizable section of Indian American voters had moved towards the Republican Party “She (Kamala Harris) has zero reputation whatsoever among Indian-American voters and her record with black community is also poor,” Karlekar added. This post was later struck down by OFBJP, as Karlekar’s personal views. Since then the president of the OFBJP, Krishna Reddy also stepped down.
Jani’s critics say that his affinity to Modi and his policy is evident on his social media. Jani’s Facebook profile has a few photos of him with Modi. The latest photo posted is on Feb. 3, 2019, during Jani’s visit to India with his mother Deepa Jani. “Bittersweet meeting with Prime Minister Modi as he recounted stories about dad during their younger political activist days together,” Jani wrote..
In May, when Modi won the elections to serve a second term, Jani posted a collection of photos on Facebook and wrote, “Loved the energy and jubilation throughout the state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in the Indian national elections ! also giving credit to his mother Deepti Jani, for all the work she had put in for the BJP. All these posts are now deleted
Jani has in the past compared Obama and Modi too. “What I find most impressive amongst both leaders’ backgrounds is their humble upbringing and their ability to connect with the middle and working classes. Modi’s father was a tea-seller (not a verified fact), while Obama’s mother was an educator. Both parents were part of the working class, but were able to instill higher ambitions and dreams for their children,” he wrote.
Amit Jani, who is highly influenced by his Hindu right wing ideology practicing parents, besides his other close family members and friends, seems to hardly have any connection with other liberal Indian Americans, going by his social media profiles.
When Jani’s father passed away in May 2018, his family received a personal note from Modi, expressing his condolences. To honor what became a lifelong friendship, Modi recognized Suresh Jani’s contribution to the party, with a public award in 2003, as soon as Narendra Modi became the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi even stayed with Jani, when he first visited the US in 1997.
They kept in touch over the years, meeting in the US and in India, several times before he became a chief minister and after he became the prime minister.
Suresh Jani’s facebook profile has recorded all these details very lovingly. There are several pictures of Suresh Jani with senior BJP leaders like Nitin Gadkari, chief ministers of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, Vijay Rupani and Shivraj Chauhan respectively, with the notorious spokesperson of BJP Sambit Patra, and even with journalists like Rajat Sharma, known to be BJP mouth pieces.
Both Hindu nationalists and the contemporary Republican Party are unshamedly Islamophobic; both espouse conservative social beliefs and for both slashing taxes for the wealthy and corporation, by their respective governments is not even an issue..
In a Carnegie Endowment study detailing the political preferences of Indian Americans, 56 percent of them identified as Democrats, 22 percent as independents, and 15 percent as Republicans; 72 percent of Indian Americans planned on voting for Biden this election, while 22 percent responded with support for Trump. This steady support for Democrats, despite Modi’s endorsement of Trump, makes even the most hard core Modi supporter, a liberal here, to stay on the “right” side of power. The hypocrisy and dangerous precedent of which cannot be hidden or ignored for long.
Several activists groups, representing families who had grievously suffered from the VHP and the Rashtriya SwayamSevak Sangh (RSS) led pogroms against Muslim minorities of Gujarat in 2002, are now raising concerns over both VHP and RSS infiltrating US politics, by funding and influencing them.
The RSS, labelled by the CIA as a “nationalist organization” and a “political pressure group” is known to have infiltrated key government organizations, placing strategic government posts in India, in the last several decades. Now that RSS backed BJP is in power in India, all the institutions are now over run with RSS appointees. Fears that RSS is similarly trying to infiltrate government ranks in the US is therefore not unfounded.
These activists also include Christians, whose communities and places of worship are under constant assault by VHP, for no other reason than the faith they were born in. Several Hindus and human rights activists who have been fighting, often at risk to their lives against religious bigotry and violence being fanned by the VHP, the RSS and their various incarnations in India as well as in the US, first came together to demand a ban on Modi’s travel to the US in 2003, after he failed to stem the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.
The Gujarat 2002 pogrom had claimed over 2000 lives, massive destruction of property and businesses, causing a terror that still prevails amongst the Muslim community in Gujarat and the rest of the country. As a result of the advocacy, Modi’s diplomatic visa to the US was canceled and his tourist/business visa which had already been granted too was canceled. It was finally revoked only in 2014, when he became the prime minister. UK too lifted a ten year travel ban on him only in 2013.
OFBJP was forced to organize virtual meetings between their supporters and Modi twice in 2013, to campaign for him, as he aggressively pursued the prime minister’s post.
Even as efforts are made by Biden and his team to stem the rise of extreme right wing nationalism, they need to keep a close watch on the rise of extreme right Hindu nationalism movement on US soil as well, which threatens to splinter the Indian American community into two. This could eventually derail Biden’s plans for a united America.