Amit Jani and Sonal Shah were part of Democratic presidential campaign team but their names are missing from the list of nearly 20 Indian Americans in the new administration
Vijaylakshmi Nadar | Clarion India
WASHINGTON — Two prominent names are so far missing from the list of nearly 20 Indian Americans included in the administration of President Joe Biden. Amit Jani and Sonal Shah have been part of the Biden campaign team. Ideally, they should have found places in the new administration. But their links with Hindutva organisations are said to have worked against them.
Ahead of Biden taking over on January 20, pressure was building on the new president to weed out candidates who advance extremist ideology.
Soon after Amit Jani’s name was announced as the outreach coordinator for the Muslim community in November 2019, there was tremendous angst in the community, for his links with not only Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but also with Modi’s extreme right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its parent organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Several civil rights activists, South Asian progressive activists and critics of the Donald Trump administration in the US and the Narendra Modi government in India, launched a drive against him, 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 RSS, and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF).
Amit Jani’s mother Deepti Jani, mobilized support from those owing allegiance to these organizations, garnering about 3,000 signatures. The result of the outrage and subsequent support was that he continued as Outreach Director of Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI), but his role as the Muslim co-ordinator was re-assigned.
Economist Sonal Shah is another person whose name raised eyebrows in the civil rights circles. She was the first Indian American appointed by the then president Barack Obama in his advisory team in 2008. The activists 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 coordinator for VHP America to raise funds for the 2001 Gujarat earthquake victims. The VHP 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 claimed 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, the architect of the campaign that saw the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992.
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.
Currently India is witnessing one of the largest protests ever witnessed in the world, with thousands of farmers parked on the borders of Delhi against the government’s decision to impose farm laws that apparently favour corporates. So far around 150 farmers have died in the extremely harsh weather, in the last 60 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 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 in the US, 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.
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. 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 account too has removed details of when OFBJP was formed.