The Amit Jani controversy is likely a fallout of Biden-Sanders divide among South Asian Americans

Amit Jani, Asian American Pacific Islander outreach director for the Biden campaign, with former Vice President Joe Biden.

Amit Jani, who was appointed as the Asian American Pacific Islander outreach director for former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, has been facing the ire of Muslim and civil rights activists and South Asian progressives, for his family’s ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party. They claim that Jani is unfit to work on the campaign because of his alleged affinity to Modi and his party’s Hindutva agenda.

Though the Biden campaign has hired a new Muslim outreach coordinator and news reports claim that Jani has been relieved of his job, sources in the Biden campaign told India Abroad that Jani is very much on the job.

The campaign has named former Clinton aide Farooq Mitha, as the new senior adviser on Muslim American engagement. Mitha is a former Clinton aide as well as a founding board member of Muslim advocacy group Emgage, which endorsed Sanders last month.

While those calling for Jani’s resignation say that Jani’s role in the campaign could jeopardize Biden’s relationships with South Asian Americans, those supporting him say that it’s a targeted campaign against Hindu Americans. OFBP President Krishna Reddy Anugula believes that this is a “concerted effort to de-franchise the Hindu American community from the political landscape,” Alleging Hinduphobia, he along with other Jani supporters, including the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), allege that Hindu Americans in the political sphere have been targeted and have been asked to go through, what they call an “agnipariksha,” a purity test, “not for political endorsements, but to avoid political and character assassination.”

The Biden campaign refused to issue a statement to India Abroad on this controversy, but Gold Star father Khizr Khan, who endorsed Biden’s presidential bid last November, told India Abroad that Jani is a “good-hearted person.”

Khan is a volunteer with the Biden campaign, and has known Jani for a few years now. He said Jani is “an excellent organizer, and an excellent individual.” Calling it a sensitive time in the campaign, Khan, who described himself as a “private citizen,” said Jani’s family’s association to a political party in India or the U.S., hasn’t affected his work or has deviated from the mission of the campaign. Sources in the campaign told this correspondent that Jani never spoke ill of minorities, about the CAA, or any other cause.

Khan, whose son died while serving in Iraq and who got national attention after he rebuked Trump at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, is also campaigning for Biden among Muslim communities.

However, those who are calling for Jani’s resignation say that the Biden campaign has completely ignored what’s been happening in India against the new citizenship laws – the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Registry of Citizens. “Biden’s hiring of Jani is making a shame and mockery of all that’s happened in India,” Jaishree Abhichandani, founder of the South Asian Women's Creative Collective, told India Abroad. Her opinions echo with several others who are rallying against Jani.

Two petitions, which are seeking to get Jani fired, described Modi as a “right wing fascist” who has created several policies adversely affecting Muslims living in India.

‘We cannot have somebody who identifies with Modi’s Hindutva ideology and work for someone who is striving to achieve the pluralism and the multiculturalism that the Democrats represent,” Raju Rajagopal of the Hindus for Human Rights, told India Abroad. “The stakes are high at this time,” Rajagopal said, adding that his organization is on the right side of the campaign, with those who are demanding the removal of Jani. “We do not want someone with Hindutva-leaning policy to influence Biden’s campaign in any way,” he said.

On the other hand, another petition, signed by more than 3,000 supporters of Jani, decries the “McCarthyesque” tactic of removing Jani from his job, and describes criticism of Jani as Hinduphobic. “Amit has served the Asian American community with utmost dedication, and his record of service culminated in his appointment to the Biden campaign,” the petition says. “This targeting reflects McCarthyesque tactics that import polarizing politics from overseas into the American election campaign.”

Jani’s father, Suresh Jani, was a founder of the Overseas Friends of Bharatiya Janata Party (USA) and was sworn-in as its president at an inaugural meeting held in Nutley, New Jersey on Sept. 14, 2008. Suresh Jani and Prime Minister Modi were said to be old friends, and belonged to the same village. News reports have said that the two originally met at a meeting organized by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). When Modi first visited the U.S. in 1993, he is said to have stayed for several days at Suresh Jani’s home.

Hindus for Human Rights is among several organizations and individuals who signed an open letter published in the Medium. “To hire a supporter and friend of Narendra Modi opens the door to embracing anti-Muslim and Hindu nationalist politics,” the letter said. It further states that progressive Asian Americans and South Asian Americans “cannot stand by a candidate with relationships to fascists, here or abroad.” The letter says that “the AAPI community has been weathering attacks on our religious freedom, immigration rights, xenophobia, and increased hate crimes. Biden should be hiring an AAPI coordinator that can speak to all of our needs, not someone in bed with a violent Hindu nationalist movement.”

The letter is signed by over 30 organizations and individuals including Equality Labs, Alliance for Justice and Accountability, Alliance of South Asians Taking Action (ASATA), Amad Shaikh, founder and chairman, Board of Directors, MuslimMatters, Inc.; Asian American Writers Workshop, Council on Minority Rights in India, Bay Area Against Hindu Fascism, Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM), Desi Queer Diaspora, Indian American Muslim Council, Jeremy Siegman, lecturer on Social Studies, Harvard University, civil rights attorney Javeria Jamil, South Asia Solidarity Initiative, Stand with Kashmir, Students Against Hindutva, and Queens Against Hindu Fascism, among others.

Suchitra Vijayan, director of the Polis Project, a nonprofit that aims to amplify the voices that are unique, critical, remarkable and yet underrepresented, is among those voices asking for Jani’s resignation. “Having Jani, who has a long documented family history of supporting BJP, and who is an avowed Modi fan, as outreach is not only an affront to many Muslims in the diaspora who struggle with Islamophobia here at home in the U.S., but also have families back home that continue to face persecution,” Vijayan told the Religion News Service. “These are not the values any presidential candidate should embody, especially if you are running against (President Donald) Trump.”

Some members of the Muslim American community said that by hiring Jani, the Biden campaign is tokenizing Muslims. “There should be no space for those who normalize Modi," Ghazala Salam Qutubuddin, president and co-founder of the American Muslim Caucus, said in a statement. “The fact that the campaign has not dismissed this person shows the lack of empathy they have towards the pain and suffering of Muslims, not just here in America, but globally.” she said.

Similarly, organizations like the South Asian Americans Leading Together or SAALT have also issued statements calling on the Biden campaign to condemn Islamophobia and Hindu nationalist violence. “As a non-partisan organization (c3), SAALT is prohibited from taking positions about people who are either running for elected office and/or connected to political campaigns,” the statement said. Jani was a participant in SAALT’s Young Leaders Institute (YLI) in 2012. “South Asians holding positions of political influence must be responsive to the most critical issues in our community, including Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia. When it comes to hate violence and discrimination, neutrality is not an option.”

By hiring Jani, Biden has not only shown his ignorance on the atrocities done by the Modi government in India, he has completely ignored the vast, talented resources the community has to offier. “We have so many talented, resourceful and powerful people in the community that are so deserving of these positions,” Abhichandani said.

However, in an opinion piece for India Abroad, Suhag Shukla, executive director of HAF wrote: “So far, at least, the Biden campaign is making the right moves in retaining Jani’s portfolio, issuing Holi greetings and holding firm on no misstep vis-a-vis careless India critique.”

Referring to the criticism by Jani’s supporters, Rajagopal said the onus is on Jani to let the people know that if his philosophy is different. That is family’s association on Modi had no bearing on him. “The burden is not on us,” Rajagopal said, referring t those who are demanding Jani’s ouster from the Biden campaign. Meanwhile, Rajagopal makes it clear that his organization would not have an objection if Jani was moved laterally in the campaign and given a position that doesn’t need him to interact with the Indian American or South Asian community

Several of the anti-Jani activists have openly supported or endorsed Sanders. According to news reports, the visibility of Muslims in the Sen. Sanders' campaign has been one of the talking points of this election.

According to a Feb. 26 report in Newsweek, a national poll of Muslim Democrats released by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) just before primary season got underway, showed Sanders was the clear leader, with 39 percent support to Joe Biden's 27 percent. His campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, is a Pakistani American. Sanders campaign has focused on several issues, reportedly held dear by Muslim Americans, including Islamophobia, income inequality and foreign policy.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Muslims and Islamic organizations too have sought out Sanders, inviting him to talk to their communities, praising his policy positions and offering endorsements. “Many have taken to social media to show their support, using the hashtags #Muslims4Bernie and #InshallahBernie,” the Sept. 29, 2019 report said.

On the other side of this debate are Jani supporters who have also issued a petition and showed their support on social media as well. They believe that Jani has been caught in what they describe as a “political smear campaign,” and that the minority activists and the progressive South Asian left, have take the charge to import politics from India into the mainstream U.S. landscape.

“This needlessly divides the community,” Rishi Bhutada, a Board member of the Hindu HAF told India Abroad. “Right now it is time to focus on issue that matter to us in the U.S., instead of participating in divisive politics.”

“This is an unfair treatment of Jani, just because of his family ties with Modi and the BJP,” Reddy said. He said Jani is neither an office bearer with the OFBJP, nor his he active with the organization. “He may have attended a few events,” Reddy said, “but that doesn’t mean he should be targeted.”

Those who support Jani wonder how clicking a photograph with Modi can translate to a total support. Others are of the opinion that Jani shoudn’t be held accountable for his family’s close ties with Modi and the BJP.

Jani has support from Indian Americans Muslims as well. “Amit Jani has been a great friend to the Muslim community,” New Jersey-based businessman Abid Islam wrote in a Facebook post after the controversy broke. “He has never failed to help whenever I have reached out to him regarding Islamic issues.”

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. “Proud to know Suresh Jani did such great work to help the Indian community back home in India and new immigrants here in the United States.”

There is also a photo of Suresh Jani meeting Modi in India in September 2015. Jani is also have said to have met Modi during his visits to the U.S. There are photos of Jani with Modi, including after Modi’s reelection victory and during the “Howdy Modi” event in Texas.

According to a report in the Religion News Service, Jani’s name also appeared on an event listing in New Jersey last year that celebrated the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy. According to the report, the event flyer had listed Jani has a speaker along with several others from the BJP.

Jani also wrote about Modi’s U.S. visit in 2014. In an article in the Huffington Post titled “Indian PM Visit, Election, Energizes Indian-American Youth,” he said: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been called many things, among them a reformer, visionary, catalyst for a new Indian era, and even a saint.”

Jani recalled Modi’s visit to his home. He also compared Modi’s popularity among Indian American youth to President Barack Obama’s voter base. “Perhaps what has enabled the American people and Indian American youth to connect with Modi is a sense of the shared values of democracy, between that of the oldest democracy in the world and that of the largest.”

He continued: “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, 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. “Dreams that came to fruition with hard work, a keen understanding of the issues facing the general public and the ability to address challenging problems. Perhaps what has enabled the American people and Indian-American youth to connect with Modi is a sense of the shared values of democracy, between that of the oldest democracy in the world and that of the largest.”

Apart from working in Murphy's administration, Jani was formerly the director of the AAPI Outreach for New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s campaign. Jani has worked with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and as a congressional aide for Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) and Congresswoman Judy Chu. He is also an APAICS Legislative Fellow alum while serving in Chu's office in 2014. Other capacities Jani serves is South Asians For America (SAFA) co-chairperson, school board member at the Hudson County Schools of Technology in New Jersey, president of the New Jersey Leadership Program, and a board member of the New Leaders Council and Act to Change.

Upon becoming the director of Biden's AAPI outreach, Jani said, “It’s an honor to join a candidate in Vice President Joe Biden, with whom the Asian American Pacific Islander community can trust to represent and reflect the community’s values and principles." In a previous interview, Jani had said he liked Biden because the latter was more centrist. Jani felt that he was more in line with the centrist-leaning South Asian community, a minority in the U.S."

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