Rep. Suozzi partly walks back his stand on Kashmir even as some rally to support him

U.S. Congressman Tom Suozzi, third from left, at the 7th annual India Day Parade in Hicksville, N.Y., Aug. 4. 

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Support for U.S. Congressman Tom Suozzi (D.-N.Y.) appears to withstand the ire in some quarters, particularly among some Hindu Americans, following the lawmaker’s letter of Aug. 9 to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Kashmir.

In a statement on Aug. 15, Kalathil Varghese, vice chair of North Hempstead Democratic Party and chairman of North Hempstead Indian Association, said that “the Indian American community stands with Congressman Tom Suozzi, a true friend of India and Indian Americans,” pointing out that “we have known Suozzi for many years as a friend, ever ready to help the Indians in need.”

“He has always supported India and maintained a good relationship with the community-at-large,” Varghese added.”

“Unfortunately,’ he noted, “a group of people with vested interests attacked him for his letter voicing his concerns about Kashmir after the revocation of Article 370. As a U.S. Congressman, he has every right to express his concerns about situations in any part of the world.”

“Ignoring his track record, these people criticized his letter to Secretary of State Pompeo and demanded an apology,” Varghese said, and alleged, “Many of these people want to divide the community here to please their political masters in India.”
Varghese argued, “When candidates accept our campaign contributions, part of a political process here, that does not necessarily make them stooges to our whims and fantasies,” he said, and declared, “Many in our community have come to these shores with so much baggage of bigotry and prejudices, and let us not employ those feelings to polarize our community further.”

Varghese also said, “We express our regret for an incident that happened at the India Day Parade that was held in Queens on August 11th. An individual, who had no knowledge of the facts nor links to the organizing committee of the parade and moreover, not even a New Yorker, questioned the Congressman, even after he clarified his stand at a meeting with the community earlier on that day.”

The individual Varghese was referring to in his statement, was apparently Rajender Dichpally, national secretary-general of the Indian Overseas Congress (IOC), who confronted demanded he apologize publicly to the nearly 10,000 people in attendance and withdraw his letter to Pompeo. 

The controversy erupted almost immediately Suozzi’s missive to Pompeo became public, where he had insisted to America’s top diplomat that “Kashmir must become a major focus of the administration,” in the wake of the Narendra Modi government’s decision to revoke Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that provides for special status to Kashmir.

Saying that he was writing on the urging of “my Pakistani-American and Kashmiri-American constituents,” who he said “long brought the issue of Kashmir to my attention,” Suozzi, who represents the 3rd Congressional District in New York that includes parts of Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk Counties, all of which comprise of significant Indian, Pakistani and South Asian American populations, said in his letter that he was gravely concerned “over the current situation in Kashmir and Jammu—a potential flashpoint for conflict between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan, who have a long  history of tension and war.”

“Now,” he informed Pompeo, “I am concerned that Prime Minister Modi’s recent actions in Kashmir have contributed to tensions that are now higher than ever, and Kashmir must become a major focus of the administration.”

Suozzi warned that “This action by the Indian government risks provoking mass social unrest, as the people of Kashmir have long sought greater autonomy, freedoms, and the opportunity for self-determination,” and predicted that “these new restrictions on the autonomy of the state and the rights of Kashmiris could also embolden extremists and terrorists to act.”

He also wrote that “many experts warn that the Modi government’s move could embolden Hindu nationalists to engage in acts of violence and discrimination against India’s minority religious groups, including Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs, who are facing increasing attacks throughout the country.”

“We also must do all we can to help prevent a violent confrontation,” he added.

In the wake of the angry reaction to his letter especially among the Hindu Americans in the community, and community leaders in the New York area, led by Jagdish Sewhani, president of the American India Public Affairs Committee, Suozzi called for a community meeting to discuss the issue with “his friends in the Indian American community to listen to their concerns,” which was then held at the Apna Ghar Community Hall in Hicksville, N.Y. on Aug.11.

Consequently, late on Aug. 12, in a statement put out by his office, Suozzi apologized for not consulting with his friends and supporters in the Indian American community before sending off his letter to Pompeo.

Suozzi said, "I met with 100 of my Indian-American constituents regarding my recent letter to Secretary Pompeo expressing my concerns about recent developments in Kashmir."

"Based upon my meeting it is clear that it was a mistake to not consult with some of my Indian-American friends and supporters before I sent the letter. I should have. I am sorry. If I had met with them before sending the letter, I would have framed my concerns differently,” he said.

Suozzi continued, “Throughout my career in public service, I have been an ardent supporter of India, their sovereignty, and have always stood with them in their fight against terrorism,” and predicted, “The US-India relationship will be one of the most important over the next 50 years and beyond.”

“I have spent my time in Congress promoting and elevating this relationship and will continue to do so,” he added.

Meanwhile, a group called the Organization for Minorities in India (OFMI), founded in 2006 “to advance individual liberties of Christians, Buddhists, Dalits, Muslims, Sikhs, and all Mulnivasi people of South Asia by encouraging secularism, progressive human rights, liberation of oppressed peoples, and universal human dignity,” slammed the campaign against Suozzi carried out by Sewhani and other community leaders in New York.

Referring to Suozzi’ statement of apology of Aug. 12 where he states that “Moving forward, I will make sure to solicit the input of all of my constituents who have a vested interest in Kashmir,” Valmuci said, “Those who have a vested interested in Kashmir are Kashmiris,” and added, “We are shocked and saddened that Congressman Tom Suozzi allowed himself to be bullied into retracting his support for human rights by people who have a vested interested in pushing the RSS’s agenda. We encourage Rep. Suozzi, who is the son of an Italian immigrant father, to learn how the RSS was inspired by fascist movements like Mussolini’s and Hitler’s.”

OFMI said, “We applaud Rep. Suozzi for issuing the initial letter and plead with him to disavow extremist elements associated with India’s violent and fascist RSS paramilitary, a group which is responsible for pogroms and lynchings of India’s minorities. We remind him that Jagdish Sewhani, aside from being a key executive in the RSS’s international wing, is also a leader in Indian political groups like the OFBJP and thus a partisan figure who cannot speak for Indian-Americans as a whole.”

“We further remind Rep. Suozzi that the content of his letter harmonized with statements by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom,” it added.

USCIRF, in its 2019 report on the status of religious freedom in India, stated, “Over the last decade, conditions for religious minorities in India have deteriorated. “A multifaceted campaign by Hindu nationalist groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh… to alienate non-Hindus or lower-caste Hindus is a significant contributor to the rise of religious violence and persecution.”

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