Pakistani Americans, a Biden rally and the Modi supporter who organised it
On Friday, Joe Biden's presidential campaign held a rally for Pakistani Americans to mark both Pakistan's Independence Day as well as ramp up support for the Biden-Harris ticket heading into the November election.
The "Community fired up for change" event featured former presidential nominee Andrew Yang; Qasim Rashid, Democratic nominee in Virginia's 1st congressional district; Ashley Allison, national coalitions director for the Biden campaign; actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani; and writer Wajahat Ali, among others.
Organised by the Biden campaign, the call was mostly an attempt to energise Pakistani-American support for Biden.
'lt left me feeling flustered to the point that I questioned the intent and sincerity behind this virtual event'
- Event participant
South Asians, particularly Indian Americans, have been teeming with pride since Biden announced Senator Kamala Harris as his VP running mate.
"This is arguably the first-ever Pakistani American event hosted by a presidential campaign," Dilawar Syed, Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI ) Victory Fund co-founder and convener, said as he opened the event.
But during the 90-minute call, there was no discussion of any of Biden's proposed policies, be it local or foreign, nor were there any questions raised on the type of changes that Pakistani Americans can expect from Biden.
There was light contemplation on racism in the US following the brutal killing of George Floyd, an outline of President Donald Trump's failures addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, and the importance of representation in American politics.
But as the call went on, with panellists repeatedly lauding the Biden campaign for hosting an event in their honour, some participants could not get over the fact that hovering in the background of the call was Amit Jani - an Indian American who has championed Narenda Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister of India.
'Insulted the intelligence of the Pakistani community'
"I understand why he's involved to some extent with planning because of his title and position, but I do think it was unnecessary for him to be on the call," Fatima Khan*, who attended the event, told Middle East Eye.
As the Biden campaign's Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) outreach director, Jani has never disavowed his links with Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party.
Gulbadan Bukhari*, another participant on the call, said she was in shock when she received a confirmation email from Jani following her registration.
"It insulted the intelligence of the Pakistani community to receive emails from Amit Jani prior to the call and that he was present on the call.
"lt left me feeling flustered to the point that I questioned the intent and sincerity behind this virtual event," Bukhari said.
Jani was originally Biden's Muslim outreach coordinator. Following a public outcry as well as reported discord within the Democratic Party, Jani was replaced by Farooq Mitha, a former Department of Defense staffer and Hillary Clinton's Muslim outreach coordinator during her 2016 presidential campaign.
Jani's continued presence on the Biden campaign has angered Muslim Americans who believe he is an openly sympathetic Modi supporter and insensitive to the plight of Muslims and other minorities living under the Hindu nationalist government.
In April, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) downgraded India to its category of greatest concern because it “tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom".
While the USCIRF is a body without the power to implement recommendations, it was a diplomatic embarrassment for the Indian government which called the report "biased" and a "new level of misrepresentation".
Who is Amit Jani?
The Jani family has a relationship stretching back decades with the BJP party as well as with Modi.
According to several news reports, Jani's late father, Suresh, came from the same village as Modi, and they originally met at a meeting organised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu paramilitary organisation that was modelled on fascist movements in Germany and Italy in the 1920s and 1930s.
Suresh Jani became one of the founders of the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) in the United States. Modi was a guest at their home in New Jersey in 1993. There are numerous photos of Jani celebrating Modi's re-election in 2014 on social media and he was also a key organiser of an event celebrating India's revocation of Kashmir's semi-autonomy in August 2019.
"I think Biden's campaign needs to understand how poor of a choice it was to select someone with such close ties to the right-wing Hindu fascist government"
- event participant
"I think Biden's campaign needs to understand how poor of a choice it was to select someone with such close ties to the right-wing Hindu fascist government as their AAPI outreach," Khan added.
During the call on Friday, one participant sent a question through the chat app on Zoom: "Can you all address Amit Jani (organiser of this event) and his support of Modi?" But no one from the campaign replied.
Neither Amit Jani nor the Biden campaign replied to Middle East Eye's requests for comment.
"It is frustrating as an American Muslim. Even after we have voiced our concerns about a Hindu nationalist on the Biden team, he is not even being sidelined from Muslim American events for Biden," Mohamed Sikander, a community organiser in New Jersey, told MEE.
"The Biden campaign is counting on Muslim support in many battleground states, but their lack of response when it comes to addressing our concerns is being noted.
'Pakistani American outreach is an afterthought'
Muslims make up little more than one 1 percent of the US population, but their relevance in US politics is growing. Whereas Pakistani Americans make up two percent of the Asian American population, Indian Americans make up 19 percent of the community.
With so many Indian Americans living in battleground states, the Biden campaign is hoping its efforts will appeal to the community in a bid to undercut Trump, who also enjoys popularity among Indian Americans given his closeness to Modi.
And given that Trump has repeatedly defended Modi's record on religious tolerance, even as anti-Muslim pogroms broke out during a visit to India earlier this year, Muslim Americans say the scene has been set for Biden to follow in the same vein.
"Jani's presence demonstrated how politically entrenched Indian American support for the Hindu right-wing is within American politics - be it Democratic or Republican parties," Khan, who was on the call, said.
"There is this weird dynamic going on where it looks like Pakistani American outreach is an afterthought and being dictated by Indian American concerns."
Risk to campaign
Likewise, Sadaf Haider, a Pakistani-American journalist based in Texas, said the Biden campaign's inability to disavow Jani and his known ties to the fascist paramilitary RSS organisation could prove damaging for Biden.
"While Farooq Mitha may be a sincere advocate for Biden and Muslims, he has not been able to allay suspicions and has failed to follow up on queries about this matter because it seems his hands are tied. This is something the higher levels of the Biden campaign must address," Haider told MEE.
Mitha himself has come under scrutiny from Muslim Americans, who say the campaign has been undermining Palestinians, too. In June, several Palestinian-American activists staged a virtual walkout of a meeting with Mitha, accusing him of failing to take their concerns seriously.
"We are being told we should be grateful that Biden is even recognising the Palestinian conflict. This is not how you get people to believe in your candidate. We are basically being told: 'It's either us or Trump, and if you don't vote for us, it will be your fault'," Jinan Shbat, a Palestinian-American organiser, told MEE at the time.
To mark India's independence on Saturday, the Biden campaign held a completely different type of event for the Indian-American community.
Following a pre-recorded message from both Biden and Harris, the campaign invited panellists including Anthony Blinken, the Biden campaign's national security adviser; Sonal Shah, whose family has a long association to Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu organisation; and Ajay Jain Bhutoria, an entrepreneur close to the Biden campaign.
There was no community representation from Indian Muslims.
Bhutoria, whose social media account boasts photos with Biden, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Modi and Ram Madhav, the national general secretary of the BJP in India, told reporters in 2016: "Trump has created conflict between Hindus and Muslims... Indians and Pakistanis in the USA. We left these kinds of religion-based politics back in our home country."
Journalists who watched Biden and Harris speak on Saturday noted that nothing was said about rising Hindu nationalism, intolerance or fascism in India.
"Worth noting in all this is that Biden and Harris are talking about US-India relations and the world's biggest democracy... all while the Indian government under Narendra Modi has systematically tried to deny Muslims citizenship and placed Kashmir in a complete blackout for months," Deepa Shivaram, a journalist with NBC, said.
*Some names have been changed to protect the identities of those who attended the call.