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Can Congressman Ro Khanna Play the Role of a Legislator for All Seasons?

Can Congressman Ro Khanna Play the Role of a Legislator for All Seasons?

  • His newly elevated role in the India Caucus and his membership in Pakistan Caucus calls for balancing his progressive views with the imperatives of U.S.-India Relations.

California Congressman Ro Khanna’s recent appointment as the Democratic Vice Chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans has once again thrown the spotlight on the Indian American lawmaker. Khanna, 44, is considered a rising star in the progressive movement. He was a national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign. Khanna has not only made a mark for himself within the Democratic Party, but also on the national stage with his authoritative views on key issues ranging from foreign policy, national security, environment, commerce and manufacturing jobs. Considered an articulate analyst of foreign policy and security issues, in addition to being an expert on technology issues, Khanna is regularly invited by television networks and mainstream newspapers to offer his views. However, his defiant politics has often landed him controversies.

The position of vice chair has been created for the first time since the caucus was formed. The Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans is one of the most effective and articulate caucuses on Capitol Hill. Founded in 1993 by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and former Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), the caucus, with 120 members, is considered to be a full player in strengthening and improving the relationship between the U.S. and India. “I am looking forward to working with my good friend Ro Khanna, who will serve as Democratic Vice Chair of the Caucus next year,” Congressman Brad Sherman, Democratic co-chair of the caucus said in a statement sent to American Kahani. “The India Caucus will continue its important work to deepen the U.S.-India relationship, and I know Ro will make important contributions to this effort.”

Khanna’s new and elevated role in the caucus, however, comes with some challenges. He has his job cutout for him balancing his progressive views on secularism, human rights, minority rights etc., — which might conflict with the Hindutva agenda of the Narendra Modi government — with his responsibilities to promote and strengthen U.S.-India relations. It is by no means an easy task considering that Modi’s BJP government has taken a tough stand against U.S. lawmakers who have criticized its domestic policies.

Attack From Rightwing Hindu Americans

Despite being a strong supporter of U.S.-India relations, Khanna’s standing with the rightwing Hindu Americans has been anything but firm. Khanna, a practicing Hindu, has come under attack from Modi supporters who have accused him of betraying his Hindu identity. They objected to his joining the Congressional Pakistan Caucus last year, and attacked his defiant refusal to withdraw his membership and his perceived anti-Hindutva stand. In retaliation, they disrupted Khanna’s town hall in October last year, and also put up one of their own — Ritesh Tandon — to run against him on a Republican ticket in this year’s general election. Tandon, an entrepreneur, was promoted by a group of California Hindu Americans who founded a Hindu American Political Action Committee led by physician and community activist in the Bay Area, Dr. Romesh Japra. “Ro Khanna has not only failed our community but also has become [a] radical socialist thus ruining our American Dream!!!,” Japra wrote in a Facebook post this February.

A joint Hindu-Muslim delegation meets with Rep. Ro Khanna to thank him for rejecting Hindutva in October 2019. Meeting was held following RSS-affiliated protest against Hindu-American legislator. (Courtesy: Organization for Minorities of India, OFMI)

“I am unfortunate to see that a person working against India and the Indian people is vice-chair of the India caucus,” Tandon told American Kahani. “Ro Khanna, who is a Pakistan caucus member, has not done anything for minorities — Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, etc. who are tortured or kill or converted in Pakistan,” he said. Adding that Khanna’s “love for Pakistan is much more than that for India,” Tandon said Khanna met Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan during his U.S. visit, but “ignored” Modi when he visited the U.S.. “I don’t think he needs to be part of the India caucus when he has such hatred for PM Modi.”

Tandon said despite knowing that Prop 16 was “designed to create an education quota system that will impact Asian American children,” Khanna endorsed it “o grow his political career.” Tandon added: “I am very happy we defeated Prop16, which was my main campaign fight.”

In an article posted on Sept. 26, 2019 on Medium, Dr. Romesh Rao, a communications professor at Columbus State University wrote: “What is wrong with Ro Khanna? That is the question Hindu-Americans are asking, and for which, we believe, we have some answers: Ro Khanna wants to be considered a ‘progressive.’ Being a ’progressive’ in American politics, can mean anything, and the group can and does include all kinds of extremists, supremacists, violent anarchists, religious bigots, racists, anti-Semites, and Hinduphobes.”

However, Khanna’s rise within the Democratic Party and his popularity among his constituents is proof that his detractors have done little to hurt his reputation. He has been elected to the House of Representatives thrice consecutively from California’s 17th congressional district in Silicon Valley.

In a statement issued to American Kahani on behalf of Hindus for Human Rights, Raju Rajagopal, one of the founding members said that the group is confident that “as co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, Rep. Khanna will speak up for the rights and welfare of all communities in India and will stay true to his leadership in distinguishing Hindutva from Hinduism.” Rajagopal said that “the fact that his constituency voted overwhelmingly to re-elect him demonstrated that the power of the Hindu right in America is perhaps overstated; and if Indian Americans of all faiths come together and form partnerships with other minority communities, we can successfully defeat the dark forces of White nationalism and Hindu nationalism.”

Both Khanna, the youngest of the four Indian-American lawmakers in U.S. House of Representatives, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian American woman ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, have faced strong criticism from the right wing Hindu Americans for their policies to advance racial justice, poverty and inequality and their castigating the Modi government on it’s human rights violations in Kashmir and it’s citizenship laws.

“By working to bring both caucuses together, I hope it leads to the type of dialogue and creative thinking that may contribute to peace in South Asia. That is the hope for my generation and in my lifetime.”

Given this context, what remains to be seen is how Khanna manages to balance Modi’s Hindu policies with his progressive priorities. And how he will be perceived by the Modi government and its supporters among Indian Americans.

Khanna’s Defiant Politics

Last year, Khanna’s decision to join the Congressional Caucus on Pakistan and Pakistani Americans, raised eyebrows in some quarters of the Indian American community. The caucus, co-chaired by Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D.-Texas) and Jim Banks (R.-Ind.), is significantly smaller than the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans. 

Khanna then told India Abroad that “by working to bring both caucuses together, I hope it leads to the type of dialogue and creative thinking that may contribute to peace in South Asia. That is the hope for my generation and in my lifetime.”

A few months after joining the Pakistan caucus, he once again faced the ire of the Hindu American community. On Aug. 29, 2019, Khanna tweeted: “It’s the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist & Christians. That is the vision of India my grandfather, Amarnath Vidyalankar fought for.” 

He was replying to an Aug. 1 article published in Caravan by Pieter Friedrich which analyzed the history of Hindutva in the U.S. and its political allies. It mentioned Hawaii Congresswoman and 2020 presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard. Titled “All in the Family: The American Sangh’s Affair With Tulsi Gabbard,” the story documented how Gabbard’s early congressional career was heavily financed by leaders and members in American affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

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Khanna has never shied away from mentioning that his  commitment to public service was inspired by his maternal grandfather who was active in Mahatma Gandhi’s independence movement and had worked with freedom fighters like Lala Lajpat Rai, and spent several years in jail for promoting human rights.

His joining the Congressional Pakistan Caucus and the tweet prompted several Indian and Hindu organizations including the Hindu American Foundation to hand-deliver a letter to Khanna bemoaning his membership in the caucus, calling it “contrary to both American principles and our geostrategic interests in the Indian Subcontinent and the broader South Asian region.” 

According to a statement released by the HAF then, the letter urged Khanna to make “a formal statement for the Congressional record, highlighting the ethnic cleansing of 350,000 Kashmiri Hindu Pandits, who were driven out from their homes by Pakistan-sponsored terror Islamist militant campaign three decades ago.”

In an interview with India Abroad, a defiant Khanna asserted that he has absolutely no intention of withdrawing his membership in the Congressional Caucus. “I think it all stems from a naivete that they don’t understand politics. But it is really irrelevant in my district and that’s where my first priority is.”

While many Hindu Americans rejected Khanna’s call, there were a few progressives and anti-Hindutva activists supported him. Amar Shergill, an attorney, executive board member of the California Democratic Party (CDP) and chair of the CDP Progressive Caucus, in an op-ed in San Jose Inside wrote that Khanna’s statement “breaks new ground for South Asians and for all in the progressive movement. He is joining progressive South Asian Americans and our allies around the world in standing against oppression. His rejection of Hindutva encourages us all to embrace the principles of fundamental human rights that bind us together as Americans.”

Similarly, Arvin Valmuci of Organization for Minorities of India, in a press release, lauded Khanna’s courage in denouncing Hindutva. “As recent documentation published by Caravan shows, the RSS is not only involved in pogroms and massacres against Christians, Dalits, Muslims, and Sikhs in India, but it is also trying to cultivate politicians in America,” he said.

Earlier in February, speaking at a town hall at Santa Clara University, Khanna denounced India’s proposed National Register of Citizens as “absurd” and warned it could lead to “extraordinary discriminations against Muslims in India.” Answering a question posed at the Feb. 21 event, Khanna said that he has spoken out against both the Citizenship Act and also the National Registry. 

“The National Registry is absurd,” he said. “No country should have a national registry where they’re asking for people to give documentation and prove that they’re part of the country. I fear any kind of national registry could lead to extraordinary discrimination against Muslims in India. I’ve spoken out against the Citizenship Act, just like I’ve spoken out against the ban in our country, and I said, ‘You can’t discriminate against people coming into our country based on their religious faith.’ I don’t think India should be discriminating against who they’re going to give expedited citizenship [to] based on faith. I think both of those policies are wrong.”

Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.

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