- Lawmakers, judges, diplomats, entrepreneurs and community leaders pay tribute to his path-breaking work in chronicling the community for over three decades in India Abroad.
Elected lawmakers, diplomats, political activists, lawyers, physicians and journalists came together virtually on Aug. 18 to honor Aziz Haniffa, former executive editor of India Abroad. In a long career spanning more than three decades at the oldest and largest Indian newspaper in the United States, Haniffa covered a wide range of stories from politics to profiling trailblazing Indian Americans to community events. India Abroad, which began in 1970 by Gopal Raju, ceased publication in early April this year, after 50 years.
Speaker after speaker lauded Haniffa for being a chronicler of the community, for giving Indian Americans a platform to tell their stories and amplifying their voices. Some called him “a living legend,” and a “a bridge builder,” while others highlighted his work, which contributed to strengthening U.S.-India relations and helped people understand the goings on within the community in the U.S.
It was in the pages of India Abroad that several of the speakers were featured, right from the beginning of their careers, chronicling their rise, and that of the Indian American community. Over the years, Haniffa formed a deep friendship with all of them. And the laurels they heaped on the veteran journalist and the anecdotes they shared were a testament to that friendship and to Haniffa’s friendly demeanor. Speakers were quick to point out that despite his warmth and friendly nature, Haniffa was a thorough journalist, and often asked hard questions.
Many joked about how Haniffa’s stories on them helped them rise in the eyes of their parents and relatives, despite not opting for a career in medicine. Cleveland, Ohio-based attorney Subodh Chandra, in his tribute, did a brief imitation of Haniffa, and recalled how he would always call for a “few quotes.”
The virtual felicitation was hosted by Indiaspora, along with the South Asian Journalists Association. The first part of the evening was moderated by Sree Sreenivasan, co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association, while the second half was moderated by Sanjeev Joshipura, executive director of Indiaspora.
Haniffa is the first and the only South Asian journalist to do back-to-back exclusive interviews with President G.W. Bush and his Democratic challenger John Kerry during the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2004. He was the only South Asian print journalist to be a member of the White House press delegation which accompanied President Bill Clinton during his visit to South Asia in 2000.
However, Haniffa, who made a name covering Indian Americans in D.C. and across the U.S., is a native of Sri Lanka. He came to the U.S. in 1980 to pursue a Masters at George Washington University. After graduation he joined India Abroad and worked with the paper till it closed.
The felicitations began with Richard Verma, the former U.S. Ambassador to India, who talked about his association of over 25 years with Haniffa. “Over the years, Aziz has bought us stories of spelling bee champions, argonauts and leading politicians,” Verma said. “He is as comfortable sitting with presidents and prime ministers as he is with newly arrived immigrants and shopkeepers,” Verma said, adding that Haniffa “thrives on telling the stories of other people, not himself, and that’s what makes him so special, so unique, and integral to our community.”
India’s Ambassador to the U.S., Taranjit Singh Sandhu, in a recorded message, praised Haniffa for being the most popular journalist and covering a wide range of topics in India Abroad, with the “Aziz Haniffa masala.”
Congressman Ami Bera and Ro Khanna, both of California, also spoke about their association with Haniffa and wished him the best for the future.
M.R. Rangaswamy, founder of Indiaspora, spoke about the time he first met Haniffa in 2013, and fondly remembered their association since then.
Participants at the felicitation were a reflection of Haniffa’s work and the friendships he built over the years. Women speakers credited him for giving them a voice, a platform to showcase their achievements and honors; while members of religious groups acknowledged his unbiased reporting and those from the LGBTQA community thanked him for being the first South Asian journalist to write about them and in turn inspire others to tell their stories.
Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights credited Haniffa for being “a key player in growing desi political power in D.C. and across the country.” Priya Dayananda, executive director of Federal Government Affairs at KPMG and Anurima Bhargava, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recalled their longtime association with Haniffa and how he highlighted their work and career.
Mini Thimmaruaju, executive director, diversity and inclusion at Comcast NBCUniversal, said that as former Hill staffer, Haniffa “helped elevate the kind of work we do and made it really serious.” Thimmaruaju said that reading stories about other South Asian American women that Haniffa wrote, “made me realize I could have a bigger bolder career.”
Some of the others who honored Haniffa included Judge Sri Srinivasan, Chief United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and his wife, Alice Chen; FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, Donald Camp, a retired senior Foreign Service official; Sonal Shah, former National Policy Director for Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign; Nisha Biswal, president of the U.S.-India Business Council; Sekhar Narasimhan, chairman and founder of the AAPI Victory Fund; Varun Nikore, president of the AAPI Victory Fund; Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT); Kumar Barve, member of the Maryland House of Delegates; Harin Contractor of the Washington Leadership Program; Ashley Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Suhag Shukla, executive director and co-founder of Hindu American Foundation; Kaleem Kawaja, executive director of the Association of Indian Muslims of America; and Dr. Rajwant Singh, president of EcoSikh.
Bhargavi immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and has worked with Indian American media since then in various capacities. She has a degree in English literature and French. Through an opportunity from Alliance Française de New York, Bhargavi taught French at Baruch college for over a year. After taking a break and two kids later, she went back to work in the Desi media. An adventure sport enthusiast, in her free time, she likes to cook, bake or go for hikes, biking and long walks.