Rep. Ro Khanna will be the first Indian American to chair the Indian Congressional Caucus

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Rep. Ro Khanna will be the next chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, he told NBC News in an exclusive interview last week. Khanna, a Democrat who has been representing California’s 17th Congressional District since 2017, is the first Indian American to lead the bipartisan caucus.

“When I started on this journey, when I was 20 years old, there was a great novelty in having someone of Indian origin even go into politics,” he said. “The Indian-American diaspora can play a very important role in helping to strengthen the US-India partnership. … I think this is a historic moment for our community. I think we’re really emerging and becoming a strong voice.»

The caucus was established in 1993 with the intention to strengthen relations between the US and India and was previously chaired by Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., and former Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio.

But as the first person of Indian descent to lead it, Khanna hopes to take the caucus further than its original goal. The Indian diaspora in the US has its own unique needs, she said, and the position could be an opportunity to bring them to the fore.

“I’m going to try to make it about not just us, India, but also about the American Indian community and highlight the contributions of that community,” he said. “I think being American Indian and being a part of the community, meeting a lot of the community leaders, learning about the passions and interests of the young people, I’ll be able to do that.”

Having spent much of his career in Silicon Valley in northern California, Khanna said he has been immersed in Native American issues for years. The rising tide of Hindu nationalism is something that is at the forefront of the collective consciousness of the diaspora; From professional spheres to college campuses, reports of Islamophobia and caste abound in South Asian spaces.

Khanna hasn’t shied away from such conversations, and his way of expressing himself in the past has provoked right-wing American Indian outrage. In 2019, 230 Hindu and American Indian entities wrote a letter to Khanna, criticizing him for denouncing Hindu nationalism (also known as Hindutva) and for advocating for religious equality on the subcontinent.

“It is the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand up for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and stand up for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Christians,” Khanna tweeted.

They also criticized Khanna for joining Pakistan’s Congressional Caucus and for speaking out against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s revocation of autonomy for the state of Kashmir.

«Of course, we have to abide by the strategic partnership and we have to respect the democratically elected leadership in India,» Khanna told NBC News. “I will work to strengthen that while also upholding these human rights values.”

As the aftermath of the pandemic continues to impact communities in the US and India, backlogs for green cards and tourist visas have been increasing for years. Khanna hopes the caucus can help alleviate that.

«We’re trying to figure out, how do we allocate the resources to address this problem?» he said. «But this is a priority for us.»

Indian children who came to the US with parents who had a work visa are beginning to face their own immigration issues. As they grow up and lose coverage on their parents’ visas, many are left without a clear path to citizenship. American Indian-led organizations like Mejorar el Sueño have spent the past few years lobbying the federal government to pass legislation to correct that.

“These H1B kids are like the Dreamers,” Khanna said. “There are children who came here when they were 2 or 3 years old. They have no citizenship. … Even though they have grown up their entire lives here, they are in a vulnerable position.”

With both Republican and Democratic representatives serving on the India Caucus, including Khanna’s co-chairman, Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., Khanna aims to mobilize bipartisan support to protect young adults who find themselves in this position.

Khanna held a town hall Saturday, raising awareness about the mental health of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the wake of the deadly shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, California. Although the shooters in both cases were Asian men, Khanna said they amplified a growing fear of simply existing in community spaces once considered safe.

With numerous high-profile acts of violence against Asians in recent years, members of the community feel more «distant» than ever from the United States, he said.

“We had a lot of communication with our office from constituents…people who are fearful, concerned, anxious to be an Asian American in the United States,” he said. “These shootings, even though the perpetrator was Asian American, I think they left many in our community feeling vulnerable.”

Khanna says taking on this larger role in the India Caucus feels like the culmination of generations of work in the public sphere. His grandfather Amarnath Vidyalankar spent his life fighting for India’s independence from British rule, even spending a few years in jail for the cause. Vidyalankar became a member of India’s first parliament after independence in 1947.

Growing up with this knowledge has shaped Khanna’s strong beliefs in equality and religious freedom, he said, something he hopes to bring with him as he presides over the caucus.

“Thanks to my grandfather, I was influenced by Gandhi’s thought, by Nehru’s beautiful speeches on liberal democracy, on pluralism,” he said. “Those are the values ​​I stand for. … I have spoken where I think those values ​​are being challenged.”

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