For years, communities of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalese, and Sri Lankans have lived in relative harmony in the U.S., occasionally staging protests before the United Nations or the White House to show support for their respective countries of origin on one issue or the other; Sometimes joining up against issues like hate speech, hate crime, and bullying.
Now the disagreement or distance between Indian and Pakistani-origin Americans has jumped up a few notches following comments made in a town in New Jersey by a political leader of Pakistani descent. And predictably, it relates to Kashmir, the most emotional subject that could upend the relative calm.
To their credit, both sides are attempting to tamp down rhetoric.
The latest flare-up happened when a Pakistani- American politician in New Jersey raged against India and called for diaspora Pakistanis to do something about it.
Edison Township Planning Board member Sam Khan, who is also the chairman of the American Muslim Council, delivered a fiery speech using the ‘J’ word, one that, for mainstream Americans, evokes 9/11 and post-9/11 violence, despite attempts by Muslims to clarify the meaning.
In the speech, posted on Facebook Aug. 26, 2019, Khan thanks people for coming at short notice, and then goes on to say, “Our duty as Pakistanis, as a Musalman, or all those Muslims living overseas,” the faith instructs that, “If you see evil (burai) happening, you must do jihad against it. If you can’t do jihad, then use your hands and your tongue to oppose it.”
To loud applause, Khan urged those present to inform neighbors, elected leaders etc. on what is happening in Kashmir. A panel of speakers followed him.
Khan’s comments could have broken the peace that had hitherto existed between Indian-Americans and Pakistani-Americans in Edison, a city that has a large number of South Asians and where organizations with “South Asian” in their name, flourish.
On Sept. 5, Indian-American candidate for the U.S. Senate Hirsh Singh, a businessman who hopes to win Sen. Cory Booker’s seat, got into the fray, along with the South Asian Republican Coalition, SARC, to hold a press conference in Royal Albert’s Palace, Fords, New Jersey.
The rationale for the press conference was laid out in the press release. It was being held for “decrying the recent hate-filled and anti-Indian-American rhetoric of Democrat Edison Planning Board member and American Muslim Council Chairman Sam Khan.”
The list of invitees included representatives from organizations that traditionally oppose each other, such as the Indian National Overseas Congress, INOC, and the Overseas Friends of Bharatiya Janata Party.
According to sources who were present at the press conference, there were about 180 people who showed up. And Singh told News India Times, members of the different organizations came to the meeting.
“Calls for Jihad made in another language — in Urdu — at an American Muslim Council Meeting is dangerous and disturbing,” Singh said in his speech at the press conference, a copy of which he sent to News India Times. “We have all seen multiple occurrences of violent Islamic terroristic behavior across the world forcing America sends (sic) it’s sons and daughters abroad to combat this Radical Islamic Terror,” Singh added.
Other speakers included Hemant Bhatt and Sridhar Chillara, co-founders of South Asian Republican Coalition, a breakaway group from the Indian-American Republican Coalition.
Khan told News India Times he believed his comments had been misinterpreted. “They took my comments in a different context. They twist the word ‘Jihad’ – I was saying it to mean, raise your voice. If you Google the word Jihad — it means ‘struggle against,’ but in America after 9/11, it is given a different interpretation,” Khan contended.
Alok Kumar, president of the Tri-state chapter of the Federation of Indian Associations which represents more than 100 organizations in that region, told News India Times, he was late for the press conference but went to the event.
“America comes first. We have to think of our home, we should live in harmony here , and should not get super-excited about what happens back home,” Kumar said, adding, “We live in New Jersey where people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh live -we should take care of our neighbors. One can talk in a civil way. We should not ignite something that will have an impact back home.”
Ankur Vaidya, board member of FIA tristate, indicated South Asians needed to prioritize issues. “Nobody cries foul about redistricting in the U.S., in Manhattan, and we are disputing international boundaries, or attacking a sovereign nation (India) handling its own internal affairs within its own borders?” Vaidya questioned. “How does that impact you here? Are your children affected? Do you have to change their schools? If anything, we should be uniting to help the people devastated by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas,” he asserted.
Khan in his defense, told News India Times his past record showed, “I am the only person within the Indo-Pak community who tries to bring the communities together, to build bridges between communities.”
Khan also said, “If people get offended by the word ‘jihad’, I apologize to them. I should not have used that word.”
Khan also released a formal statement (A man’s promise cannot be judged by his words for the future. His promises can only be judged by his actions in the past. For over a decade, Sam Khan has embodied his words of peace and harmony for people of all faiths and all origins into his actions. He has single handedly brought people together in times of crises, year after year at so many forums, public and private. The attempts to discredit his selfless work and stifle his voice for the oppressed people of Kashmir will not and should not succeed, even if he stands alone. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been sent back to ‘where he came from’ if justice was left to the hate and bigotry of the majority. This is what we hear at the hate-filled rallies of white supremacists, religious fanatics, and RSS sympathizers in Edison. Let us make it clear there is no place for exclusion and bigotry in our Indian and Pakistani communities of New Jersey, Tristate, USA. No one should be allowed to succeed to create divisions between our Indian and Pakistani neighbors. Our children go to school together. They play together. They eat together. That’s HUMANITY. That’s justice. And that’s freedom of speech.)
Khan also told News India Times he is trying to organize a special meeting “to bring my Indian friends and explain to them. And if people still think I meant something bad, I apologize.”