INTERVIEW: Announcing June 7-8 events, Anand reminisces on life in the US

Must read

Washington DC – Dr. Rajen Anand, one of the driving forces behind the Indian American community umbrella organization, the National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA), which is hosting a Congressional luncheon on The Hill followed by a White House briefing on June 7-8 for its members, spoke in an exclusive and candid interview to India America today.

Anand, a senior Obama administration official in the Department of Agriculture, said the Congressional lunches began in 1984 and were regularized in 1996 saying, “The idea is to expose the community to the elected officials and find out how the elected officials have influence over their lives.”

Lamenting the failure in the Indian American community to “pay attention to their legislatures until they are in trouble,” Anand recalled an incident in Los Angles when a man called him up for help to get a visa for his mother-in-law. The same man earlier would not get involved in activities or contribute any money to any Congressman’s funds, said Anand, “until it came to his own family case and then he wanted to get involved “

“They only want to get involved when they can see there is a direct benefit to them and that is really bad because we don’t think about the overall in long terms,” said Anand, noting, “Long term benefit for the community is much bigger than small benefits of your own so we try to expose.”

Outlining the working of these meetings, Anand said each member of Congress is given a list of issues to talk about.

“In the past, immigration has been the number one issue. Number two issue has been visas. We also had last year this issue for people who have bank accounts outside (of the US),” said Anand.

After meeting with IRS officers, Anand said the IRS agreed to give a filing extension to people who disclose their bank accounts, saying that prior to this resolution, the IRS was charging “huge penalties for not disclosing” bank accounts that Indian Americans have outside the US, especially in India.

Noting that each annual meeting brings with it a different set of challenges, Anand said, “Every year we sit down and ask people what are your issues. We make a list of those issues and give to the Congressmen.”

The real underlying aim of these luncheons and briefings was “to get to know Congressmen, expose them to the community and let them know we are there,” explained Anand.

In the beginning, the legislatures “could not distinguish between Indian Americans and American Indians,” said Anand, recalling that the invited guests mistakenly thought they were going to a Native American function.

Today, however, everybody knows who Indian Americans are and they have a lot more respect for them said Anand.

On the planned White House briefing, Anand said an agenda of significant issues has been prepared for discussion, adding that in the past, even Vice Presidents have attended and participated.

On the challenges facing the efforts to unite Indian Americans, Anand said the first challenge is regionalism, saying, “We belong to region, we don’t belong to India. We are more Gujaratis, Punjabis, Bengalis. So its very difficult to convince people that you are all together and we all have common causes. Thats why we formed a federation — this is a federation of Indian American associations. We try to bring all different groups into this federation and still it is not the enthusiasm as much as regional groups.”

A lot of Indian Americans will attend a convention for their region, Anand noted, adding with regret, “But when we have a federation of Indian American associations which is an umbrella organization, the enthusiasm is not as much as its in regional because somehow they feel (different).”

Defining the number two challenge as an intense focus on profession, Anand said, “Indians are really very highly educated in this country and so the first preference comes to their own profession. They want to make money for their families and afterwards they come to realize that there is something they should do as a group.”

One of the primary barriers to cohesion is the absence of a singular uniting interest, observed Anand, noting that Indians did not have a platform like the Jewish people, whose one important cause that unites them is Israel.

In recent history, Indian Americans organized to demand reform in the area of immigration visas and to push for passage by Congress of the Indian-US nuclear deal, according to Anand.

Describing the extensive work done by the organization in changing the minds of many Congress members, Anand said, “I don’t think probably India realizes that how much work went in here to convince all these legislatures to vote for the nuclear deal.”

Reflecting on his own journey and public service, Anand recalled an event when, as a student leader, he invited Robert F. Kennedy to Davis, California, a small town where big political figures never came.

“I invited and he accepted it. He accepted before he became a candidate and then he became a candidate for president and he came there. It was a big event, huge event. It happened just two weeks before he was killed,” said Anand with a heavy heart, adding, “It happened in May 1968 and he was killed on June 6, 1968.”

The event inspired Anand to stay involved in his community and to interact with elected officials. He began to participate in local Democratic party events and to rise in the party hierarchy.

He then started attending conventions and proudly states, “I have gone to six National Conventions, which is a record for anybody who is not an American and who is coming from a foreign land.”

Anand is passionate about his work and his desire to serve the community, saying, “I am always involved because politics makes me happy. I enjoy it, I feel involved and I feel I am contributing to the cause.”

Asked to comment on the recent cases in the Indian American community, Anand said Indian Americans have varying degrees of tolerance for gays and lesbians because “in India gays are not considered respectable people because they don’t have rights,” but with assimilation into the US mainstream has come understanding.

On a personal note Anand said, “I have no problem with gay people,” and that he works with and enjoys their company.

He cautioned the Indian American community against discrimination of homosexuals, “because they are normal people, they should be respected as much as any other human being.”

Regarding Dharun Ravi, who has begun serving a 30 day sentence in New Jersey for his involvement in a cyber-voyeurism case involving his gay college roommate who subsequently committed suicide, Anand said the reaction was mixed. The Indian American community initially responded with compassion for the young Indian with no criminal record, he said.

But as the facts came out in the case and Ravi was charged with invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, and hindering apprehension, the mood shifted, Anand said, noting that Ravi faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the most serious of the charges, and that a “30 days sentence is a small punishment.”

Regarding the sub judice case of Rajat Gupta currently being deliberated, Anand said, “This is a court case — the court will decide whether they have done something wrong or something right.”

“When greed comes, you are likely to commit some unethical things,” said Anand, noting that even with the increasingly large number of Indian Americans in the US, “most of the Indians do not commit as much crime as other communities.”

On domestic violence, one of the least talked about subjects in the Indian American community, Anand said, “We can do a lot but the problem is a victim of domestic violence does not come out and talk about it. They keep it to themselves until it becomes too bad.”

Anand and his dynamic wife Angela have been actively serving the Indian American community for decades. He described a case in which they were personally involved, saying, “We went and talked to the father-in-law and mother-in-law why this is happening. They listened to us and they gave their side of the story but it was not a convincing story.” Anand concluded they were guilty of abusing the victim.

Noting that although the number of cases are small, the issue is a serious cause of concern, saying, “It’s happening isolated cases, but still very bad and its usually with the people who go from here and get married there (in India), bring their brides here.”

“Domestic violence is an issue that I think we have to deal with,” emphasized Anand. However, he is encouraged by changes he sees taking place not just in the US, but India as well. The increasing trend toward financial independence has meant that, “When women become economically more secure she does not take the abuse,” noted Anand.

On the question of the general assimilation of the community into the mainstream of American life, Anand called it “slow but still happening.”

Although most Indians speak very good English, there is an underlying current of difference, noted Anand, explaining that the multitude of languages and has played a role in not getting together.

“There was a time when Indians won’t associate with Indians” afraid that Americans will think they identify only with Indians, said Anand.

Giving an example from the past, Anand said he was at a conference with another friend and they wanted to speak with other Indians but he said, “These Indians just passed by us. They won’t even look at us.”

Although they tried stopping them to speak, he said, “It was so difficult because they (the other Indians) were so afraid,” adding, “I think that was because of the complex they had about being inferior.”

“But that complex is gone, by and large. Now we openly say I am from India and you are accepted. They don’t look down on you,” said Anand about Americans.

Though Indian Americans now mix with Americans and each other, they do not want to be coalesced into the broader Asian American group, Anand observed, noting that Indians have largely resisted assimilation into the Asian American community.

Anand said that over the years he had tried to get Indians to identify with Asians, but that he had been unsuccessful. When Indian Americans would say, “We are Indians, we are not Asians,” Anand would counter, “India is in Asia, so why you are not Asians?”

Indians are a people with very strong pride, Anand explained, saying, “they don’t want to work with someone — don’t want to be second to someone.”

Anand noted that both President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama have appointed a significant number of Indian Americans to key positions, saying, “So the people have merged into the main stream politics and I think this is basically because India has done very well.”

“The respect for India has gone up, the respect for Indian Americans has gone up, so we don’t feel as bad as we used to feel,” said Anand.

More articles

Latest article