Desis in the (White) House!

We have talked extensively here about one particular South Asian American member of the Obama-Biden transitional team. But are there others? Facebook informed me earlier this week that Parag Mehta left his job as the Director of External Communications at the Democratic National Committee — the highest-ranking staff position held by a South Asian in the Democratic Party. Now we know why, he is the latest South Asian to join the Presidential Transition Team. parag-mehta-4005.jpg

Parag Mehta, 31, has been named the deputy director of inter-governmental affairs and public liaison of the Obama-Biden transition team, charged with outreach to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other minority groups.

He said that besides outreaching to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, his mandate would also include reaching out “to lesbians, gays and bi-sexuals and also a couple of issue areas. So, I will be reaching out to these groups too besides Asian Pacific Americans.” But, Mehta explained that “the office is not just for minority groups. The office also includes small businesses, doctors, lawyers, rural farmers-so it’s a pretty large portfolio.”[IndiaDem]

The central Texan native was deputy political director for Howard Dean’s 2003 presidential bid, and directed the campaign’s ethnic outreach. Prior to joining the DNC, Mehta served as the deputy political director for America Votes. He holds a masters degree in public administration from Syracuse University and served in both the Clinton and Bush administrations as liaison to the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.[NewAmericaMedia]

Mehta will be leading a conversation in a post-election webinar hosted by SAALT this Tuesday, November 25th at 1pm PST where people can ask him questions they have on the transition team. nick rathod.jpg Working next door to Mehta in the transition team office is another desi face, Nick Rathod.

Nick Rathod, 33, has been appointed director to the Office of Inter-governmental Affairs. Rathod is the national outreach director of South Asians for Obama and one of its founding members. He also co-founded South Asian Americans Leading Together.[NewAmericaMedia]

Preeta Bansal.jpg Lawyer and former Clinton insider Preeta Bansal’s name has also been floating around the transition team.

Reports also suggest that the former solicitor general of New York, Preeta Bansal, currently a senior advisor on the Obama campaign, may be considered for the position of Solicitor General in the Department of Justice.[AsianWeek]

Other desi names that have been popping up in regards to the transition team are that of Arti Rai, Anjan Mukherjee, Rachana Bhowmik, Subhasri Ramanathan, Natasha Bilimoria and Puneet Talwar. Also rumored are Neera Tanden, Hrishi Karthikeyan, Dave Kumar, and Kris Kolluri.

Though considered just a “temp job”, this may be one of the most important temp jobs I’ve ever seen. What is remarkable to me is just how transparent and AAPI-accessible the transition team is, especially compared to every past presidential transition team. From the President-Elect’s Change Website, to broadly being able to track the transition team at Public Citizen’s Becoming 44, to having conference calls hosted by APIA Vote to explain the transition team process for the APIA community, I feel that I finally have the transparency I need to hold my elected official accountable.

As far as accessibility, I’m pretty confident in saying that there has never been this many desis involved in a Presidential Transition Team before, and I can say with certainty that this will only lead to an increased representation of South Asians in the White House. Not just any South Asians, but leaders that our community has looked to in the past to advocate for our community – people that we have as facebook friends, in our Gmail contacts, and most importantly, readers of Sepia Mutiny – are going to be in the White House. And there’s something just thrilling about that. Continue reading

“Catalist” for Change: Q& A with Vijay Ravindran

A few weeks ago, I posted “Data Crunching for Obama,” a look at the Democratic campaign’s microtargeting strategies led by Vijay Ravindran, chief technology officer at Catalist, Harold Icke’s start-up political technology company that built a national voter database of information on more than 260 million people for progressive groups, including the Obama campaign. vijayr.jpg

At Catalist, Ravindran led all the technology aspects of developing the company’s software products and services. The data banks and web-based tools he helped develop could answer questions such as: “How many Indian-Americans gave money to me, said they were an Obama supporter, voted in the last general election, own their home and live in Baltimore?”

Below the fold is a Q&A with Vijay Ravindran, where he talks about his engagement with politics, the 2008 election efforts, Catalist’s role in it, and what South Asian voter data tells us about the “brown” community.

Incidentally, the 34 year old is on a roll. Just yesterday, it was announced that as of February ’09, Ravindran will be the senior vice president and chief digital officer of The Washington Post Company. Per the press release that went out:

“We are fortunate to have Vijay join the Company as we focus increasingly on electronic media,” said Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive officer of The Washington Post Company. “Vijay is widely recognized as one of the top innovators in the field. I am delighted that he will bring his extraordinary skills, talent and experience to our efforts to expand our digital business.”

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Pro-Hindu group tackles random crime

Lately, when reading some Indian publications on the web, I often see America portrayed as a dangerous jungle where Indians (especially students) get slaughtered left and right (and the race of the suspected murderer is always stressed in the article). Over the past year Anna has written here on SM about some DBD students who were the unfortunate murder victims of what were probably robberies (see here and here). Also, just last week a silicon valley CEO was killed by a disgruntled employee fired earlier in the day. All of these are really tragic deaths. However, to make the absurd leap of logic that Indians around the U.S. are being targeted is just ignorant. If all the victims were turban-wearing Sikhs and a terrorist attack has just occurred, THEN there might be reason to worry about this being a trend. But random crime in a large country does not a trend make. Enter the Atlanta-based “United States Hindu Alliance” who want something done:

Expressing concern over killing of Indian students and professionals in the US, a Hindu group in New York has approached the top American intelligence agency asking it to take steps to prevent such incidents.

In a letter to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the United States Hindu Alliance said it is “alarmed” by growing number of the killings, pointing out that there have been as many as five reported murders of Indian students and professionals in the past one year.

The letter, which was released by the alliance, also referred to the latest attack on 22-year-old MBA student in the University of Middle Tennessee Pulluri Shashank on November 16. He was shot but is reported to be out of danger.

The killings, it said, began at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge when two PhD students – Komma Chandrasekhar Reddy and Allam Kiran Kumar — were found dead in their apartment near the campus on December 14, 2007.

This was followed by the murder of Dr Akkaldelvi Srinivas, a second year medical student at Scranton University in Pennsylvania. Tummala Soumya Reddy, who was pursuing her master’s degree in Electrical Engineering at Southern Illinois University, was killed on September 22, 2008. Her cousin Vikram Reddy was also found dead near a lake in Chicago. [Link]

I can’t find a website for USHA but I did find a statement by one of its founders (Gokul Kunnath) that may help to explain the psychology behind this request:

Gokul Kunnath said that post 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US; Hindus became targets of racial hatred, violence, discrimination and abuse due to ignorance and misperceptions. There are one billion Indians, about 20% of the global population. The global Hindu diaspora is peace loving, and believes in pluralism and freedom of worship. Sadly it is being targeted for the wrong reasons. Hindus everywhere need to be proactive in safeguarding their interests. USHA will strive to empower Hindus everywhere through education, advocacy and activism. It will release an agenda of its concerns and problems and deliver it to the political representatives to resolve the issues in a bipartisan manner, he said. [Link]

I feel like this is tangentially related to Amardeep’s post from earlier in the week. I would be SHOCKED if the FBI decided to investigate any of these crimes. They are all local incidents and not part of some conspiracy. However, I can see how this “pro-Hindu” organization might be able to bring in donations from both here and abroad simply by writing this letter and convincing people that they are standing up for Indians/Hindus. I know that I risk coming across as overly cynical here. Maybe the folks in this organization truly are clueless and this letter is just an innocent token of concern. The alternative is that they are contributing to fear mongering and using the deaths of these students as a recruiting/fundraising tool for their organization (which is wrong no matter how innocuous the organization might be).

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Liveblogging Top Chef…

…for as long as the brown girl is in the ring. :) I’m here in DC, on the Hill, at Chef Spike’s (Season 4 badboy) Good Stuff Eatery, where he hosts a Top Chef viewing party. If you are on my home coast, are DVR-ing it or otherwise don’t want spoilers, do not go past the jump!


Time for the quick-fire challenge! The contestants have to recreate an iconic NY dish. Before they announce what that dish is, people here are screaming pizza, cheesecake…nope, wrong. They will need to make a HOT DOG, for Chef Donatella Arpaio.

Okay, I’m a life-long vegetarian who finds hot dogs repulsive and even I know that rice paper is probably a bad idea for a casing.

Brown girl’s strategery: Indian-inspired kebab dog w/caramelized onions and other gunk, from RAD-icka.

Poor Padma! There was a bone in her meat! Er…that didn’t come out right, even though it’s practically a quote from the offending chef. Continue reading

The rise of “Skynet?”

The Terminator: The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.

Not much I have heard about the state of affairs in Pakistan after their elections has given me confidence that this particular iteration of “democracy” will survive for very long there. I was initially most concerned that a weak (and corrupt) central government would hurt ordinary Pakistanis by failing to adequately confront the extremists that sought to de-stabilize their country.

Case in point, let’s consider the huge blast that occurred in September at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad killing 53 people (two of whom were Americans):

A suicide bomb attack that killed 53 people at the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan’s capital bore the hallmarks of an operation by al Qaeda or an affiliate, Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officials said on Sunday.

Teams combing the burnt shell of the hotel found more charred bodies after the blast on Saturday evening ignited a blaze that swept through the hotel, part of a U.S.-based chain and a favorite haunt of diplomats and wealthy Pakistanis. [Link]

So how did Pakistan respond around that same time to the threat of internal terrorism? For one, they declined investigative help from the FBI who are quite experienced with this kind of attack given past U.S. embassy bombings abroad:

Malik rejected FBI assistance and said Pakistani security agencies were capable of handling the probe.

A US official at the Guantanamo naval base told Reuters “the attack certainly bears all the hallmarks of… Al Qaeda or its associates”.

Six suspects: Online said six suspects from FATA had been held. [Link]

I understand the need to maintain the appearance of “standing up to the U.S.” to play to the domestic crowd, but not in the absence of doing anything. Now that we no longer have the slightly more compliant Musharraf to deal with, the U.S. has had to become a bit more proactive about rooting out terrorists:

Bush confronted Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan’s prime minister, with evidence of involvement by its military intelligence (ISI) in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.

“They were very hot on the ISI,” said Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister. “Very hot. When we asked them for more information, Bush laughed and said, ‘When we share information with your guys, the bad guys always run away.’ “… [Link]

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“Yankee Hindutva”: What is it?

Though I was an early and vocal participant in the Great Sonal Shah Internet Debate of 2008, I am done arguing about it. This post is not about that directly.

Instead, I’d like to focus on some of the bigger issues behind the controversy, specifically: 1) how South Asian religious youth camps work and what they do, and 2) whether Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu organizations in the U.S. send large amounts of money to South Asia to support communalist organizations over there.

As always, I would love to hear personal testimony from people who went to religious youth camps, or who have been involved in any of the organizations I’m going to be mentioning. An ounce of personal testimony is better than a pound of theorizing, generalizing, and blah blah blah argument.

1. What’s at issue

These two issues are the central themes of a chapter in Vijay Prashad’s book, The Karma of Brown Folk, called “Of Yankee Hindutva.” They also feature in Prashad’s essay in Sulekha, “Letter to a Young American Hindu.”

The reason Prashad is so focused on Sonal Shah is pretty clear: to him, she seems to represent exactly the “Yankee Hindutva” he has been talking about for years. As I see it, the major things Sonal Shah is accused of are 1) being a part of the leadership of an organization called the VHP-A, which has a clear communal bias (no one seriously disputes this), and 2) speaking at HSS-US youth camps like this one (from the website, HSS-US appears to be considerably less extreme than VHP-A, though they do prominently advertise a new book they’ve published on M.S. Golwalkar). Ennis has also suggested that what is really worse than this might be 3) the fact that she waited so long to clarify her former affiliation: the cover-up is worse than the crime. I do not agree with him on that, but I do agree with people like Mira Kamdar that (1) and (2) might be concerning.

But what exactly does an association with the American branch of a Hindu nationalist organization tell us about a person? How much do we really know about the American branches of these organizations? How bad are they really?

Below the fold, I’ll raise some questions about the accounts Vijay Prashad has given of VHPA and the Hindu Students Council in his book, The Karma of Brown Folk.

Before doing that, let’s start with a personal testimony, from a person who actually disagrees with me overall on this issue. As I was browsing people’s various blog posts relating to Sonal Shah, I came across a great post and discussion thread by a blogger named Anasuya. In the comments to Anasuya’s post is another person named Anasuya (Anasuya Sanyal), who attended VHP camps years ago, and had this to say about her experience of them:

I too remember attending VHP conferences as a teenager growing up in the US and I had no idea of the political affiliations until I lived for a bit in India around age 17. Naturally, I was not in any kind of agreement with the VHP platforms, philosophy or actions and I even wrote a small piece about the American “face” of the VHP for The Telegraph!

And as a second generation Indian American, Indian politics were not a topic in the home and VHP conferences were a parentally-approved weekend outing since we were with other Indian friends. The fun part was our more responsible friends would drive us all to the place and we’d take over a cheap motel and party. Otherwise at that age, a weekend away would have been strictly forbidden.

I don’t remember too much about the conferences themselves–there were a few interesting group discussions/breakout sessions. I didn’t see any political content. If anything, the parents saw it as a way to participate in a big somewhat religious gathering, seeing as how more established religions in the US had youth events, whereas Hindus did not. (link)

As I say, Anasuya Sanyal disagrees with me overall, so this account shouldn’t be taken as a tailor-made version of what happened to support the “pro Sonal Shah” side of things.

Anasuya (the blogger) also has a great string of questions that follow from this: Continue reading

The Rage of Cummings II: Economic Boogaloo*

At times, it must be done. It simply must.

What is “it”? Honest reflection. Meditation. The potentially uncomfortable exercise of asking difficult questions…questions like…”Is Neel Kashkari a CHUMP?

Elijah Cummings, breakin’ it down Bodymore-style. A friend of mine whom I had forwarded that clip to told me that Cummings is a genuinely nice guy, which makes it all the more hilarious for him to be the one questioning our boy Neel. Find a previous SM post about the sacrificial lamb Kashkari by our Vinod, here.

(Hmm. I thought the name of the author of that ThinkProgress piece sounded familiar…then I realized it was erstwhile WLPer/reader Satyam, whom I was introduced to by mutineer Harin at the Kal Penn event held in support of our President-elect. :) I love how accomplished and brainy you smurfs mutineers are.) Continue reading

The Jury Finds Anand Jon Guilty.

Today, in Los Angeles, Anand Jon was convicted of rape and sexual assault.

A Beverly Hills fashion designer was found guilty today of sexually assaulting seven girls and young women, capping a two-month trial that offered a sordid portrait of the fashion world.
The jury of six men and six women deliberated for seven days before finding Anand Jon Alexander guilty of one count of rape and 15 counts of sexual assault and other charges.
The designer, who goes by the professional name of Anand Jon, sat silently in court wearing a light gray suit and yellow tie as the court clerk announced the jury’s verdicts. Behind him, his sister sobbed as she sat with friends and family in the crowded downtown Los Angeles courtroom. [LAT]

Obviously, the culprit– how I love that especially brown word– saw things differently. A charming snippet of a screen shot from one of his official sites, which clearly explains how Jon sees himself is below:

Anand Jon Home Page.png

Some of you may remember Jon from his memorable stint on the blink-tastic reality program America’s Next Not-Quite-Top Model, the show which elevates women (Eva Panni-ford, I’m looking at your unpleasant kundi) who are too short or too old to succeed in the industry to…mediocre heights. On ANnqTM, Anand was an utter douche to fellow Malayalee Julie Ann Titus during season three. But I digress.

Jon, 34, a rising designer who had dressed socialite Paris Hilton and singer Janet Jackson before his arrest last year, faces possible life imprisonment after a Los Angeles Superior Court jury found him guilty on 16 criminal counts.
The crimes involved lewd acts on a child, rape and sexual battery in assaults between 2001 and 2007 against nine would-be models aged between 14 and 21. He was also convicted of possessing child pornography. [Reuters]

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Great Expectations for Slumdog Millionaire

The Oscar buzz has already started and it’s only been one day since “Slumdog Millionaire” was released. So far, the new offering from British director Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting fame) has been referred to by The New York Times as a film that “could be the breakthrough work that leads the world to focus on the genre …of Parallel Cinema, a more personal narrative type of film like Mira Nair’s art house hit “Monsoon Wedding.” slumdog2.jpg

And, Roger Ebert predicts the film will win an Best Picture Oscar nomination, calling it “a breathless, exciting story, heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time [whose] universal appeal will present the real India to millions of moviegoers for the first time.”

When you read gushing reviews like Ebert’s, you can’t help but walk into the movie hall with high expectations, wondering whether a film can really live up to all the hype. The answer is: Yes.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is being billed as a film about “first love, determination, and realizing your destiny.” Not quite the pitch that you’d expect from a mainstream film about a kid from an Indian slum. This is a film that will surprise viewers who think they’re going in to watch a movie about India’s tremendous poverty and rich-poor gap. It switches swiftly between scenes that take you into an India that is at once poor and wealthy, moral and crime-ridden, developed and undeveloped, hopeful and disappointing. And, though the story is laced with a trace of Bollywood romance, goondas, and some implausability, it is for the most part, as Roger Ebert says, “real.” Add to that a soundtrack by A.R. Rahman and Danny Boyle’s directorial talent for bringing India’s sensory overload and motion to life without the typical exoticism or “oh those poor things” mentality and you have a winner.

More of my review below the fold. Continue reading

“Dim-Wit”: A.Q. Khan Goes Ballistic on Musharraf

Thanks to Sepoy over at Chapati Mystery, who translated A.Q. Khan’s first Urdu language column for the Daily Jang. The column has one of the harshest paragraphs on Pervez Musharraf I’ve ever seen in print:

Our bureaucracy and sycophants play a large role in making these false gods into God. Musharraf is F.A. pass (high-school equivalent), a qualification which we use to employ attendants. By a mistaken promotion, he became our commander-in-chief. It nauseated us to see such a dim-wit lecture the highly educated and the experts on economics, education, foreign policy, commerce and industry. And they would bow in front of him and wag their heads and exclaim at his intelligence. The way of an intelligent ruler (or Dictator) is that he doesn’t choose his companions on the basis of their flattery but on the basis of their expertise and their knowledge; he listens to their advice; and gives them all the help for the completion of important projects. There was this rumor going around about Musharraf that he complains to his Army friends, “I am saddened to see that if uneducated people cannot understand my arguments, it is ok, but even educated people cannot follow me.” The reason is obvious. The ability to pull the trigger of a gun and the ability to make an intelligent statement are clearly different. (link)

I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did; I found it strangely therapeutic to read. (For those who read Urdu, you can see the original here. Out of curiosity, since I’ve let my beginners’ Urdu slide since last December, what is the Urdu word being translated here as “dim-wit”?)

In the column you’ll also find Khan’s version of the story of how he got involved with communicating information about nuclear weaponry with countries like North Korea (according to this column, his main agenda was acquiring ballistic missile technology; he doesn’t say what he gave North Korea in return…). And he heaps praise on both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto.

Just to be clear: A. Q. Khan is not to taken as trustworthy or believable (in case you’ve forgotten who he is, read the primer). But it’s all the same interesting to see him emerge with this stuff now that Musharraf is gone. Continue reading