Biden names Indian American Erik Ramanathan as envoy to Sweden

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Longtime political ally was among top fundraisers for Biden-Harris ticket

President Joe Biden will nominate Indian American Erik Ramanathan, a longtime political ally and fund raiser to serve as ambassador to the Kingdom of Sweden, the White House announced on Wednesday,

A political appointee, Ramanathan is the chairman of the board of a health nonprofit, Heluna Health, serving more than 80 million Americans with over 500 programs addressing population health and community resilience issues.

These include maternal and child health, nutrition, literacy, supportive housing, infectious disease, addiction, and front-line and supportive efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Read: Indian American Ashish Vazirani named for key national security role (September 22, 2021)

He was previously Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Program on the Legal Profession, following his role as Senior Vice President – General Counsel of ImClone Systems, a public biotechnology company, according to a White House statement.

Ramanathan has also held major leadership roles on the non-profit boards of New Politics Leadership Academy, Shady Hill School, and Immigration Equality.

Earlier in his career, he was a health care attorney with Proskauer Rose LLP. Ramanathan earned a BA at Johns Hopkins University and a JD cum laude from Harvard Law School.

He has been an LGBTQ+ community leader for more than three decades and is the recipient of honors including the Global Vision Award for service to the LGBTQ+ and HIV+ immigrant and asylee communities.

Ramanathan, according to Politico, wanted Biden to run for president in 2016. He has served on the national finance committees of Biden for President and of the Democratic National Committee, according to his LinkedIn.

“If confirmed, I look forward to serving with a talented team of diplomats to build upon our deep and venerable friendship with Sweden,” he said in a statement.

Read: List of Indian Americans in the Biden administration (January 2, 2021)

“I will work to advance our partnership in areas including trade, investment, defense, and human rights while strengthening collaborations with respect to the many challenges we face together, from the Covid-19 pandemic to the climate crisis.”


Ramanathan joins a record 40 plus Indian Americans working in the Biden-Harris administration. Besides Vice President Kamala Harris, the team includes Vivek Murthy serving his second term as ‘America’s Doctor’ and Vinay Reddy as Biden’s speech writer.

Read: Biden nominates ambassadors to Sweden, Belgium and the Dominican Republic (September 22, 2021)

Indian-American organizations demand US Ambassador resign for RSS meet

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Ten diaspora groups signed a joint statement calling for the removal of Ambassador Atul Keshap.

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“The nature of Keshap’s meeting with the RSS came across as a photo-op, it was public, and it platformed and promoted a violent, fascist (and many call it ‘terrorist’) organization which serves as the greatest enemy to religious freedom that Indian citizens face today,” declared ten Indian-American organizations in a 25 September 2021 joint statement denouncing US Ambassador Atul Keshap’s recent meeting with the head of India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary.

Keshap continues to find himself in ever hotter water as controversy increasingly rises around his 8 September visit with RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat. The latest development sees Indian diaspora groups — including three of the largest Indian-American Muslim associations — calling for his resignation or removal “from any and all postings within the US State Department” in reaction to the meeting.

“Keshap’s meeting with RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat seemed to place a stamp of approval on and act as an endorsement of the RSS — which is exactly how the action is now being interpreted by the paramilitary itself,” says the joint statement, which was signed by groups such as the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), Association of Indian Muslims of America (AIM), and North American Indian Muslim Association (NAIMA). Previously, AIM Executive Director Kaleem Kawaja — comparing the RSS to the Nazis — argued that Keshap’s meeting “lowers the prestige and image of America as a nation for liberty and equality” and that the ambassador had “disqualified himself from serving as a representative of the United States.”

According to the statement, “Keshap’s endorsement of the RSS serves to embolden its agenda to crush any and all dissent.”

The statement continues, “Furthermore, we are worried that Keshap’s meeting will also embolden the international network of RSS support groups, many of which operate on US soil. These especially include the Overseas Friends of the BJP (which only last year registered as a Foreign Agent after operating for nearly 30 years) and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (which, as the US wing of the RSS, maintains close ties with its mother organization, including conducting strategy and training sessions for members both in the US and in India). These groups and their sympathizers appear to bear some responsibility for the wave of intimidation, rape threats, and death threats issued to many participants in the recent US-hosted ‘Dismantling Global Hindutva’ conference which took place just two days after Keshap’s meeting.”

This latest development in the Keshap controversy follows on the heels of a webinar in which six Indian-American groups denounced the ambassador’s meeting with RSS, a protest against him in California, an online petition for his resignation/removal which has garnered over 2,200 signatures, and remarks by a representative of Human Rights Watch who called the meeting “troubling,” and “disturbing,” and compared it to if the US Ambassador to Germany in 1933 had attended Nazi rallies at Nuremberg.

The full joint statement, including all signatories, can be viewed here.

Indian Americans protest outside White House over Modi’s visit

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Protesters call on the Biden administration to hold Indian leader accountable over rights violations and religious freedom.

Washington, DC – Dozens of Indian Americans have gathered at Lafayette Square, the park in front of the White House, to protest against the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States.

Chanting slogans and holding placards that read “Save India from fascism”, the protesters on Thursday castigated Modi over human rights violations, persecution of Muslims and other minorities, new farm laws, and the crackdown in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Since his election as India’s prime minister in 2014, Modi has been accused of presiding over an unprecedented religious polarisation in his country, with several laws discriminating against minority groups, mainly its 200 million Muslims.

A protester outside White House holding poster showing a person being beaten during last year’s anti-Muslim riots in New Delhi [Raqib Hameed Naik/Al Jazeera]

Modi is currently in the US to attend the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad Summit, with President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The four-nation Quad alliance aims to check China’s growing military and economic power globally.

Modi will also address the ongoing United Nations General Assembly in New York on Saturday.

Later on Friday, Biden will host his first bilateral meeting with Modi after winning the presidential election. The two leaders are expected to discuss a range of topics, including the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

“Bilateral discussion between the US and India will help reinforce and give momentum to the Quad discussion because many of the topics are very much interrelated,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters earlier this week.

Before the scheduled Biden-Modi meeting, the protesters outside the White House called on the US president to keep to his campaign promise of making human rights a central feature of the American foreign policy.

Last year, during the presidential election campaign, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris strongly condemned New Delhi’s crackdown in Indian-administered Kashmir, the implementation of a controversial citizens list in Assam state, and the passage of an “anti-Muslim” citizenship law that triggered nationwide protests and deadly riots in the capital.

Dozens of Muslim activists and students were thrown into jail for protesting against the 2019 citizenship law that the United Nations called “fundamentally discriminatory” as it blocks naturalisation for Muslims.

Activists wear Hitler-Modi masks in front of the White House where Biden will hold bilateral meeting with Modi later on Friday [Raqib Hameed Naik/Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera reached out to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s office to confirm if human rights and religious freedom were on the agenda during the Biden-Modi meeting, but a spokesperson declined to comment.

Victor Begg, a 74-year-old community leader and activist, said he travelled all the way from Florida state to register his protest against Biden’s meeting with the Hindu nationalist leader.

“What Modi represents is totally against American values. By allowing him into the United States and hosting him in the White House compromises our democracy as well,” Begg told Al Jazeera.

The activists raised the recent surge in the attacks and killings of religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, by the members of Hindu right-wing groups in various parts of India.

“Right now, we are witnessing a slow genocide of minorities. The lives of India’s 200 million Muslims are at stake, and the Biden administration can no longer afford to stay silent. This meeting is the right time to send a stern message to India,” Syed Ali, the president of an advocacy group, the Indian American Muslim Council, told Al Jazeera.

Ali also expressed “extreme displeasure” over a meeting between a senior US diplomat and Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Organisation or the RSS), the far-right ideological mentor of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

On September 8, Atul Keshap, the US acting ambassador to India, visited Bhagwat in New Delhi. “Good discussion with Shri Mohan Bhagwat about how India’s tradition of diversity, democracy, inclusion and pluralism can ensure the vitality and strength of a truly great nation,” Keshap tweeted.

Good discussion with @RSSorg Shri Mohan Bhagwat about how India’s tradition of diversity, democracy, inclusivity, and pluralism can ensure the vitality and strength of a truly great nation. — U.S. Ambassador to India (@USAmbIndia) September 8, 2021

When contacted by Al Jazeera, the US Department of State declined to give details of the “private diplomatic conversations” between Keshap and Bhagwat.

“US officials meet a wide range of political, business, religious, and civil society leaders in India and across the world. We cannot comment on the details of private diplomatic conversations,” Nicole Thompson, the Department of State’s press officer, said in an emailed response to Al Jazeera.

Farhana Kara Motala, an activist with Justice For All, a Chicago-based advocacy group, raised serious concerns over “the ongoing state repression” in Indian-administered Kashmir and urged the Biden administration to stand up for the rights of the Kashmiris.

“US can’t stay as a mute spectator as India continues to violate all the rights of Kashmiris,” Motala told Al Jazeera.

The Himalayan region of Kashmir is claimed by India and Pakistan, which rule over parts of it. Indian-administered Kashmir is the country’s only Muslim-majority region, where an armed rebellion started in the 1990s to either merge with Pakistan or create an independent country.

Shortly after Modi was re-elected in 2019, his government scrapped the disputed region’s special status guaranteed by the constitution and turned it into a federal territory.

The move was followed by an unprecedented crackdown by India’s forces, which saw hundreds of politicians, activists, separatists and youths thrown in jails and a months-long security lockdown and communications blackout in the region.

Indian-American activists address protesters in front of the White House [Raqib Hameed Naik/Al Jazeera]

As former chief minister of India’s Gujarat state, Modi was banned from travelling to the US for a decade after more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in 2002 in what critics describe as a pogrom.

Al Jazeera reached out to four BJP spokespersons and the Indian embassy in Washington, DC, but they declined to comment or did not respond to questions on Thursday’s protest.

Arjun Sethi, a community activist and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, said India under Modi’s rule has become the world’s largest authoritative government, suppressing any dissent and criticism of its policies.

Sethi spoke about cases of police brutality meted out to India’s farmers, who have been protesting for nearly 10 months on the highways leading to New Delhi, seeking repeal of three new “anti-farmer” agricultural laws passed by the Modi government in September last year.

“They (farmers) organised peacefully to fight for their rights and food security in India, and in return, they were met with suppression and violence,” Sethi told Al Jazeera.

“We are here because we stand for the rights of minorities, Dalits, women, farmers, human rights defenders, and journalists in India.”

Dalits, who fall at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy, have faced persecution and marginalisation at the hands of “upper-caste” Hindus for centuries.

Linda Cheriyan, 25, an activist with Black Lives Matter of Greater New York who participated in Thursday’s protest, said it is high time that Biden delivers on his campaign promises of promoting democracy and human rights globally, especially in India.

“Fascist regimes can’t be America’s strategic partners,” Cheriyan told Al Jazeera.