Aziz Haniffa: Chronicler of Indians Abroad

Aziz Haniffa interviewing Joe Biden
Aziz Haniffa interviewing Joe Biden, while the Democrat was serving as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Indian American luminaries pay glowing tributes to veteran South Asian journalist Aziz Haniffa.

Aziz Haniffa has no Indian roots. But for over three decades he has chronicled the triumphs and tragedies of Indians abroad, more precisely Indian Americans, their joys and sorrows, their trials and tribulations.

Sri Lanka-born veteran journalist has sat down with from Indian American Spelling Bee champions to ambassadors, lawmakers and judges to top rung politicians, including newly minted Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his Indian American running mate, Kamala Devi Harris.

Covering Washington for India Abroad, the oldest and widest circulated ethnic newspaper, in September and October 2004,  he was the first and the only South Asian journalist to do back-to-back exclusive interviews with President George W Bush and his Democratic challenger John F. Kerry on the eve of the 2004 presidential election.

Haniffa was also the first South Asian journalist to interview then Senator Barack Obama during the presidential campaign in 2007-2008. In March 2000, he was also the only South Asian print journalist who was part of the White House press delegation that accompanied President Bill Clinton to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Last week, subjects of his countless stories, gathered over a unique virtual event to honor him, organized by Indiaspora, a San Francisco based non-profit organization focused on amplifying the voice of the Indian diaspora, and paid glowing tributes to him.

Taranjit Singh Sandhu, Indian ambassador to the US, thanked his “friend” of many years for having “given so much to the South Asian community.”

“He is one of the best known names among the Indian American community in the United States. In fact, he has been by far the most popular journalist with the community,” Sandhu said.

Former ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan, who was also India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said, “You are perhaps the most prolific compassionate, kind, thoughtful reporter we know,” and expressed appreciation for “writing the community’s success stories” and highlighting “our work to make the Indian diaspora stronger and better knit together.”

Haniffa “is a dream journalist for diplomats because he correctly reported your achievements and accomplishments and successes,” said Sreenivasan, but also added, “He is also a nightmare because he could detect deficiencies and failures and report them equally effectively.”

Aziz Haniffa interviewing Kamala Harris
Aziz Haniffa interviewing Kamala Harris at the “Women Who Impact” on October 2, 2018.

“When we talk a lot about the rise of Indian Americans in the United States over the last three to four decades,” said Richard Verma, former US ambassador to India, “no one has done more to chronicle that rise than Aziz over the years.”

“Aziz has brought us the stories of Spelling Bee champions, astronauts and leading politicians,” the diplomat said. “He is as comfortable sitting with presidents and prime ministers as he is with newly arrived immigrants and shopkeepers.”

Recalling his multiple interviews with Haniffa over the years, Verma, the first Indian American to serve as a U.S. envoy to New Delhi, said, “Even though he is a good friend he can be an exceptionally tough interviewer.”

“No one should mistake his kindness for a lack of resolve, determination and grit,” the diplomat said. “He can ask the tough questions and he’s never content with canned answers.”

Sri Srinivasan, Chief US Circuit Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, complimented Haniffa for having “given an entire community a constant basis for genuine pride.”

“We read and celebrate stories about our accomplishments of all stripes in every kind of sphere and we then feel pride not just in ourselves but most importantly in one another,” he said.

Ami Bera, the longest serving Indian American congressman, pointed out the importance Haniffa and India Abroad had in his family. “As an Indian American kid I’ve had a pretty blessed journey — I went to medical school, became a doctor and made everyone proud and got elected to Congress certainly a highlight in my life,” he said. “But I will tell you the the time my parents were most proud was getting India Abroad Person of the Year Award.”

“Because you know you’ve made it in the diaspora when you’re on the front page of India Abroad,” Bera said. “I mean that that is when you’ve arrived.”

Ro Khanna, US House member from California, called Haniffa “one of the most astute observers of the South Asian diaspora, of the US India relationship and American politics.”

“That’s the thing to understand about Aziz,” he said, “It’s not just that he has an insight about the South Asian community, about the Indian American community.”

“He has an insight about the presidential elections, about (Barack) Obama, about (Donald) Trump, about why Trump won, about what (Joe) Biden’s chances are,” said Khanna. “He’s really one of the most insightful people in American politics.”

“He is really one of the great journalists of our time–and I say, not just one of the great South Asian journalists — (but) one of the great journalists, period.”

Nisha Biswal, president of the US India Business Council and erstwhile Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs in the Obama administration, credited Haniffa “with really jump starting my career as a young staffer on Capitol Hill, learning the ropes.”

Aziz Haniffa with President Bill Clinton.
Aziz Haniffa with President Bill Clinton.

When she went to India for the first time with a Congressman, Biswal recalled, Haniffa “had done a profile of me as the powerful staffer on the powerful house international relations committee.”

On arrival in India, then-US ambassador Dick Celeste told the “Congressman there is a big stack of news articles about your visit and he gives this big huge stack.”

“And then he said, ‘but they’re not about you they’re all about your staffer Nisha Desai’ because Aziz had written a story that got picked up by all the wires and every paper in India had this story about this powerful staffer,” she recalled.

“I was mortified, I thought I was going to basically just crawl in a hole on the tarmac, “Biswal said. But her boss “turned around looked at me and understood the opportunity in elevating his staffer.”

Deepa Iyer, former Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), remembered “how you played two critical roles during your long tenure at India Abroad.”

“You were both a teacher and you were also a community chronicler,” she said. “You taught so many readers about how power works in Washington, DC.”

“You conveyed not just what happened in front of the cameras, but all of the behind the scenes so that people could learn about the ways in which decisions were being made about our communities,” Iyer said.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Senior Fellow Ashley Tellis, one of the foremost strategic experts in the country and former Bush administration official, said, “You really made a difference in terms of educating us about what is happening sometimes in our own country with respect to India policy or US policy towards South Asia more broadly.”

During the negotiations for the landmark India-US “civil nuclear deal especially when we ran into trouble both in the US and in India, you ended up being its greatest champion in the press without descending any into any boosterism of any kind.”

Don Camp, a former senior State Department and National Security Council official, who said he first met Haniffa when he was the junior desk officer for India at the State Department in the late 1980’s, said, “I didn’t know who his sources were over the years–I guess I was one of them–but he seemed to know what was going on in foreign policy circles.”

“He has and had the best sources and it paid off. He got interviews with all the heavy hitters…and he broke the news,” Camp said.

Ajit Pai, chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, noted Haniffa “has spent decades telling the stories of Indians and Indian Americans and those stories have meant so much to so many of us.”

Aziz Haniffa interviewing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
Aziz Haniffa interviewing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

“Through his work for India Abroad, he made many of us feel much more at home here in America,” Pai said. “You are a legend and a friend to us all.”

Sonal Shah, Executive Director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact, who first met Haniffa in 2003 when she became India Abroad Person of the Year, said, “You’re reporter. You’re tough, but more importantly you’re kind.”

Haniffa, himself recalled his warm friendship with each of his story subjects and reminisced about “how the heck did this guy from Sri Lanka become this reporter for India Abroad,” the oldest ethnic newspaper that was once found in every Indian home.

“The newspaper’s founder Gopal Raju was looking for “some young guy who can really hustle and try to get India Abroad out of the ethnic mold and keep covering the Hill, the Pentagon the State Department, the White House so that we can become as mainstream as can be.”

“So that was how this Sri Lankan connection to India Abroad began,” Haniffa recalled. “It was such a joyous time and I have to thank Gopal Raju, my former boss and owner of India Abroad for giving me this crazy ride that I had for years.”

Raju had also started the India Abroad Center for Political Awareness. He was a pioneer in placing Indian American college kids in Congress so that they have an idea of government and they could also disseminate to the older generation as to how Congress really works, Haniffa said.

There are so many alumni of Gopal Raju’s India Abroad Center for Political Awareness, which later became the Washington Leadership Program, he said.

There were so many interns that were placed by Gopal Raju who then went on to serve in the Clinton, Obama and Bush administrations, Haniffa said.

Sree Sreenivasan, co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA), who emceed the program, said that Raju’s passing away,  had “left a gap in the Indian American journalism world and we need to acknowledge his presence today.”

M.R. Rangaswami, the founder of Indiaspora noting how much Aziz Haniffa was involved with the community said, “You’re always a true friend of Indiaspora and our community.”

Watch the Indianspora felicitation to Aziz Haniffa:

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