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Obama names Hindu, Muslim, Sikh to Asian Commission

By Aziz Haniffa
September 17, 2010 11:21 IST
Three Indian Americans -- Farooq Kathwari, a Muslim, Sunil Puri, a Hindu,  and Amardeep Singh, a Sikh -- were among 18 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders appointed by United States President Barack Obama as commissioners to his Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, of which the executive director, Kiran Ahuja, is also an Indian American.

In announcing the appointments, Obama said, "Our nation will be well-served by the skill and dedication these men and women bring to their new roles. I look forward to working with them in the months and years ahead."

Both Srinagar-born Kathwari, the multimillionaire chairman, president and chief executive officer of Ethan Allen Interiors, an upscale furniture and accessories conglomerate based out of Connecticut, and Mumbai-born Sunil Puri, president and sole owner of First Rockford Group, Inc, a real estate development firm headquartered in Illinois, are longtime Democratic Party stalwarts and were major fund-raisers for the Obama presidential campaign.

Puri was also an appointed delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2008 in Denver, Colorado, and was a friend and supporter of Obama from his state senator days in Chicago, even before he made a run for the US senate.

Singh is the co-founder and director of programs at the Sikh Coalition, the nation's largest Sikh civil rights organisation.

Kathwari, who bought over Ethan Allen when it was tethering on the verge of bankruptcy and turned it around to an exclusive furniture and interiors company, has been its president since 1985, and chairman and CEO since 1988.

He also founded and completely funded the Kashmir Study Group, which regularly holds seminars and conferences and sends delegations of former ambassadors and diplomats -- notably Teresita Schaffer and her husband Howard Schaffer and other leading South Asia experts and scholars -- to find solutions to alleviate the Kashmir imbroglio.

Kathwari is also a member of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, a director of the International Rescue Committee, the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, which is headed by Howard Schaffer, a director and former chairman of Refugees International, and a director and former chairman of the National Retail Federation.

Puri, who immigrated to the US in 1979 and has developed technology parks in Pune and does real estate investment and development in India too, sits on a number of boards including the Rockford Area Economic Development Council and the Rockford College Board of Trustees.

Singh, prior to joining the Sikh Coalition in 2002, worked as a researcher in the US Program of Human Rights Watch, and while at HRW authored its report, 'We Are Not the Enemy: Hate Crimes Against Arabs, Muslims, and Those Perceived to be Arab or Muslim after September 11.'

In July, Obama named longtime Asian American activist Daphne Kwok to chair the commission. At the time of her appointment Kwok was executive director of Asian and Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California. She was earlier the executive director of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies as well as the Organization of Chinese Americans, a national, civil rights organisation with over 10,000 members.

Although the White House in its press advisories always states that the president announced his intent 'to appoint the following individuals to key administration posts,' such appointments to commissions and boards are not full-time positions and those appointed to these positions usually meet only about three to four times a year. They are also not paid salaries but reimbursed for their travel and a per diem for the days they come to Washington, DC, for the commission meetings or whenever they travel elsewhere for the commission's town hall meetings.

The only full-time position in the commission is that of Kiran Ahuja, who works out of the department of education with a full-time staff of about 6-8 employees.

This office was first created by President Bill Clinton and he too appointed an Indian American woman, Shamina Singh, as its first executive director.

The White House Commission of Asian American and Pacific Islanders was resurrected by Obama on October 14 when he signed an executive order at an event which also doubled up as a historic White House ceremony in the East Room to commemorate Diwali.

This time round the office not only has the personal imprimatur of President Obama but is more expansive – it will ultimately have 20 commissioners from the original 15 -- and be better funded, and Ahuja has the authority to work across numerous government agencies with senior officials in these departments to address issues concerning the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. 

Earlier this year, immediately upon her appointment, Ahuja told Rediff India Abroad in an exclusive interview that Obama's executive order "spells out a very broad mandate" and that "it's pretty ambitious in improving the quality of life for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders."

She said, "A lot of that will be set in place once we have the commission in place and we really want it to be a strong partnership with the commissioners."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC