Raja Krishnamoorthi (left) and Junaid Ahmed Credit: Courtesy the candidates
Credit: Zahid Khalil

Junaid Ahmed, a 45-year-old Indian American candidate for Illinois’s Eighth Congressional District, is posing a stiff primary challenge to incumbent Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat who has held the seat for five years. This is Ahmed’s first electoral run.

Ahmed was born in Hyderabad, India, and his family moved to the U.S. when he was still a child, about 30 years ago. He has since lived in Chicago, spending most of his foundational years in Rogers Park. A few years ago, Ahmed moved to the Eighth District, where he lives with his wife and four children.

In an interview with the Reader, Ahmed shared vivid details about his first few years in America and talked about his working-class upbringing.

“My childhood has been quite, quite interesting. As a new kid on the block my dad used to have two jobs, sometimes a third job; same job, two shifts,” he said, recounting his early years in Chicago. “Growing up you either became a doctor, or an engineer, otherwise you’re no good,” he said, lightheartedly emphasizing all the American dreams his parents had for him. In 2000, Ahmed got a degree in computer science from DePaul University, and from there went to corporate America to work at Accenture for seven years. In 2009, Ahmed earned an MBA from the University of Chicago, and then started his own technology consulting firm, SAKStech, in 2013.

Ahmed said that “politics was never on the plate for him,” but he was inspired to get into public service by his parents, who always taught him to share and give back to the community.

In 2015, Ahmed volunteered for Krishnamoorthi’s first campaign for Congress.

“To be very honest, I was excited,” he said. “And I was excited to see [Krishnamoorthi]…. And maybe he was a great guy back then, a fellow Brown brother running.”

Since then, Ahmed’s politics have continued to evolve. He is a staunch supporter of raising the minimum wage and enacting Medicare for All. “In the wealthiest nation on the planet, everyone should be able to thrive,” he said.

In 2020, Ahmed was organizing rallies in support of universal healthcare and urging representatives such as Krishnamoorthi to stop taking money from the for-profit healthcare industry when he met Elisa Devlin, now his deputy campaign manager. Devlin said that she was moved by Bernie Sanders’s campaign, and when that ended she wanted to continue being involved in politics. She started an organization called Schaumburg Area Progressives, a platform that she runs to this day. It was during her involvement with SAP that Devlin crossed paths with Ahmed.

“I saw the same qualities [in Ahmed] that really drew me to Bernie. That authenticity,” Devlin said.

According to Ahmed, Devlin had a huge role to play in pushing him to run for office. “Basically Elisa said, ‘Junaid, if you’re not the candidate, we think that there is no candidate in 2022,’” he said.

Both Krishnamoorthi and Ahmed are Indian Americans, but vary starkly in their views of religious politics in India. Ahmed is a practicing Muslim, while Krishnamoorthi identifies as Hindu, and has expressed support for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right- wing paramilitary organization in India.

The RSS is a Hindu nationalist organization that promotes the creation of a homogenous Hindu homeland in India, and espouses the Hindutva ideology—a right-wing ideology that casts out and discriminates against non-Hindus as “foreign.” Current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a former member of the RSS, and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party, which draws its core political values from RSS, as an RSS organizer in 1985.

Modi was elected prime minister in 2014. During his administration, India has fallen on the religious freedom, press freedom, and hunger index, and has seen a rise in violence against Muslims.

In 2005, the U.S. government revoked Modi’s diplomatic visa for failing to control anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat, the Indian state he was head of at the time. In 2019, Modi’s government passed a Citizenship Amendment Act that was widely derided as anti-Muslim, and has passed several other laws since then that have been similarly criticized. In January, Gregory Stanton, the founder and director of Genocide Watch, called the current systemic discrimination of minorities in India as an “impending genocide.”

During the 2019 Howdy Modi event—a grand reception for Modi in Houston—Krishnamoorthi delightedly shared the stage with Modi. He was the only elected Indian American politician who attended the event.

“Unfortunately, Raja chose to look the other way when a call for genocide is happening in India,” Ahmed said. “He chooses to still keep associating with these people who have openly enabled this genocide. He’s not even ashamed of it.”

According to Pieter Friedrich, a freelance journalist who does independent research on Hindutva and its associated links with American politicians, Krishnamoorthi extends his support to right-wing politics in India because of financial interests. Friedrich called Krishnamoorthi “the RSS’s man” in Congress.

In the runup to the 2016 race, Krishnamoorthi’s campaign accrued the highest funds among all House races across America. The Hindu American Political Action Committee (HAPAC) contributed $35,000 to his campaign in 2015.

The HAPAC’s stated mission is to ensure that the religious freedom and human rights of Hindus all over the world are preserved. It is linked to the Hindu American Foundation, which underpins the Modi government’s nationalist, allegedly anti-Muslim agenda.

“Breaking in is getting your foot in the door the first time,” Friedrich said. “That’s always the hardest. That’s the biggest hurdle. And so that initial financing from the earliest days, that’s particularly what [Krishnamoorthi] gained,” Friedrich said.

With more than $9 million in his campaign bank, Krishnamoorthi doesn’t necessarily need the financing, but he does need to avoid alienating his earliest and most influential supporters—the people who were crucial to helping him get into Congress in the first place, Friedrich added.

Ahmed has raised just over $800,000 via a combination of individual and grassroots donations. In a debate last month, Ahmed promised to “never take a dime of corporate money” and vowed to expand campaign finance reform if elected.

Krishnamoorthi’s frequent donors include Bharat Barai, member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, the overseas branch of the VHP India, which in a way is a subset of the RSS. The RSS and VHP are part of the Sangh Parivar, a conglomerate of over a dozen Hindu nationalist organizations. In May, Barai was seen talking about a chapter he wrote about Indo-U.S. relations and Prime Minister Modi’s inspirational guidance to the diaspora in the book Modi @ 20, in which experts recount and praise Modi’s 20 years as an Indian statesman.

In 2018, the World Hindu Congress was held in Chicago. The event was organized by the VHPA. The same year, the CIA labeled the VHP as a “religious militant organization.”

In addition, the VHPA is known to be taking active steps to “saffronize,” that is, “Hinduize” South Asian history. When the VHPA received approximately $171,000 of U.S. federal COVID relief funds, many human rights activists criticized the grant, saying the organization had “Hindu supremacist” sentiments. An Al Jazeera reporter who pursued the story about the disbursement of COVID funds to right-wing Hindu organizations faced a subsequent lawsuit and death threats for his reportage.

The U.S. Department of State’s 2021 Country Reports of Human Rights lists a slew of violent acts committed against Muslims in India—including one by a member of the VHP, who was arrested for making an attempt to lynch a Muslim cattle trader who later died in police custody.

“I think that as far as that issue [fascism in India] goes, having an Indian American Muslim candidate challenge is crucial to exposing those fault lines in [Krishnamoorthi’s] character and in the ethics of his campaigns and and really holding his feet to the fire on this issue,” Friedrich said.

Editor’s note 6/23/2022: An earlier version of this article misstated the year the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, as well as the amount of COVID relief funds the VHPA received; we regret the errors.

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