Aziz Haniffa interviewing Joe Biden while the Democrat was serving as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Aziz Haniffa interviewing Kamala Harris at ‘Women Who Impact’ on 2 October 2018
Aziz Haniffa with former President Bill Clinton
Sri Lankan-born journalist Aziz Haniffa who had his grounding at the Sri Lankan SUN Newspapers at its founding and peak in the early 70s, and having migrated to the US thereafter, who rose to be the Editor-in-Chief of India Abroad, one of the oldest and widely circulated ethnic papers, was given a rousing felicitation on his retirement in Washington DC recently.
Participating in a globally connected virtual conference attended by over 200 of the ‘Who’s Who’ of the Indian diplomatic and journalistic community, Aziz was toasted and roasted with great affection for his yeoman service over three decades.
Aziz gained fame as 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.
On the very day that the Biden-Harris Democratic presidential bid ticket was announced, reminiscences included Aziz’s interviews, done some years back, presciently I might add, with Joe Biden and now Indian American running mate Kamala Harris; and a rolodex full of ambassadors, lawmakers and judges to top-rung politicians.
Tributes recalled how Haniffa gained as much fame as he was notorious being the columnist and newshound with unrelenting energy with a provocative writing style. I recall this was indeed the style that the SUN lead by Editors M.T. Jaimon, R.B. Tamitta and Rex de Silva in Sri Lanka injected into their journalists at that time.
When I was writing for the erstwhile SUN and the Times of Ceylon as a rugby reporter, the Thomian rugby forward, even at that time, drew attention for his hard crash tackles! As an event speaker cautioned, one should beware the last question when Aziz walks away after an interview “Oh! I forgot, I have one simple question”, and he would ask it politely. The answer by the unsuspecting interviewee invariably was the clincher and the page one headline for the next day!
Indian Ambassador to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu said Aziz 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”.
Former Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan, who was also India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, said: “You are perhaps the most prolific compassionate, kind, thoughtful reporter we know”, adding that Haniffa “is a dream journalist for diplomats because he correctly reported your achievements and accomplishments and successes”. He also added: “He is also a nightmare because he could detect deficiencies and failures and report them equally effectively.”
“When we talk a lot about the rise of Indian Americans in the United States over the last three to four decades, no one has done more to chronicle that rise than Aziz over the years,” said former US Ambassador to India Richard Verma.
“Recalling his multiple interviews with Haniffa over the years, Verma, the first Indian American to serve as a US envoy to New Delhi, said: “Even though he is a good friend he can be an exceptionally tough interviewer.”
US Court of Appeals Chief US Circuit Judge Sri Srinivasan complimented Haniffa for having “given an entire community a constant basis for genuine pride”. US House member from California Ro Khanna 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. Aziz 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.”
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.”
With characteristic humility Haniffa himself 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, covering the Hill, the Pentagon the State Department, the White House.
The writer is based in Washington DC