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Aulakh's Capitol Hill Mission
By MICHAEL S. GERBER
The Hill, May 1, 2002
Dr. Gurmit Singh Aulakh, who lobbies Capitol Hill on behalf of the Sikhs in India, has upset a number of House foreign policy aides who say he has tricked them into signing letters in support of his cause.
But Aulakh, president for 15 years of the Council of Khalistan, the self-described Sikh government in exile, brushes aside the complaints and says 'congressmen are responsible for their own signatures.'
Courtney Anderson, senior legislative assistant for Rep. John Shimkus (R.-Ill.), claims that Aulakh misled her office by implying to a junior staffer that Shimkus had agreed to sign a letter to President Bush calling for the release of political prisoners in India.
Anderson says Aulakh had already printed Shimkus' name on the letter, leading the junior staffer to assume that the office had agreed to sign it.
Aulakh vehemently denies that he misled anyone, and calls the accusations against him 'ridiculous.' He blames the complaints against him on the Indian Embassy and its lobbyists, who he says pressure members not to sign his letters.
'They are doing their jobs and we are doing ours,' he said, adding that without the resources of a nation like India, he is forced to use alternative methods of lobbying.
But one aide with ties to the 131-member congressional India Caucus said Aulakh has been getting away with tricking staffers into signing letters for several years.
'He's sort of grandfatherly,' the aide said. 'He says in a soft voice, 'I'm here for the congressman's signature on this letter.'
'When we called up later, about a quarter of [foreign policy aides] genuinely did not have the foggiest clue they signed it,' the aide said, referring to one of Aulakh's previous letters. '[But] they're reluctant [to have the signatures removed] because they don't want to be seen as flip-flopping.'
Anderson said she became aware of the letter only after a colleague from another office asked why Shimkus had signed it. Anderson usually sees any letter related to foreign policy that comes through the office.
'[The staffer] comes by with a letter with my boss's name on it,' Anderson said, 'and I'd never seen it before. . . . I never saw a 'Dear Colleague' and no one ever talked to me about this.'
While it appears that Aulakh himself printed the letter on a congressional letterhead, press releases from the Council of Khalistan list Rep. Dan Burton (R.-Ind.) and Rep. Edolphus Towns (D.-N.Y.), both longtime supporters of Khalistan, as 'sponsors' of the letter. Burton and Towns speak out on behalf of Khalistan often, including speeches in the Congressional Record this past month. Burton's name appears first on the list of signatures; his office did not return repeated calls for comment.
Anderson is not the only aide to complain about Aulakh's tactics. A legislative assistant to another Republican House member says that after he talked to Aulakh and agreed to look over the letter, the Sikh activist returned to the office and told the staffer at the desk that the congressman had committed to signing.
According to the aide, Aulakh came back a third time as well, but the staff had been warned and asked him to leave.
At least one other office actually signed the letter and later claimed to have been tricked, said a former aide to Rep. Ken Bentsen (D.-Texas). The aide said Aulakh had put Bentsen's name on the letter before anyone ever saw it.
'I've been up here five years,' the aide said, 'and the only time that happens is when a member has [already] agreed to sign the letter.'
Anderson complained to Aulakh and was able to get her boss's signature taken off the letter, which was eventually sent to the president in February with 42 members of Congress signed on.
'I think it's unusual to pull [a name] off a letter,' the former Bentsen staffer said. But when he called Towns to have his boss's name removed, the Towns staffer 'didn't seem surprised.'
Anderson believes some of the signatures on the letter sent to the president may have also been the result of confusion and has asked the House Administration Committee to get involved.
'The letter did not go through the usual 'Dear Colleague' process, whereby a draft copy of a letter is circulated in advance, Members agree to sign the letter, and then a copy is brought to those offices for an authorized signature,' Shimkus wrote in a March 22 letter to House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R.-Ohio).
'We ask that the Committee on House Administration be aware of this incident and take action to warn members and their staff to be cautious when a letter is circulated by a representative of an outside organization and not a congressional staff member,' the letter to Ney concluded.
Other House aides who have dealt with Aulakh say that while his methods are not typical, he has never tried to deceive them.
'My relationship has been totally fine; he's been really nice and informative,' said one House legislative assistant whose office chose not to sign the letter partly because of past links between the Sikh independence movement and terrorist activity. 'I understand he actually has a really good reputation on Capitol Hill.'
Aulakh has lived in the United States since 1970 and is now an American citizen. Before becoming president of the Council of Khalistan, he worked at the National Institutes of Health and Harvard University as a virologist. His distinctive beard and orange turban make him easily recognized on the Hill.
Although Anderson said she would not want to meet with Aulakh or sign another of his letters, no matter how legitimate his cause, the Sikh activist does not appear concerned that the accusations against him will hurt his cause.
'Those [131 members of Congress] in the India Caucus don't sign it,' Aulakh said. 'What difference does one more make?'