Within weeks of establishing the group, Fai made his first campaign contribution, $500 to Burton. Neither man would say how they met, but Burton, who later gained fame for investigating the Clintons as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was a natural friend for Fai. The congressman had just sponsored a bill aiming to curtail aid to India until human-rights abuse investigations were allowed, particularly in Punjab and Kashmir. “Not even the Red Cross has been allowed access to Kashmir,” Burton announced on the House floor.
Months later, Fai invited people to the council’s first delegates meeting at a Holiday Inn in Dayton, Ohio. Burton, Fai announced, had agreed to be the keynote speaker.
Over the next 20 years, Fai became the face of the separatist Kashmiri cause in the U.S. He never advocated publicly for Kashmir to join Pakistan, calling instead for “self-determination.”
At first, Hafiz Mohammad Sabir, now an imam of one of the largest Pakistani mosques in Brooklyn, said he doubted Fai’s commitment to Kashmir. “On that time, believe you me, he was alone,” recalled Sabir, from the Pakistan side of Kashmir. “He cannot even come to the Kashmiri community and gather 10 Kashmiris.”
But in about 1994, when Sabir was working as a cabdriver, he spotted Fai in midtown Manhattan, lugging a large bag through more than a foot of snow. Fai was handing out fliers about Kashmir, Sabir realized. He grabbed the bag, put it in his taxi and drove Fai wherever he wanted to go. After that, Sabir said, he helped Fai however he could, bringing busloads of mosque members to conferences in Washington and helping to spearhead protests in New York.
At about the same time, Fai was making inroads with U.S. politicians. In 1993, Fai wrote President Clinton about the suffering of Kashmiris, winning news coverage when Clinton wrote back. In 1996, Fai met Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole at the Republican National Convention. In 2000, he met Clinton in Chicago, just before Clinton visited India.
Fai grew particularly close to a few House Republicans. In 2002, an ally of Fai’s, Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, helped form a congressional forum on Kashmir. In an interview, Pitts said he met Fai after becoming interested in Kashmir, and felt that Fai wanted Kashmiris, Indians and Pakistanis to come up with a peaceful solution together. “Dr. Fai is an old gentleman, an American citizen interested in giving back to his homeland, interested in peace and peace talks,” Pitts said.
Fai’s most significant relationship was with Dan Burton. In 2004, Fai testified in front of Burton’s subcommittee hearing on human-rights abuses in Kashmir. Burton introduced him personally, saying, “I’ve known Dr. Fai for a long time.”
In 2007, Fai was given the American Spirit Medal, the highest award from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, for being committed to conservative principles.
Fai also leapt onto the world stage. He traveled to more than 40 countries, from Indonesia to Spain. Fai said he met with more than 1,000 ambassadors from around the world.
In Pakistan, he was treated like a visiting dignitary. In June 2009, Fai stayed at the best hotel in Islamabad and met the president, prime minister and foreign minister. A video from the trip showed Fai and President Asif Ali Zardari sitting in white armchairs, flanking a photo of Zardari’s late wife, Benazir Bhutto.
Each year, starting in 2003, Fai co-hosted a Kashmir peace conference, usually on Capitol Hill. The 2007 conference drew Pitts, a dozen other members of Congress and various Pakistani dignitaries, as well as a handful of Indian and Indian-American human-rights activists and scholars. Fai covered the expenses of almost all the attendees who traveled to Washington.
About 20 of Fai’s guests then flew with him to Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, for a one-day conference on Kashmir. They met with a group of Uruguayan generals and attended sessions that ran over familiar ground.
“[Fai] spoke about the usual things,” recalled Angana Chatterji, an Indian-American scholar who attended the event. “He has this list of dignitaries he brings up and issues like the U.N. treaties and self-determination.”
Fai paid for the group’s flights. He also covered accommodations at the Radisson, one of Montevideo’s nicer hotels, having about $13,000 wired to him to cover the tab in cash, Sabir said.
By last year, Fai was in some ways living the American dream. His second wife, whom he had met at Temple, had found a good job at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They had bought a four-bedroom brick house in the Virginia suburbs for more than $650,000. They had raised two children, one who studied at Ohio State University, the other at Stanford.
But behind the scenes, things were unraveling.
As far back as 1991, stories in the Indian press referred to Fai as an “agent.” The Indian embassy refused to send anyone to his conferences. Others were also suspicious: How did Fai have so much money? How could a shoestring nonprofit afford an office near the White House and a top-notch PR firm?