Kamala Harris’ journey from ‘Brahmin’ to Blackhood is rarest of the rare

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Kamala Harris holding a microphone

America is a global power. Even though China is trying to challenge the US, it may not succeed in the near future. The world will be governed by American democratic moralism, highly-advanced capitalist wealth and technology for years to come. As the US continues its global dominance, a person of Indian origin — Kamala Harris — becoming the first woman vice-president with the Black badge on her sleeves is definitely a pride moment for all Indians, especially for Indian women.

Kamala Harris carries many first flags as she enters the White House vice-president office — first American woman, white or Black; first Asian; first person of Indian origin. She comes from a Black and Brahmin background, another rare and unusual combination.

The transformation of an Indian Brahmin to Blackhood in a country known for racial discrimination is a rarest of the rare occurrence. Indian Brahmin men, let alone women, for a long time in history, refused to travel across the seas because it was considered ritual pollution.

Indians and their fight for citizenship

It took a court order in 1910 for Bhicaji Balsara — a Parsi from India who had migrated to the US — to become a naturalised citizen. The court had noted that a Parsi being white could be granted the right to citizenship. Before Bhicaji, some Sikhs had migrated to America as labourers, and for decades worked as ‘unlawful migrant labourers’ without getting citizenship.

Around 1913, A.K. Mozumdar became the first Dwija with an Aryan racial heritage to attain US citizenship. That was also through a court order. In the court, Mozumdar argued that he was an Aryan by race, hence an equal to the Caucasian American White race. The judge agreed with that argument. Back then, American racism was as deep as Indian casteism. Kamala Harris’ grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, came from a conservative Tamil Brahmin family.

Brahmins and migration

The migration of middle-class English educated Brahmins began as a protest against Periyar Ramasamy Naicker’s anti-Brahmin movement in the 1940s and 50s.

In the 1950s and 60s, very few young Indians who migrated to America for higher studies settled there. And hardly any women students went for higher studies. Shyamala Gopalan, Kamala Harris’ mother, went there for higher studies in science in 1958 and got married to a Black economics teacher, Donald Jasper Harris at Stanford, who had migrated to the US from Jamaica. Generally, Tamil Brahmins are conservative Vaishnavites with a ‘pure’ vegetarian food culture. For Shyamala, overcoming that background and marrying a Black man whose cultural heritage was totally different was a revolutionary step.

Perhaps she was an exceptional young woman who had the support of her father in those days. Although the marriage did not last long, Shyamala Gopalan with her two girls — Kamala and Maya — continued her life as a Black civil rights activist, carrying on her husband’s legacy. This is another rarest of rare feat that could be expected of an Indian, that too a Tamil Brahmin. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement was at its peak with Martin Luther King leading the agitation across the US. Shyamala became an activist for it.

Shyamala Gopalan became a protestant Christian, which was her husband’s religion, but occasionally used to visit Hindu temples. Young Kamala became a good choir singer and it was this Protestant Christian background that later helped her in her fight for the attorney, Senate and vice-presidential elections. Joe Biden is a Catholic Christian. He must have picked Kamala because of her Indian-Black-protestant background to win the election.

Kamala Harris and her American success

What contributed the most to her success? Was it the success of her grandfather or her mother or the English language education her family received for three generations? Imagine if they had been confined to Sanskrit, which was their mother tongue, historically. Where would they have been now? Having become the vice-president, Kamala Harris now has a clear shot at becoming the President of the US in the years to come.

For us Indians, there is a lesson in Kamala Harris’ emergence, not as coloured Indian or Asian, but as a Black with a Brahmin background, who is committed to human equality with a religious belief that ‘god created all human beings equal’ irrespective of gender, race, caste or class. After Barack Obama, she will definitely go down in history as someone with exceptional achievement in the democratic world.

Indian women will have to take a leaf out of Kamala Harris’ mother’s life — if a woman decides to work for abolition of caste and racial discrimination, they should be able to do it with more audacity.

What does Kamala Harris’ stay in the White House mean for India? What kind of relationship will develop between the Indian government and the Biden-Harris administration in the next four years? Harris and Biden have a different view on the Kashmir question from the Trump administration. Kamala Harris being of Indian origin is one thing, her administration’s stand on the Narendra Modi government’s policies would be another.

Modi as Prime Minister has made many undiplomatic statements on American soil — “Abki bar Trump sarkar” in Houston being one of them. In India, in the American election year, Modi had organised a public rally at Ahmedabad to drum up support for Donald Trump. However, despite all these pro-Trump gestures, the US president could not make a comeback.

After the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Modi government’s moves on internal and foreign policy issues have pushed India into crises. The economy is in its worst shape. It all depends on how the Modi government repositions itself on human rights issues. Kamala Harris may not be lenient just because she is of Indian origin.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is political theorist, social activist and author. Views are personal.