Why India wants to claim Kamala Harris as her own

Kamala Harris, Democrat candidate for Vice President of US | Chona Kasinger | Bloomberg

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For very different reasons, both Indians and U.S. conservatives are emphasizing Sen. Kamala Harris’s Indian heritage. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising. Indians have always been quick to appropriate successful members of their diaspora. And right-wing commentators and even U.S. President Donald Trump are seeking to spread suspicions about the Democratic vice presidential candidate’s citizenship by emphasizing her mother’s Indian background and father’s Jamaican heritage. In reality, though, Harris is the very definition of American.

Indian society still largely believes that identity is determined more by one’s birth and family than by individual choices and actions. Especially for the very large conservative faction in India, caste and religion are assigned at birth, never to be altered. One cannot technically convert to Hinduism. And the caste system, maintained by marriage, ensures very little social mobility. In India, the birth lottery is everything.

So, Harris and other U.S. political leaders such as Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley will always be claimed as “Indian” even though they are American-born and their public service has been devoted almost exclusively to Americans. By contrast, someone like Sonia Gandhi, who has spent more than five decades in India and led the Indian National Congress party successfully through two national elections, is routinely described as “Italian-born” or a “foreigner.” Had Gandhi not married into the first family of India, her political rise would have been impossible.

That’s not to say Harris’s Indian roots haven’t fundamentally shaped her. Her mother Shyamala Gopalan was born in India and raised in a Tamil Brahmin family, which likely afforded her the Indian equivalent of white privilege. Because of this Brahminical edge, families such as Shyamala’s (and mine), boast multiple generations of college graduates in a country that has yet to achieve 100% basic literacy.

Not unusually for “Tam-Bram” families, Shyamala and all her siblings were encouraged to pursue advanced graduate degrees. In Shyamala’s case, this included a rare opportunity move to the U.S. to attend Berkeley, creating the possibility of joining the Indian-American elite, or what scholars have dubbed “The Other One Percent.” This educational foundation in turn, would have helped ease Harris’s own entry into the ranks of the American elite.

The idea that anyone who comes to this country and works hard can change their fortune is still the essence of America, though. While social mobility is  limited in certain demographics, the accident of birth matters less in the U.S. than in almost any other country in the world. The American dream remains a cherished personal and policy goal.

What really sets Kamala Harris apart is not the caste or ethnicity of her mother, but the choices her mother made. At 19, Shyamala was relatively young when she came to the U.S. and she quickly became very active in the civil rights movement. That’s how she met and married fellow immigrant Donald J. Harris, who is now professor emeritus of economics at Stanford University.

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