Wael Badran (Abu Dhabi)
When Vice President Joe Biden’s Kamala Harris credited her immigrant mother, Shyamala Gopalan, in her presidential election victory speech, the American Indian community rejoiced and cheered that historic moment.
With the political rise of Harris, Americans of Indian origin in the United States found themselves represented on a global level, and considered that one of them had become the most powerful woman in the most powerful country in the world, and along with her rocket rise to power, expectations also jumped to record levels.
And political leaders, activists, officials and others from the American Indian community confirm the increasing talk about Harris’s role in the response and whether more efforts should be made, while the country of one billion people is in a death race due to the tsunami of the second wave of the “Covid-19” epidemic.
Shortly after giving a speech on May 7 detailing the administration’s efforts to tackle the “Corona” wave in India, Harris made a call about the outbreak of the virus, but he was with her uncle and aunt in her mother’s homeland, India.
They told her they were in good health, but made it clear that almost everyone they knew had a friend or relative who had the infection, sources familiar with the conversation confirmed to The Washington Post.
Harris, considered the highest-ranking official of Indian origin in US history, faces a question both personal and political, in light of which the Indian community’s judgment on her appears mixed.
In the United States, where vaccines are available, vaccinated Americans have now been given the green light to gather without the need for masks in many places, a giant step toward returning to normal life, and the country, which Harris’ mother left in 1958, is still struggling with a vaccination program turbulent, while the health system collapsed under pressure, and thousands of people die every day, while hundreds of bodies floated in the Ganges River.
And between these two worlds, the inimitable politician finds herself trapped. She is the first woman, the first black person, and the first person of Asian descent to reach the position of US Vice President, while she has spent her career trying to distance herself from defining herself only by her identity. Is she Indian or not?
Harris did not talk much about the tragedy in India in public, but her few succinct comments came while talking about other topics, and rarely indicated her personal connection to India during the crisis.
Indian-Americans may differ fiercely on everything from the rise of Indian nationalism to politics, but only the health catastrophe caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and many look to the vice president who shares their roots and fears.
Some of those are disappointed that she was not more upfront, especially after she celebrated her identity during the campaign to attract Indian American voters to vote in the 2020 elections.
“It shows us the limits of political representation,” says Sugatha Shenoy, a student at the University of Chicago who wrote an article about Harris’s initial silence about the crisis. “If you say you represent this particular group, you have to stand with them when they suffer.”
And Aditi Kharrod, 22, a graduate of the University of North Carolina, says she was delighted that a woman of Indian descent had risen to the position of vice president, but that it made no difference to India’s suffering.
She considered that perhaps Harris should have sought to support India more, especially since she has a family there.
Critics believe that she could have used her position to draw more attention to India’s tragedy, and although they acknowledge the relief efforts made by the US administration, they believe that Harris should have pressured more to share vaccines with other countries, and benefit from her personal story in reducing the principle of « America first.”
A group of Indian Americans consider the criticism of Harris to be torn between America’s interests and India’s needs as a wrong choice.
And they say: Harris’ actions on India are limited only to President Biden’s agenda, as they would have been if anyone else held the position of vice president. Some Harris supporters believe that a politician with a broad national support base can lose popularity if they become a staunch supporter of a particular group. “As an Indian-American, I think the most rewarding thing is to be a special vice president,” says Sharyn Bunyan, who helped fundraise for Harris during her campaign for California’s attorney general in 2010. And we don’t have to look like we’re different.”
Searching for oneself
In her 2018 book, Harris referenced her Indian heritage, recounting the experience of growing up biracial in the San Francisco Bay Area. But in press interviews, she confirmed that she had never gone through the journey of self-search that former President Barack Obama went through, as the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, as he described in his memoirs.
Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, whom the vice president described as having had the greatest influence in her life, was born in Chennai on India’s southeast coast. She graduated from the University of California, and met Harris’ father, a recent graduate from Jamaica, at a civil rights event.
When she was growing up, Harris visited India with her mother and sister every two years, while during her childhood she practiced her religion in a Hindu temple and a black church.
Whatever her identity, some Indian-American activists say she does not have to take a particular position, noting that Biden, for example, is not asked to give an opinion on Ireland, given his Irish ancestry.
Two administration officials with knowledge of Harris’ activities confirmed that the vice president played an important role in internal White House talks about the India crisis.
They cited its role in most high-level talks on the response to the crisis, including sending oxygen, medicine, ventilators and personal protective equipment, as well as raw materials for vaccine manufacturing, to the Indian subcontinent.
Recently, the US administration supported the World Trade Organization’s proposal to drop intellectual property rights on Corona vaccines, allowing countries such as India to rapidly produce these vaccines. This endorsement is partly due to the fact that the American Indian community is expanding, having grown to more than 4.5 million people compared to just two million two decades ago, most of whom are Democratic inclined.