Kamaal or not: Kamala Harris and South Asia


The writer is professor of Feminist Studies and director of the Center for South Asia Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her scholarship focuses on histories of caste, gender and colonialism in South Asia. The views expressed are her own.

Diversity and inclusion without substantive change, without radical change, is worthless. The nomination of Kamala Harris as the Democratic Candidate for Vice President has generated anger, frustration, excitement, energy, and a whole gamut of complicated reactions amongst progressive ranks, especially those of us who work and think within South Asia.

Is the nomination of “Kamaal Harris” (to use a coinage from the viral Amul advertisement in India, “kamaal” meaning miracle) a source of radical optimism for the South Asian diaspora, or is it business as usual, made palatable solely by the desire to defeat Donald Trump?

Can the election of the Biden-Harris ticket change the geopolitical relationship between India and the United States?

Let’s be completely clear. There is no getting around the fact that Harris carries enormous negative political baggage from her stint as a prosecutor in California, and in her time as senator.

She’s flip-flopped on crucial issues, from prison reform, the legalization of marijuana, universal health care, corporate interests, to even her recent embrace of Biden’s leadership. And the list goes on.

I’m not here to defend or even explain away those checkered and quite frankly hugely problematic histories. Rather, I’m here to tell you why the election of Kamala Harris still matters and why we (the South Asian diaspora) should support her candidacy.

Even as I write this, I am being bombarded with advertisements from Trump’s political campaign. Each carries a picture of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump together, exhorting us to Make America (and India) great again through their holy alliance.

The assumption being that if I am of Indian origin, I must necessarily be open to their racial and religious bigotry.

The assumption being that if I am middle-class, educated, and carry a Hindu last name, I will embrace their brand of hate and communalism.

It is thus hardly surprising that the Modi sarkar has been resoundingly silent on Harris’s nomination, even as all of Chennai tries to find some family connection to her Indian roots!

So, what will change if Biden-Harris win? First and foremost, Kamala Harris is a black woman, with South Asian roots. The order of that sentence is important because much of the Indian media has ignored the fact that her mother, an upper-caste (Tamil Brahmin), educated immigrant to the US, deliberately chose to raise her as a proud black woman within the context of a rousing civil rights movements.

Her estranged father is a cantankerous, postcolonial scholar, the first black man to be granted tenure in the Economics department at Stanford University.

To celebrate Kamala Harris as South Asian is to acknowledge the stultifying weight of these histories of empire, racial inequality and misogyny, both in the United States and in India.

To live in Modi’s India or Trump’s US is to refuse these histories, to forge ahead, with no accountability for the relentless loss of lives and livelihoods to the vagaries of systemic inequality and racism, both within and beyond our current pandemic.

When Harris declared that there was no “vaccine for racism” in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, I heard a clarion call against the politics of such hate, oppression and inaction.

Does that mean that I think she embodies the radical change we seek? Not quite. What I think she represents is more the possibility for change, for a much-needed pushback against the blind triumphalism of Trump’s Hindu India, and Modi’s Howdy US (my reversal here is deliberate).

Modi may want to ignore Harris for now, but it is unlikely that he will be able to do so once she is elected.

For all her political warts, Harris is committed to the fight against systemic racism, and by extension to the fight against hate.

And for all those reasons and more, there is a “kamaal” (miracle) waiting to happen.