Swearing-in ceremony in the morning, a celebratory gala in the evening.
WASHINGTON, DC: Tuesday was a day of many firsts!
Kamala Harris of California became the first Indian American woman to be sworn into the Senate by Vice President Joe Biden, and across the hallowed halls of Congress, Pramila Jayapal of Washington took her rightful place as the first Indian American woman elected to the House of Representatives.
Jayapal was sworn in by House Speaker Paul Ryan, together with other Indian American lawmakers: Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, Ami Bera and Ro Khanna of California. They are the fabulous five!
It is a triumph for the Indian American community, a watershed moment! Never before have so many US lawmakers of Indian origin been elected to the highest legislative body in the land!
Harris was accompanied to the swearing-in ceremony on Capitol Hill by family members, including her husband Douglas Emhoff and sister Maya Harris. “Today, I was sworn-in to the US Senate. I am humbled and honored to serve you and the people of California. Let’s get to work,” Harris said, following the event. And she proceeded to do just that co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill that protects 744,000 DREAMers from being deported by the incoming administration.
“These individuals were raised in this country and deserve to fully participate and earn a piece of the American dream. Our diversity makes the fabric of our society stronger. We must embrace it, not reject it. That is the message I am sending this week in Washington,” she said.
Addressing the grandiose Indiaspora Gala in the nation’s capital following the swearing-in ceremonies on Capitol Hill, Jayapal gushed, “I am so proud to be the first Indian American woman elected to the US House of Representatives.”
She told a huge, eminent gathering at the sprawling Marriott Marquis hotel in the nation’s capital, “What I hope and believe is that I won’t be the last Indian American woman elected to the House of Representatives. We are going to make sure that Indian-Americans across this country see our election not only as personal victories for ourselves and for our Districts and for our country, but as opportunities and role models for others to be engaged in democracy, to run for office themselves.”
Her mother, Maya Jayapal – originally from Kerala, now residing in Bengaluru, India — arrived well in time to witness and even partake in the historic swearing-in event holding a copy of both the Bhagavad Gita and the United States Constitution on which Jayapal took the ceremonial oath of office. She was so proud of her daughter who had defied all odds to be in that exalted position.
At the Indiaspora Gala, Jayapal recalled that with the equivalent of only $5,000 in their bank account, her parents sent her to America by herself when she was merely 16 years old “because they believed this was the place I was going to get the best education. And to go from that experience to today being a Congresswoman is what I think so many of us strive for,” she said.
Harris was conspicuously absent from a gala which drew so many distinguished guests including: over two dozen members of Congress; Indian Ambassador Navtej Sarna; US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy; Nisha Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the US State Department; Arun Kumar, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Global Markets; Judge Sri Srinivasan of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; and Vanita Gupta, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and head of the Civil Rights Division at the US Department of Justice. Nina Davuluri who was crowned Miss America in 2014 served as the eloquent emcee.
Krishnamoorthi commended Indiaspora founder M.R. Rangaswami, an entrepreneur and philanthropist based in California, and board member Shekar Narasimhan for organizing “a tremendous event”.
To the gathering, he said, “Indian Americans elected to the US Congress are a testament to everything that you did for us”. Extolling members of the community for their values, traditions, and work ethics, he affirmed, “We stand on your shoulders to reach for the stars, to be in the United States Congress. So, I joke that though my name is Raja Krishnamoorthi, it might as well be Raja Patel or Raja Shah or Raja Singh or Raja Rao. The point is that when we have reached the US Congress, you have reached the US Congress. That is because of everything you do every single day to help your communities, to raise your families right, to instill good values in your children, and to live life with character.”
To Indian Americans who are thinking of running for office, he said, “There is no better time than now. You have role models. We have a play book and it’s time to get started.”
Ro Khanna recalled that his grandfather was jailed for four years in the 1940s during India’s independence movement. “To think that in two generations, a son of Indian immigrants is elected to the US Congress is a story of this community’s extraordinary progress and contributions”, he said, adding, “I am so proud to be part of this community”.
Ami Bera, re-elected to the US Congress for a third term, led the new Indian American lawmakers and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (Democrat – Hawaii), in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
“We are having an opportunity to give back to the country which has given us so much,” he said. “We are not going to stop at the fabulous five. Let’s get to the tenacious ten. Let’s get to that day when we are celebrating the first Indian American president of the United States.”
Rangaswami gushed, “This is a historic moment. Today, we are celebrating the community going from success to significance.” He noted, “We are one percent of the US population and now we are one percent of the US Congress. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” he said, hoping that more Indian-Americans will be elected to the legislative branch.
Commending the fabulous five Indian American lawmakers, Surgeon General Murthy dwelt on the importance of inclusion in his remarks to the illustrious Indiaspora audience. “As powerful as this feeling of inclusion is, as all of us feel part of their victory, there are many people in our country who do not feel included in the democratic process, in the government,” he said. America’s top doctor hoped the Indian American community can play a pivotal role in widening the circle of inclusion so that more people feel inspired to go into government especially young people.
“We are and always have been a nation of immigrants and when we forget that the success of this nation has been built on the success of immigrants then we put ourselves in a perilous place”, he said. “It is up to all of us to ensure that each and every person, whether they came here a few years ago or a few generations ago, has an opportunity to be included in American society and to contribute”.
Congresswoman Gabbard recalled being at the inaugural Indiaspora Gala four years ago as a newly elected member of Congress. At the time, she was the only Hindu lawmaker in the House of Representatives. She spoke of the strides in India-US ties and the potential for strengthening the friendship between the two great democracies. On stage, she lighted the traditional Indian ‘diya’ (lamp) signifying hope and optimism.