When Anuradha Bakshi immigrated to the U.S. in 1971, she would frequently be questioned by American women as to why India had so many prominent female politicians, such as the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the first female president of the United Nations General Assembly.
“They would ask me: ‘How long will it take to get a woman into the White House? I said 50 years,’” the Indian American woman recalled to India-West.
Fifty years later, Bakshi, with her daughter Shikha and grand-daughter Avani, watched her prediction realized, as Vice President Kamala Devi Harris took her oath of office Jan. 20 morning, sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on the grounds of the Capitol Building. The nation’s new vice president breaks several barriers: she is the first Indian American, the first Black person, and the first woman to hold the post.
Harris took the oath of office dressed in blue with her trademark pearls — and not the sari many had hoped for — surrounded by her husband Doug Emhoff, who held the Bible on which she took the oath, and her step-children Cole and Ella. The inauguration ceremony for President Joe Biden and Harris was greatly scaled down, in a nod to social-distancing measures imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and for security reasons, brought on after a violent mob, egged on by former President Donald Trump, stormed through the Capitol Building on Jan. 6. Trump did not attend the inauguration, but several former presidents and vice presidents from both parties, including Vice President Mike Pence, were in attendance.
Harris did not give a speech after she was sworn in, but in a tweet, paid homage to her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher and civil rights advocate. “I am here because of the women who came before me,” said Harris, posting several images of her mother and sister Maya.
The vice president has announced that she will overhaul the U.S. immigration system within 100 days after taking office, sending a comprehensive immigration reform bill to Congress, reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and repealing the Muslim ban. Biden announced Jan. 18 that he would create an eight-year path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented residents.
“Democracy has prevailed,” said Biden in his inauguration speech, making reference to the mobs that had terrorized the Capitol. “The dream of justice for all will be defined with hope.”
“I know that the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we all are created equal, and the harsh ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart,” said the new president.
“We'll press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities,” said Biden, asking for a moment of silence to the 400,000 Americans who have lost their lives to COVID. He spoke of the millions of people who had lost their jobs to the pandemic and worried about how to make rent and put food on the table.
“I hear you,” said Biden.
He asked the nation to “start afresh,” with a vision of unity.
Bakshi noted that Harris’s inauguration was a symbol of how women have evolved in the U.S. When she and her late husband attempted to join the Lion’s Club — an apolitical service organization — Bakshi learned that women were not allowed, a provision that did not change until the late 1990s. Similarly, the Kiwanis Club did not allow women: Bakshi had to wait outside.
She nonetheless became a pioneering social activist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Bakshi’s granddaughter Avani shares Harris’s background: she is the daughter of an Indian American mother and a Black father. “I met Kamala when I was 10 years old,” Avani Hamilton told India-West, recalling that her mother Shikha took her to a campaign event. “I told her about being Indian and Black. She leaned down and asked with a laugh: ‘How’s that working out for you?’”
“I had never met anyone who had my exact identity. Growing up in Detroit, I got a lot of ‘Who are you? What are you?’ I had these two identities: people didn’t know I was black right off the bat, and they didn’t know I was Indian.’”
Hamilton, an educator with the organization My Digital Tat2, who is also interning with The Actors Theater Workshop in New York, said Harris has inspired her to learn the stories of her family. Her black grandparents were once refused service at a restaurant and forced to lie on the ground until the situation was resolved. By contrast, her Indian grandparents were allowed to buy a new car without so much as a down payment.
Hamilton said she hopes the new administration will immediately work to address police brutality against Black people, using de-escalation techniques, and police forces who understand the neighborhoods they are patrolling.
Bakshi said she hopes the administration will work to get every U.S. resident vaccinated by this summer.
Shikha Hamilton, the national organizing manager of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told India-West she hopes the new administration will, by executive fiat within its first 100 days, order a background check on every gun sale.
“Kamala rose through the ranks by sheer hard work. She’s not a millionaire, she’s not Ivy League.”
“She is the daughter of immigrants, a multi-racial person who represents the new America. This is a moment for all of us to be proud,” said Shikha Hamilton.