Indiaspora Gala in Washington celebrates the stellar achievements of Indian-Americans
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, January 3, 2017 – Setting a record, five brilliant Indian-Americans, all Democrats, have been sworn in as members of the 115th US Congress.
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”, Kamala 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 grand 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 500-strong 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 Pramila 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 dollars 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.
Raja Krishnamoorthi warmly 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, 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”.
Indian Ambassador Sarna noted, “Today happens to be the 50th anniversary of the first Indian-American elected to the US Congress – Dalip Singh Saund” who served the 29th District of California from January 3, 1957 to January 3, 1963. About the election of the fabulous five, he said, “It is truly the mainstream-ing of the Indian-American community in US politics”. The envoy spoke of the “huge potential for burgeoning India-US relations” predicting the best days are ahead.
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic nominee for Vice President in the recent US election, recalled that when he was running for Governor, he “worked very closely with the Indian-American community which has been such a source of power and strength in our Commonwealth. One of the great virtues of being Hillary Clinton’s running mate is that I got to not only know Indian-American leaders in Virginia, but around the country”, he told the Indiaspora Gala, to much applause from the audience. “We are blessed as a nation, we are better off as a nation because of the wonderful contributions that you make”, he underscored.
As a Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said, “I look forward to deepening the wonderful relationship between the United States and India and working together on the passionate priorities that we share here at home”.
Congressman Joe Crowley of New York, Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a champion of India-US ties, gushed, “The Indian Diaspora is incredible”! He spoke of recent accomplishments when US lawmakers worked together with members of the Indian-American community such as: the FBI tracking hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and other minorities in America; the super successful address of Prime Minister Modi to a joint session of the US Congress; and a recent initiative which allows Sikh Americans to serve in the New York Police Department (NYPD) with their turbans and beards.
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.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (Democrat – New York) who led the efforts on Capitol Hill for a Diwali stamp told the Indiaspora audience, “More people bought the Diwali stamp on the first day of issuance than any other stamp in US history”. She implored the gathering to continue to buy it and make it the most important stamp in America.
“It is a recognition of the major contributions of the Indian-American community to our great country. It is befitting that the world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest democracy are such good friends and allies”, she said.
Among other influential US lawmakers who attended the Indiaspora Gala were: Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, Democratic Co-Chair of the Senate India Caucus; Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska who quipped, “I may be the token Republican here”; and Congresswoman Grace Meng (Democrat – New York).