PV Gopalan: The Progressive Indian Civil Servant Who Mentored Kamala Harris

In her first campaign appearance as Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden’s choice for United States Vice President and current California senator, Kamala Harris spoke quite candidly on her Indian and Jamaican heritage.

“My mother and father came from opposite sides of the world to arrive in America. One from India and the other from Jamaica in search of a world-class education. But what brought them together was the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And that is how they met as students in the streets of Oakland [California] marching and shouting for this thing called justice in a struggle that continues today,” she said during the speech.

However, one person missing from her speech was her maternal grandfather and Indian civil servant, PV Gopalan, whom Kamala Harris once referred to as “one of my favorite people in my world”. Until his passing in 1998, Gopalan remained a guiding light in Kamala’s life imparting values of civic mindedness, public service and human rights.

Kamala
(Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In a 2009 interview with journalist Aziz Haniffa, she talked about the influence Gopalan had on her life.

“One of the most influential people in my life, in addition to my mother, was my grandfather PV Gopalan, who actually held a post in India that was like the Secretary of State position in this country..some of my fondest memories from childhood were walking along the beach with him after he retired and lived in Besant Nagar, in what was then called Madras. He would take walks every morning along the beach with his buddies who were all retired government officials and they would talk about politics, about how corruption must be fought and about justice. They would laugh and voice opinions and argue, and those conversations, even more than their actions, had such a strong influence on me in terms in terms of learning to be responsible, to be honest, and to have integrity.”

There aren’t too many details available about PV Gopalan, but here are five things we know about him:

Early Days: Born in 1911 in Painganadu, a village in Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvarur district, his marriage to Kamala’s maternal grandmother, Rajam, from a neighbouring district was an arranged one. He started out his career in government service sometime during the 1930s, but moved the family across major cities like New Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai as his career in the Indian Civil Service progressed. Through his time in government, he served in various roles ranging from Under Secretary to Government of India in the Ministry of Transport (Roads Wing) to Joint Secretary to Government of India in the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Rehabilitation.

Diligent civil servant: Although in her 2019 memoir, The Truths We Hold Kamala spoke of how Gopalan had once been part of the Indian Independence movement, it’s a claim members of her own family dispute saying there are no records suggesting his involvement. Instead, many of his family members believe he was a diligent civil servant. If he had made any public claim for Indian Independence, it would have got him fired, they claim.

Anti-corruption stance: When he was posted as a senior commercial officer in Mumbai, which was even then among India’s busiest trading hubs, as a commercial officer, he set rather firm ground rules at home to prevent businessmen from paying bribes. At the Peddar Road family residence in the middle of the city, no strangers were allowed to enter. Only if visitors brought sweets or fruits, were the children allowed to open up any parcels that reached their home. Otherwise, there was no chance of accepting any parcels.

Zambia and human rights: After Zambia attained Independence in 1964, PV Gopalan was deputed to the federal Government of Zambia as Director of Relief Measures and Refugees in Lusaka, to help this young independent nation to manage an influx of refugees from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). “My grandfather felt very strongly about the importance of defending civil rights and fighting for equality and integrity,” Kamala once said. “I just remember them always talking about the people who were corrupt versus the people who were real servants.”

Progressive outlook: Back in 1958, Gopalan’s daughter Shyamala (Kamala’s mother), who was 19 at the time, applied for a master’s programme at UC Berkeley in the United States. Mind you, this was at a time when women were not expected to work or study further. Gopalan instead chose to dig into his retirement savings to pay for her tuition and boarding for her first year there.

“At that time, the number of unmarried Indian women who had gone to the States for graduate studies — it was probably in the low double digits. But my father was quite open. He said, ‘If you get admission, you go,’” says Kamala’s uncle G. Balachandran speaking to the LA Times. Although Gopalan and Rajam were initially unhappy at Shyamala marrying a Jamaican academic, Donald Harris, they were quick to accept him.

All of Shyamala’s siblings had the freedom to make their own life choices. Balachandran, a PhD in economics and computer science, married a Mexican woman and had a daughter. His younger sister Sarala, a retired obstetrician, never married. The youngest, Mahalakshmi, an information scientist, had an arranged marriage but bore no children. “When you’re raised in a family, I guess later in life you realize how your family might be different,” Kamala once said. “But it all seemed very normal to me. … I obviously did realize as an adult, and as I got older, that they were extremely progressive.”

Many times in the past, Senator Kamala Harris has spoken about her Indian ancestry and the impact it had on her life. Nonetheless, it’s important not to get carried away. She is a people’s representative from the United States, and if elected vice-president she will look to defend America’s interest. Also, whether her grandfather and mother’s regard for human rights has translated into some of Kamala’s policy decisions remains up for debate.

Having said that, it’s a proud day for many Indians who have migrated to countries like the USA. Many of their children will now see the possibility of reaching the highest echelons of American politics, which wasn’t the case even a decade ago. And some credit for her rise to such heights does land on the door of her grandfather and mother.

Source material: LA Times and India Abroad

Feature Image courtesy: Twitter/Rohit Bansal/LA Times

(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)

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