The Politics of Heritage
Chants of ‘go back to Italy’ have dominated everytime Sonia Gandhi has tried to express or do something not in line with the opposition’s opinions and ideas, while Kamala Harris’s identity as an Indian has been irrefutably accepted. The complex web of heritage, identity and gender that has played out to make this differing reality possible for two womxn politicians, speaks volumes about the mindset and perspective that womxn are subjected to and scrutinized by, when in the public eye. However, the question that still stands is what are the parameters of judgement that have pushed people to continually ask one to prove her Indian-ness and the other has just been accorded the status of being an Indian.
The swearing-in of Kamala Harris as the Vice President of one of the most powerful nations of the world brought joy not only to womxn all over the world but also to the people of India and the Indian diaspora at large. There is no denying that this a huge victory for people of colour and holds immense sociocultural significance owing to her biracial background, however it is to note here that the Senator’s Indian heritage which has been so greatly emphasized by both, the US conservatives and the Indians. While, the US Conservatives seeked to point out inconsistencies with her citizenship owing to her immigrant parents and hamper the Presidential campaign, for the Indians, Harris has become the very definition of one of our own, even though she is an American in all the ways that matter.
Sonia Gandhi, born to Italian parents, met Rajiv Gandhi at the Cambridge University and they later tied the knot in 1968. It was only after Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister that she took up responsibility and got actively engaged in politics. After the horrendous assasination of Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi was involved with non-profit organisations that furthered the legacy of her husband. It was only in 1997 that she actively took part in politics by entering the Indian National Congress as a primary member of Calcutta Plenary Session and was later handed the Presidentship of the party. Things only looked up from here as as she went on to become the leader of opposition in Lok Sabha and later led Congress to victory in 2004 national elections and has been a dominant figure in Indian politics since. Despite being such a successful figure, she has faced backlash at every turn of the way for being an Italian by birth.
Kamala Harris and Sonia Gandhi represent two stark realities, parallely existing, intertwined with the complex idea of identity. In India, identity of a person primarily roots from the unalterable trio- caste, family and the religion that they are born into, and is reinforced by institutions of marriage and caste endogamy, making these pillars almost immobile and immune to change. This focus on the collective has led the society to completely ignore individual choices that govern one’s identity. Therefore, for a large part of the upper-caste, conservative, privileged population, Kamala Harris is as Indian as anybody else but on same wavelength, Sonia Gandhi is seen as a ‘foreigner’ who doesn’t know anything about the workings of the country. While on one hand, Harris is applauded for the smallest display of Indian-ness, like uttering the word ‘chithi.’ On the other hand, Sonia Gandhi, who has led Congress successfully through two elections, has been in the country for more than five decades and has an Indian citizenship, is still seen as an outsider. Along with the three governing stalwarts of identity, gender plays an important role. India has had a history of being a staunch hypocrite when it comes to its daughters, best explained using the ‘beti aur bahu’ example. The idea of ‘beti’ being one’s own and ‘bahu’ being the outsider is a dominant concept in Indian households, where the achievements of ‘beti’ are seen as something to be proud of and ‘bahu’ becomes the victim of criticism, irrespective of the feat she has achieved. The Indian society, however, has used these terms to their own convenience as we can also see in the case of Gandhi and Harris. Whenever they have done something that hasn’t been in accordance with the conservative, upper-caste, privileged opinions, the society has been quick to shame them.
The dynamics of heritage, identity and gender often dictate the standards of scrutiny and judgement one will be subjected to and evidently, that has been the case with Kamala Harris and Sonia Gandhi but they aren’t the first people to have faced this and certainly won’t be the last.
- Samikhya Satpathy