DBS Jeyaraj, in his website 28 January 2021, where the title reads thus “US Vice President–Elect Kamala Harris’s Key Sri Lankan Tamil Aide Rohini Lakshmi”
An overwhelming feeling of relief has descended upon the world – not merely the US- after the Presidential elections of the United States of America ended. Joseph Robinette Biden jnr known as Joe Biden is the new US President-elect. Biden’s creditable, credible electoral triumph has ensured that decency, dignity and decorum will once again return to the Oval office of the White House. A double delight in the 46th US President to be’s victory is that of the shattering of glass ceilings by his running mate Kamala Harris. The new US Vice President- elect would not only be the first US woman vice-president but will also be the first person of Afro-Caribbean origin and South Asian descent to be elected to that post.
56 year Kamala Devi Harris known as Kamala Harris will be the 49th Vice President of the USA on January 20th 2021. She was born on October 20th 1964 in Oakland, California as the daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother. Both her parents were immigrants . Her mother Shyamala Gopalan came to the USA in 1958 while her Father Donald Jasper Harris did so in 1961 . They were post- graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley where they met, loved and married.
Kamala’s mother Shyamala obtained a Ph D in Nutrition and Endocrinology in 1964, the year elder daughter Kamala was born. Her father Donald got his PhD in Economics in 1966. Kamala’s younger sister Maya was born in 1967. Kamala denotes lotus and Maya means illusion in Sanskrit. Donald J Harris is an Emeritus professor of Economics from Stanford University. Shyamala worked as as a Bio-medical scientist researching breast cancer in several universities. Sadly she passed away in 2009 due to colon cancer. Donald and Shyamala divorced in 1971. Kamala and her sister Maya were brought up by Shyamala as a single mother.
While Kamala’s father was of Afro-Jamaican origins, her mother was a Tamil from India with roots in present day Tamil Nadu. Shyamala’s father PV Gopalan was an Indian Tamil Brahmin of “Iyer” stock. Her father Gopalan hailed from Thulasenthirapuram while mother Rajam was from the adjacent village of Painganadu. The closest big town to these rural villages is Mannargudi.
When Shyamala was born on April 7th 1938 in Chennai known as Madras then, both Thulasenthirapuram and Painganadu belonged to the Thanjavoor district of the Madras presidency in British India. Presently they are in the Thiruvaroor district of Tamil Nadu state.The original Thanjavoor district was trifurcated into the administrative districts of Thanjaavoor, Nagapattinam and Thiruvaaroor. Gopalan was an Indian civil servant who worked in Madras(Chennai) where Shyamala was born. He later relocated with family to the Indian capital of New Delhi after working in Bombay(Mumbai) and Calcutta(Kolkata). Shyamala herself graduated with a B Sc in Home Science from Lady Irwin College in New Delhi prior to her departure to the US. After retirement Gopalan and Rajam settled down in Besant Nagar,Adyar in Tamil Nadu. They are no more but Kamala’s maternUncle Balachandran and aunt Sarala whom she addresses as “Chithi” are living in India.
The family background of Kamala’s mother Shyamala is related in detail only to emphasise strongly that she was of Indian Tamil origin. Why I do so is because some irresponsible Sri Lankan Tamil elements have been spreading the “fake news” that Kamala Harris was of Sri Lankan Tamil origin. One prominent newspaper published in Jaffna went to the ridiculous extent of stating that her maternal grandfather Gopalan was from Manipay in the North and grandmother Rajam was from Batticaloa in the East. This falsehood was widely circulated over the so called social media . This column firmly reiterates that Kamala Harris with Tamil Nadu roots is not of Sri Lankan Tamil origin.
Rohini Lakshmi Ravindran
However Kamala Harris does indeed have a Sri Lankan Tamil “connection”. One of her key aides in the past as well as during the current election campaign is a US born woman of Sri Lankan Tamil origin. I am referring of course to Rohini Lakshmi Ravindran who now goes as Rohini Kosoglu after her marriage.This 36 year old Sri Lankan-American woman’s life has been inter-twined with that of Kamala Harris in a professional sense for the past four years. She has worked as Chief of staff as well as special adviser for Harris. In the process Rohini too has scored a “first” within the US context. Rohini Kosoglu was the first South Asian woman to serve as Chief of Staff to a U.S. Senator and was notably the only Asian American to serve in that role during her tenure.
The fact that an American woman of Sri Lankan Tamil origin is a key aide of the new Vice President Elect has naturally aroused a great deal of interest in Sri Lanka and among Sri Lankans abroad. While there is a huge amount of healthy curiosity about her on the one hand, there is also much suspicion and misgivings on the other. This is to be expected in the deeply divided Sri Lankan society. Who is Rohini Kosoglu? What is her background? How did she reach this position ?are some of the questions being posed currently . It is against this backdrop that this column focuses on her this week in a two-part article. I commence the first part with some details about her family background and extended family members.
Rohini Lakshmi Ravindran was born in New Jersey the “Garden state” of the US in 1984 and raised there. She is known among family members and Sri Lankan friends as Lakshmi. Both her parents are Sri Lankan Tamils with Jaffna roots. Her father’s family hails from Thirunelvely known as Thinnavely and Urumpirai. Her mother’s family is from Navaly and Sandilipay.The parents migrated to the US in the early eighties before the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom.Her father arrived first followed by her mother.
Rohini’s father Wijeyadevendram Ravindran is a medical doctor who has been a practicing emergency room physician for the past 38 years at the Community Medical Center in Tom River, New Jersey. Her mother Shobana Ravindran nee Mylvaganam is a homemaker though possessing tertiary qualifications including a a master’s degree in accounting from Rutgers University in New Jersey.Rohini’s maternal grandfather Mylvaganam was a well-known surgeon in Colombo and Kandy while paternal grandfather Wijeyadevendram was a Govt servant in Colombo and retired as Director of the Cottage and Rural Industries Dept,
S.Thomas’ College, Mt.Lavinia
Old Thomians of the late fifties and sixties era of the previous century may recall Rohini’s father known as W. Ravindran at the school by the sea. The family was residing in the Bambalapitiya flats then. Ravindran entered the medical faculty from S.Thomas’ College,Mt.Lavinia in 1969. He also played cricket for College under PLD (Prabodha) Kariyawasam’s captaincy the same year. Other team members included Dijen de Saram, Ajith Jayasekera, Lyle Peiris,Shantha Kottegoda, Nimalka Wijeysuriya , Ravi Sathasivam.Mohan Samaranayake,Mano Wickramanayake and Sunil Wijeratne.
Ravindran was a pacey who opened bowling as well as first change. He batted at six down. Ravindran was a stonewaller who usually remained unbeaten with nifty double-digit knocks below fifty. The Thomians lost the big match in 1969 to Royal led by Eardley Lieversz. The be-spectacled Ravindran scored a pair of specs in that match. Ravi squirms even now when friends remind him of this. Rohini’s mother Shobana was an old girl of Holy Family Convent in Bambalapitiya and Kandy Girls High School in the hill capital.
Interestingly enough , one of Rohini’s uncles also played Cricket for STC. Rohini’s aunt Dushyanthi (her mother’s elder sister) is married to planter cum entrepreneur Kumar Boralessa. Kumar played for STCin 1964, opening batting with L.S. Perera. He also kept wickets. Unlike in 1969, the Thomians led by Premalal Gunasekera won the Royal-Thomian in 1964. Royal was captained by JD Wilson known as “Shw” Wilson then.
While on the topic of Cricket, it is noteworthy that another of Rohini’s close relatives – a medical doctor- played cricket for Ceylon as Sri Lanka was known earlier. This was Dr. C. Balakrishnan, her mother’s cousin and an old boy of St.John’s College,Jaffna. Incidently Rohini’s maternal uncle Ajantha Mylvaganam -an Accountant – is married to Charmaine Imbuldeniya the daughter of a former Police DIG. Her father’s brother Harichandran – an Architect- is married to Bhawani the only daughter of former left-leaning Mayor of Colombo Thillainathan Rudra after whom the Rudra Mawatte and Rudra Park in Wellawatte are named.Bhawani’s five brothers Thilak,Jeya,Hari,Ravi and Shri are all old Thomians.
“Famous Boston Brothers”
Some of Lakshmi Rohini’s relatives have engaged in “ Tamil nationalist politics” too. Her paternal grandmother’s siblings are the “Famous Boston Brothers” who campaigned actively to promote the “Eelam Tamil” cause some years ago. The Thillaiambalam brothers comprising Sripathe, Sritharan and Srikanthan were based in Boston, Massachusetts and known as the Boston Brothers.
They engaged in hectic lobbying at multiple levels including the US State dept, Congress, Senate and various State legislatures in those days highlighting the Tamil predicament in Sri Lanka. They also frequently visited India and interacted with former Indian premier Indira Gandhi, Ex-TamilNadu Chief minister MG Ramachandran, Tamil Nadu state minister “Panrutti”Ramachandran, the PM’s special envoy Gopalaswamy Parthasarathy and then Indian Foreign secretary AP Venkateswaran.Among the “Boston Brothers” accomplishments were the passing of a Tamil Eelam resolution by the Massachusetts legislature, the printing of Eelam insignias on calendars published by the Pan- Am Airline and the hoisting of the Eelam flag by the Somerville Municipality.
Despite their dedication to the Tamil cause, the Boston brothers fell foul of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE). The Thillaimambalam brothers opined that the LTTE should cease fighting and engage in constructive talks with Sri Lankan Governments to bring about a negotiated settlement. Their concern was for the ordinary Tamil people of the North and East who were suffering immensely in the war . The LTTE and their minions in the global Tamil Diaspora disagreed and began dubbing the Boston brothers as Tamil traitors. The once influential trio was sidelined but continued with efforts to help develop war affected areas.Sripathe is no more while the other brothers have “retired” from politics now.
Rohini Lakshmi Ravindran grew up in the Township of Toms River in the Ocean County of New Jersey,USA. According to some of her relatives, Rohini is a very good swimmer and won many awards during her schooldays. She was the elder of two children.Her brother Raman Ravindran works in the communications division of the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies as a Video Coordinator.
Rohini LakshmiRavindran is married to Ozkan Sedat Kosoglu a software engineer. He is a Turkish -American and their wedding was held in Turkey. Rohini and Ozkan Kosoglu have three children all of them boys. Though known as Lakshmi to her family, relatives and Sri Lankan friends, she goes as Rohini Kosoglu afer marriage. One of her aunts said that Lakshmi understands Tamil and can speak some sentences but is not very fluent in her mother tongue. However she is quite conscious of her Tamil heritage and makes it a point to wear the traditional Saree at family events and cultural celebrations.
Harvard Political Review
Lakshmi Rohini has kept clear of Diaspora Tamil politics in the USA. She perceives herself as a woman of colour with a South Asian-American identity. Her political vision transcends race,religion and ethnicity.She is a voice for the voiceless. What makes Rohini tick and motivates her is the concern for the marginalized, under – privileged sections of US society. Three questions and answers from her interview to the “Harvard Political Review”(HPR) this year encapsules Rohini Kosoglu’s political philosophy.They are as follows –
HPR: I know that you also recently spoke at the South Asian Society at Yale, and you’ve been in touch with the South Asian Americans in Public Service here at Harvard. Can you speak more about your culture and how it intersects with your work in public service?
RK: I feel so fortunate to be given this opportunity to take a step back and give back to my culture and to South Asian students that are so passionate about politics, democracy, or policy. I am learning from even my own students how much enthusiasm there is for South Asians in public service across the country. Even the conference at Yale was about bringing other South Asian students together from across the country to talk about different paths and career opportunities and to expose them to different ideas of how to think outside the box for different career roles. I felt very fortunate to be a part of it. I think that there’s a lot more that we as the South Asian community can do to mobilize and engage students. It’s my hope that being a Fellow here and working with these students can help us think of ways to move this forward.
HPR: Moving to more of a personal level, what fueled your passion for politics, and was there ever a moment that you realized you really wanted to get involved and work in public service?
RK: My father is an emergency room doctor. And in the emergency room, you have to treat whoever is in front of you. There’s no Democrat or Republican. It doesn’t matter what race they are [and] it doesn’t matter what gender they are. It’s that sense of fairness that makes me want to keep fighting for a system that’s fair on behalf of other people. So I bring that ethos with me to every job offer that I approach and I think, “Can I do this job bringing that same ethos fighting for people to more families in this country?”
HPR: What are some values that you think about every day, or morals that you hold deeply with you?
RK: I constantly think about what I am doing in my role to improve the lives of working people in this country. I think I’ve been blessed to work at some of the highest levels of government and politics, and with that comes a responsibility to use that expertise to help others. Whether it be a woman that’s cleaning a hotel room or a dad that’s an Uber driver and can’t make it to [his] kid’s soccer game, I have a responsibility to use the expertise that I gained over the years to help make their lives better.
Rohini Lakshmi obtained a BA (Honours) degree specializing in English at Michigan University. She also has a Masters degree in Legislative affairs from the George Wahington University. It was as an undergraduate that Rohini got drawn to politics and public service. She was in her senior year at the University of Michigan,Ann Arbor when she got a chance to intern at the state office of Michigan’s Democratic Party Senator Debbie(Deborah)Stabenow. The Senator was impressed by her.
Obama’s Affordable Care Act
After Rohini graduated in 2006 she was offered the mailroom manager post in her Washington office by the Senator.She grasped the offer and then worked her way upwards to become a senior political adviser to Sen.Stabenow. In 2008, Rohini got an opportunity to work for the Democratic Party Senator from Colorado Michael Bennett. She was Sen. Bennett’s policy director and senior health care adviser. It was in 2009 that Barack Obama became President and ushered in his famous “Obama care”. Rohini too participated in the process of formulating the Affordable Care Act. It was a milepost in her life journey. In an interview with the “Harvard Political Review”(HPR) Rohini Kosoglu described the experience this way –
“When President Obama took office in 2009, there was a real energy and excitement around the fact that, for healthcare policy staffers, they were working on an issue that was on the front page of the newspaper every day, and constituents of all states were all talking about their experiences with the healthcare system. Constituents would have stories that seemed incredulous, but at the same time they were the victims of a conflict with an insurance company or a drug company. And we as a government didn’t have answers about why the insurance companies were allowed to do this, why their pharmaceutical company drug prices were so high. And a big part of the Affordable Care Act was asking, “How do we get people ‘rules of the road’ for the healthcare system?” And so staffing for a U.S. senator was so exciting in terms of the day-to-day routine. I worked for Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.) at the time, and we’d be in meetings for five to seven hours a day. We were meeting with different parts of the Democratic caucus, negotiating out different provisions of the law with Republicans that were interested in still trying to make something pass in a bipartisan way. But I can’t emphasize enough the energy and the feeling [we had] that this was a historic moment and we could get something done on health care for the American people.”
After a seven year stint with Sen Michael Bennet, Rohini was contemplating a career in the private sector and was being interviewed for posts when she got an offer from the newly elected Democratic Party Senator from California Kamala Harris. She opted to throw in her lot with Sen Harris. Rohini described her reason for doing so in the HPR interview – : In 2016, I was interviewing to work in the private sector. At the same time, I was also exploring an opportunity to work for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). As we processed the first month or so of President Trump taking office and getting his transition ready for the new Congress, it became clear to me that it was important to stay in public service during a time when there were so many people that were about to lose some of their civil rights. It was important to me to work for a member that was ready to take on the fight and give a voice to the voiceless. I got more lucrative offers in the private sector, but I wanted to work for somebody who would fight for people in the country that needed help and hold President Trump accountable. That made me stay in public service.
Chief of Staff to Kamala Harris
Rohini Kosoglu hitched her wagon to the Kamala Harris star by opting to be the California Senator’s deputy-chief of staff in January 2017. In December 2018 she was elevated as chief of staff. This was a path-breaking achievement as Rohini Kosgulu twas the first South Asian woman to serve as Chief of Staff to a U.S. Senator. Rohini served as Chief of Staff to Sen.Harris from Dec 2018 to October 2019.
After Kamala Harris made a bid for the Presidency and launched her campaign “Kamala Harris for the people” in 2019, Rohini Kosgulu shifted from the Senator’s office. She became Senior Adviser and Chief of Staff to the presidential aspirant from September to December 2019. In Dec 2019 Kamala Harris gave up her campaign to be the Democratic party presidential candidate. Rohini continued to be with Kamala as her campaign chief of staff. Instead of the presidency Kamala Harris now aimed for the Vice -presidency. She endorsed Joe Biden’s candidacy in March 2020 and was picked as his running mate in August 2020.
Meanwhile Rohini Kosgulu became a Resident Fellow at the Institute of Politics in Harvard University Kennedy school for five months from January to May 2020. She continued to retain her chief of Staff post at the dormant “Kamala Harris for the people” campaign. Things changed in August after Kamala became the Vice-presidential candidate. Her candidacy was now incorporated as part of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign “Biden for President”.
A nine -member team was picked as the political action committee to handle the Kamala Harris Campaign. They were all nominees of the Biden for president campaign. Haitian-American Karin Jean-Pierre was appointed as the chief of staff for the Kamala Harris Vice-presidential campaign.
Kamala Harris however took two of her staunch loyalists from her Presidential campaign into her Vice-presidential campaign also . One of them was Rohini Kosgulu who held the post of Senior adviser to the “Biden for President” campaign. Her paramount duty was to coordinate the appointment schedule of the Vice-presidential aspirant and oversee related matters for Kamala Harris. What happened thereafter will be related in detail in the second part of this article.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an Updated Version of an Article written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of November 14tt2020. It can be accessed here: http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/US-Vice-President-Elect-Kamala-Harriss-Key-Sri-Lankan-Tamil-Aide/172-199876