California lawyer delivers Sikh prayer at GOP convention

San Francisco lawyer Harmeet Dhillon delivered a Sikh prayer at the start of Tuesday's session of the Republican National Convention.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

When Harmeet Dhillon first ran for vice chairwoman of the California GOP, rivals whispered that the Indian-born Sikh would slaughter a goat at the lectern.

On Tuesday night, Dhillon opened the second night of the Republican National Convention by singing the invocation in Punjabi and then translating it into English.

It’s a first for the RNC. But it’s not the first time the 47-year-old San Francisco lawyer has upended expectations.


Born in Chandigarh, India, she emigrated with her parents to England and then to the Bronx, N.Y. Her father, an orthopedic surgeon, soon moved the family to rural Smithfield in central North Carolina.

Dhillon says she was an awkward, chubby child who didn’t fit in at school.

“I had two long braids and a funny name and my mother didn’t dress me in fashionable clothes. I was not popular at all,” said Dhillon.

Now thin with long hair, she wore an Escada jacket and draped a silk navy-and-gold scarf over her long hair when she delivered the prayer Tuesday.

“Please give us the courage to make the right choices, to make common cause with those with whom we disagree, for the greater good of our nation,” she told the delegates.

She was raised as a devout Sikh. “I had a very religious upbringing at home. That was very central to my life from day one,” she recalled.

Her parents supported Republicans after they became naturalized U.S. citizens.

Their politics were driven in part by her father’s contempt for trial lawyers because of medical malpractice lawsuits.


But they also were formed by turmoil in India in the 1970s, when an insurgency in Punjab led to temple raids and attacks on some Sikhs.

Dhillon’s parents hosted fundraisers for Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a conservative with strong views on foreign policy. He, in turn, spoke out against persecution of Sikhs.

Dhillon attended Dartmouth College, where she wrote for the college’s conservative paper, the Dartmouth Review, and ultimately was named editor.

In October 1988, the weekly made headlines when it published a satirical column likening the college president to Adolf Hitler, and the effects of his campus policies to the Holocaust.

A drawing on the next issue’s cover depicted the college president, who was Jewish, as Hitler.

As condemnation poured in, Dhillon, then editor in chief, denied in an interview with the New York Times that the column was anti-Semitic, saying critics were “trying to twist the issue to their own ends.”


She said the column sought to compare “liberal fascism” with other forms of fascism and was not meant to show “callous disregard” for the Holocaust.

‘’I’m very disturbed about the response to it,’’ she said. ‘’I’m very surprised, very, very surprised.’’

Dhillon went to law school at the University of Virginia and worked in New York City and London before she settled in San Francisco.

She grew active in Bay Area politics after hosting debate watch parties for President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004.

After becoming county party chair, she ran unsuccessfully for the state Assembly in 2008. She met her future husband, Sarv, during that campaign.

In 2013, Dhillon ran for vice chairwoman of the state GOP. Some Republicans castigated her for serving on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Bay Area chapter.


She says she got involved in the ACLU after some Sikhs were abused in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

But some of her opposition at the state GOP was blatantly racist.

Fliers at the convention called her a “Taj Mahal princess.” The goat slaughter rumors spread. The leader of a county GOP women’s group posted on Facebook that Dhillon was a Muslim who would defend beheadings. (The woman was reprimanded by the party and no longer holds the post.) Party leaders came to Dhillon’s defense and she won the election.

Since then, she has become the public face of the state GOP while the chairman, Jim Brulte, worked to rebuild its war chest.

“As she’s proven, she’s a rising star in the party and she’s also a sharp cookie and highly able,” said Charles Munger Jr., a major GOP donor.

“One has to distinguish, she was elected on her merits,” he added. “She got there in spite of being a woman, in spite of being Sikh. She’s the first woman vice chair in party history. There was no royal road paved for her.”


Dhillon also has sharp elbows.

“Harmeet is a very strong-willed personality and she has no problem whatsoever speaking her mind,” said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger. “I know I’m an acquired taste. I would submit she is as well.”

Others cite her acerbic wit. Brulte recalled a party fundraiser in 2013 where he saw a thin man receive an award for walking precincts.

“I said to the people at the table, ‘You see, when you walk precincts you lose weight,’” said Brulte, who is not svelte. Dhillon “spun around, looked at me and said, ‘You should walk a few.’”

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3:55 p.m. — Updated with details from Dhillon’s invocation to the GOP convention.

This story was published at 11:55 a.m.