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The Obama aide from Devakottai

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Meyappan ‘Hari’ Sevugan
Meyappan ‘Hari’ Sevugan

S. MUTHIAH

Few realise that Devakkottai, and not better known Karaikudi, is the heartland of Chettinad, though it is at one extremity. Karaikudi may be bigger and more prosperous, but Devakkottai has the largest Chettiar population (approximately 14,000) of any of the 75 ‘Chettiar’ villages and towns in Chettinad. It also has a long tradition of supporting Tamil literature and publishing, religion and politics. Not bruited about as much is that it also has a long legal tradition. The main courts in Chettinad are sited here and they have seen much litigation over the years. The courts were also burnt down during the Quit India Movement and the town was collectively fined.

The most visible face of Devakkottai’s legal tradition is Justice Ar. Lakshmanan, who was a Justice of four High Courts, Madras, Kerala (where he acted as Chief Justice), Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh (of which he was Chief Justice), before being elevated to the Supreme Court. On retiring from the highest Bench, he was appointed Chairman of the 18th Law Commission. All firsts for the Nagarathar.

Now comes another first for the Nagarathar — also achieved by a man from Devakkottai and also one with a legal background, though that’s been obtained in the U.S. Meyappan ‘Hari’ — so he’s no doubt called Harry by the Americans — Sevugan has been appointed a senior spokesman for the Barack Obama presidential campaign. From October 2003, this 33-year-old Chicago attorney has worked with four Democratic Party candidates for various public offices as their Communications/Policy Director. Then two months ago, the Obama team invited him to come on board — and Sevugan has become a more visible presence.

Sevugan Senior, Hari’s father, was an engineering graduate who went from Madras to the U.S. for higher studies in 1977 and was followed by his wife Lakshmi and their infant son Hari a short while later. Sevugan Senior moved from engineering to business and now the Sevugans are realtors in suburban Chicago, but their son was interested in none of these; from his teens he was interested in law and public service.

After majoring in Political Science at the University of Illinois, Champaign - Urbana, Hari Sevugan began his career in public service working for the ‘Teach for America’ programme that took education to indigent communities. A Doctorate in Law later — from Northwestern University, Chicago — during which he offered considerable pro bono publico service to Chicago’s underprivileged, he joined a major Chicago law firm for two years and specialised in securities law. In 2003, he quit Law to serve with political candidates, the beginning being with Dan Hynes who was seeking nomination for the U.S. Senate. Ironically, it was Obama who challenged Hynes for the Democratic Senate nomination — and won.

The Sevugan family has several members spread across the United States and when they gather every Thanksgiving in Chicago, there are over 40 to celebrate in the traditional American way. But at the same time, the Thamizh Sangams wherever they are in the U.S. benefit much from this family’s inputs. And Hari Sevugan has been as much involved with the Sangams as he is with American politics.

The word in the U.S. is that you should keep an eye on this young man; he’s headed places — and not just on his favourite pastime, travel.

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