Harris’ acknowledgment of her Indian identity seems opportunistic and rooted in little more than a desire to pander to the diaspora for its vote, and its deep pockets.
By Madhuri Sastry
After months of thumb-twiddling, dillydallying, and Twitter punditry, the Biden campaign announced a Vice Presidential pick: Senator Kamala Harris. This announcement marked a historical moment in American politics. While Kamala is being praised for being the first woman of color on a major party ticket, it’s worth remembering that Shirley Chisholm was in fact the first Black woman — indeed, the first woman — to run for the American presidency on the Democratic ticket, four years after she made history by becoming the first Black woman elected to United States Congress. Harris checks, it seems, all the boxes that ardent Democratic voters have demanded: a woman, a Black woman… and a brown woman to boot.
I share heritage with Kamala Harris. I volunteered at an Indian-American charity gala last year at which she was the keynote speaker, wooing the diaspora diners with stories of her childhood vacations in India, Besant Nagar, her beloved grandparents, and walks on the beaches of Madras. Last week, Kamala’s Tamil heritage was trending on Twitter, a 2019 video of her speaking about her Indian heritage while promoting her ‘South Asians For The People’ initiative, aimed at shoring up support from the South Asian community, took over the timeline. A black and white picture of Kamala’s mother Shyamala Gopalan, and her father Donald Harris has been doing the rounds, Shaymala smiling at the camera in a sari, her thick braid hanging by her side like a rope, a style I sported for years in my youth.
My WhatsApp notifications are a ceaseless pinging staccato of celebration. The Indian diaspora is rejoicing, weeping tears of joy at feeling represented, seeing, at last, someone who grew up eating lentils, rice, and dosa rise to the highest echelons of political power. A non-white person, who has suffered the ignominy of mangled pronunciations of her name, just like them. “Was there ever more of an exciting day?” tweeted Kamala-Harris-dosa-making-sous-chef, Mindy Kaling. “For our entire country of course, but especially for my Black and Indian sisters, many of us who have gone our entire lives thinking that someone who looks like us may never hold high office? We work so hard and contribute to the fabric of our lives in America & now to see @SenKamalaHarris rise to the top like this? It’s thrilling! I am filled with hope and excitement!” This is good for us, they think, as Americans. This is good for India, they tell me, imagining our countries sailing into the sunset as allies. We have made it. Even Indians in India are celebrating, with the Indian media characterizing her success as a triumph of diversity.
Kamala’s ancestry and heritage have been the topic of much conversation, celebration, and even consternation. For a country barely beginning to reckon with centuries of racial violence against Black folks, many believe that this announcement portends a new era in American politics. They caution us against diluting the significance of the moment, they tell us we can celebrate her achievement, without fully agreeing on what she stands for. I disagree. As a member of the Indian diaspora, who has watched India and the U.S. descend arm in arm into fascism, I haven’t felt remotely represented by Harris either as an Indian, or as an American resident. This is in no way meant to erase or contest Kamala’s Black identity, but to note that to me, Harris’ acknowledgment of her Indian identity seems opportunistic, and rooted in little more than a desire to pander to the diaspora for its vote, and its deep pockets.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a case in point.
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Even as she shot to national prominence, Kamala has maintained (with rare exceptions) a stony silence regarding anything to do with India – a country that she has felt influenced by – especially when it comes to criticizing Hindutva fascism. However, she is happy to make masala dosas with Kaling, and discuss her childhood in a viral video. Her reticence is entirely at odds with her projected image as an outspoken liberal and bulwark against anti-democratic and fascistic tendencies, especially considering the fact that India has given her much to call out, much to stand up against.
While Kamala has never shied away from calling out some foreign leaders and powers, including China and its “abysmal human rights record,” Nicolas Maduro (a “repressive and corrupt dictator”), and Russia (vowing to “stand up to Putin in defense of democratic values, human rights, and the international rule of law”), she has been virtually silent in the face of longstanding and ongoing atrocities in India, most recently accelerated by the Hindu-nationalist Modi.
For instance, in 2017, she went out of her way to tweet, “I welcome Indian PM @NarendraModi to the United States and reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our two nations.” Nevermind that Modi was banned from the U.S. for several years because of his role in orchestrating the 2002 genocide in Gujarat. More recently, during a pogrom in Delhi earlier this year, armed Hindu mobs unleashed a torrent of violence on Muslims resulting in the death of about 40 people, with 200 injured. The Delhi Police – who report to the Indian Home Minister, Amit Shah, who many in the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) refer to as the “invisible Prime Minister” – did nothing to intervene in fact, exacerbating the violence and manufacturing evidence to frame rights activists. This happened during Donald Trump’s visit to Delhi, ostensibly to “reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between these two nations”, and even then, Kamala Harris, anti-Islamophobe and vocal Trump-critic, said nothing.
On August 15, India celebrated its 74th Independence Day. In a pre-recorded video message, Harris re-emphasized how, on walks with her grandfather, P.V. Rajagopalan, she learned about the heroes responsible for the birth of “the world’s largest democracy,” and that it was on her to pick up where they left off. “Those lessons are a big reason why I am who I am today,” Harris claims. And yet, her support of India’s freedom-fighters doesn’t extend to India’s present-day warriors, fighting fascim for freedom, and whose dissent has landed them in jail or worse. Among this number are celebrated revolutionary poet, Varavara Rao, and renowned anti-caste, anti-Neoliberal Hindutva scholar Anand Teltumbde, incarcerated on the outlandish pretext that they were a part of a larger conspiracy to assassinate Modi.
August 4, marked one year since Kashmir was officially besieged and plunged into a communication blackout by the Indian government, exacerbating its settler-colonial project. Harris has barely paid lip service to the situation. On August 5th, Modi laid the ceremonial cornerstone for the new temple to the Hindu deity Ram, on top of the ruins of Babri Masjid, a mosque destroyed by a Hindutva mob (led by prominent BJP leader, L.K. Advani) in 1992, marking the start of a spate of sectarian violence that would leave thousands dead. This move symbolized India’s complete capture by Hindutva, celebrated by a gleeful diaspora with billboards in Times Square emblazoned with images of Ram. Clearly, Indian fascism bothers her little when there is no political gain; her new best friend Joe Biden has employed a Hindutva sympathizer, Amit Jani, as director of AAPI outreach. Jani was previously employed by Biden as Muslim Outreach Coordinator, before mounting pressure led to the new role.
Harris, rather than lead by example and hold her ancestral home to account, has adopted the Democratic Party line that Modi’s India isn’t so bad. For instance, during the anti-Muslim violence earlier this year, almost all the Democrats kept mum aside from a few notable denunciations (Sens. Sanders and Warren, Reps. Omar and Jayapal). The silence of the Democrats overall when it comes to Modi’s atrocities in India is deplorable, and Kamala’s newly-exalted status will clearly do nothing to change this state of affairs.
The Democrats, and by extension Harris, have been further silenced by the threat of losing their Indian diaspora vote base, and cater as usual to the upper-caste Indians that wield political influence at the expense of marginalized members of the South Asian diaspora like Dalits, and Muslims, signaling to us that they do not, in fact, care about minorities, or human rights. Even Harris’ few public criticisms of the Modi government’s actions have been anemic at best. At an event in Houston in October last year, in response to a question posed by a Kashmiri-American asking for a message of support, and about what the U.S’s role in addressing the attempted ethnic cleansing would be, Harris responded, “We have to remind the Kashmiris that they are not alone in the world. We are keeping a track on the situation. There is a need to intervene if the situation demands.” But she has said and done no more. It was Rep. Pramila Jayapal, freshman congresswoman and by far the only Indian-American representative openly critical of Hindutva fascism, who introduced a Congressional Resolution urging India to end the blockade. When, on this account, Indian External Affairs Minister, S.Jaishankar refused to attend a meeting with Rep. Jayapal present, Harris tweeted her support of Jayapal: “It’s wrong for any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill. I stand with @RepJayapal, and I’m glad her colleagues in the House did too.” But again, nothing more – either on the Resolution, or the situation in Kashmir.
In this way, Kamala’s own approach to India mirrors the same terrible hypocrisy of the Indian diaspora: cheering loudly when one of their own succeeds, while remaining silent in the face of terrible atrocities in their name. Where has Kaling been, who until now made dosas with Senator Harris and chatted about what it means to be a part of the diaspora? Where has the rage of Padma Lakshmi — so rankled by the usage of “chai tea” in 2020, so gleeful at Harris’ nomination been? Where is her anger? Priyanka Chopra-Jonas, UN Goodwill Ambassador and noted fascist-sympathizer, posted ecstatically about Harris’ nomination. “Look how far we have come,” she rejoiced on Instagram. Where was the South Asian Journalists’ Association when journalists in India were brutalized? Where was the South Asian Bar Association when lawyers in India are targeted by the government for defending the marginalized, when the Constitution is manipulated to effect a genocide? Almost all of the people or organizations in this paragraph have expressed a giddy excitement at her nomination; all of them have said little to nothing about the issues that plague the Indian diaspora, or about Hindutva fascism abroad. Indians — and Indian Democrats — have an obligation to stand up for the principles that they claim to believe in, and not use their heritage as a mere prop.
Madhuri Sastry is a writer and Marketing Director at Guernica. She holds two Masters’ Degrees in Law from New York University and The London School of Economics. Her political writing, personal essays, and cultural criticisms have appeared in several publications including Slate, Bitch, Catapult and NY Mag’s Grubstreet. She is an amateur – but dedicated – home cook. She lives with her partner, a corgi-mix, and about twenty plants in a concrete jungle.
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