Meena Harris indulged in reckless grandstanding, racing to support a farmers’ protest that had turned violent on Republic Day and caused injuries to nearly 300 policemen.
Meena Harris, American lawyer, entrepreneur, author, and famous in India for being the niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was of Indian origin, has become an embarrassment for the White House. While she will be taken to task on the possible misuse of her relationship with the Vice President, Harris unnerved the White House with her cavalier approach towards an important and friendly nation like India.
The Biden administration introduced some uncertainty in its ties with India when, in an article The Atlantic (“Why I Chose Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense”) and in public remarks on December 8, 2020, President-elect Joseph Biden spoke of the “Asia-Pacific” and appeared to jettison the “Indo-Pacific” concept. The Secretary of Defence, Gen. Lloyd Austin, also emphasised the importance of maintaining alliances, “including in the Asia-Pacific, in Europe, and around the world.” As diplomats of various capitals moved to rescue the concept, the administration in readouts of congratulatory calls with leaders of India, Japan, and South Korea, mentioned a “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific”. It is, however, a departure from the “free and open Indo-Pacific” espoused by the outgoing administration.
Amidst these grave matters of state, the Vice President’s niece indulged in reckless grandstanding, racing to support a farmers’ protest that had turned violent on Republic Day and caused injuries to nearly 300 policemen. Unfazed by the gravity of the situation, Meena Harris supported the discredited agitation, tweeting on February 3, “It’s no coincidence that the world’s oldest democracy was attacked not even a month ago, and as we speak, the most populous democracy is under assault. This is related. We ALL should be outraged by India’s internet shutdowns and paramilitary violence against farmer protesters.”
The fact of the matter is that paramilitary forces were not brought in to handle the violence, at any stage. Even as Indian diplomats would have taken up the matter with Washington, Harris was trolled by enraged nationalists on Twitter. As agitated citizens burnt her portrait in New Delhi, she shot back on February 4, “I spoke in support of human rights for Indian farmers, and look at the response.”
She added, “Weird to see a photo of yourself burned by an extremist mob but imagine what they would do if we lived in India. I’ll tell you – 23 yo labor rights activist Nodeep Kaur was arrested, tortured & sexually assaulted in police custody. She’s been detained without bail for over 20 days.” Actually, Kaur was arrested in Sonipat, Haryana, on January 12, 2021, in an unrelated case. But Meena said, “Y’all literally have headlines that say “Brave Indian men burned pictures of women who support farmers” and think that’s normal.”
In further bravado, she said, “I won’t be intimidated, and I won’t be silenced”. She added, “This isn’t just about agricultural policy. It’s also about the persecution of a vocal religious minority. It’s police violence, militant nationalism, and attacks on labour rights. It’s global authoritarianism. Don’t tell me to stay out of your affairs. These are all of our issues.”
By the time she made these tweets, Harris was unaware that the farmers agitation that began from Punjab quietly shifted to Uttar Pradesh under Rakesh Tikait after the violence of January 26 discredited the first set of “crusaders.” She was unbothered by the fact that there was no “persecution of a vocal religious minority”, no police violence, and certainly no “global authoritarianism.” As citizens raged at her lack of knowledge of the ground reality, she cheerfully added on February 6, “Dude, I’m Hindu. Stop using religion as a cover for fascism.”
Now, however, the immediate past is coming back to haunt Meera Harris. A few days before the January 6 swearing-in of the President and Vice President, Meena Harris appeared on the television show, “Today”, for an interview conducted by Jenna Bush Hager, daughter of former President George W. Bush. She discussed the historic moment while promoting her latest children’s book, “Ambitious Girl”, wearing a pink sweatshirt with the legend, “Ambitious” that is part of her Phenomenal brand clothing line.
White House officials were aghast. Meena, they averred, would never have received so much publicity but for her relationship with the Vice President. In their opinion, Meena has used her vicarious fame to promote her lifestyle brand, exploiting the family’s life story to market clothing, videos, children’s books and designer headphones.
The Harvard-trained lawyer started her company four years ago and sells socially conscious T-shirts and sweatshirts, often worn by celebrities and posted on her Instagram, TikTok and other social media accounts along with selfies with her aunt.
White House officialdom is unanimous that, “Behavior needs to change.” The matter is especially sensitive as both Biden and Kamala Harris campaigned against the Trump family’s business dealings and were on the defensive over Hunter Biden’s foreign business tangles. Currently, the President is facing fresh enquiries about his brother Frank, whose Florida law firm tried to promote its White House connection.
Meena was told soon after the election that she could no longer produce clothing or write new books with her aunt’s name or likeness. She refused to reveal if she still collects royalties from her first book which features her aunt’s name and image on the cover. The White House is emphatic that the book, along with “Vice President Aunty” sweatshirts, Harris-themed swimsuits and other products are not permissible under the rules.
But despite the warning from ethics lawyers, Meena flew to the inauguration on a private plane with a Biden donor and posted the news on Instagram. Among several questionable activities, her online store continues to sell a sweatshirt that reads, “I’m speaking,” a Kamala Harris quote that went viral after she said it while debating then-Vice President Mike Pence.
Meena has taken official and unofficial roles advising her aunt during the campaign. She was named a deputy campaign manager in Kamala Harris’ 2010 campaign for California attorney general. Persons who have worked with Kamala Harris advise her to swiftly put the family on the side. The Biden administration has reportedly stated that it will bar family members from serving on boards of foreign-owned companies and forbid them from private-sector activities that create an appearance of a conflict of interest.
While Meena Harris’ brash activism pales in comparison to the Greta Thunberg toolkit, it has awakened Washington to the perils of self-appointed spokespersons putting a spoke in the ties between the two countries. As of now, she appears to be a bigger headache for the Biden White House than for New Delhi.
Chintan India Foundation blog, 17 February 2021