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WHEN Democratic Party’s presidential nominee Joe Biden named California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate this week a wave of excitement swept through India. Her heritage gave the Indian public cause to celebrate.
Harris, a child of immigrant parents from Jamaica and India, is the first Asian-American and Black woman to appear on a major party’s presidential ticket.
Kamala’s mother Shyamala Gopalan hailed from the Tamil Nadu state and her father is from Jamaica. Her nomination for the second most important position in the United States hierarchy stirred social media in India. From well-known business tycoons to celebrities congratulated and celebrated Harris on Twitter.
But for policymakers Kamala’s stand on Kashmir remains a cause of worry. Observers caution that despite her heritage, Harris has remained a tough critic of India’s domestic policies under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She has been vocal on most contentious issue in India, Kashmir. But what exactly are her views on Kashmir. Let’s find out.
‘We’ve to remind the Kashmiris that they’re not alone in the world’
These resounding words of Kamala Harris, that have been widely quoted after she was chosen by Joe Biden to be the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate, will be put through scrutiny as the election-action plays out in the United States of America later this year.
Her statement was quick to become popular, when she spoke at an event in Texas during October 2019 – two months after the abrogation of Article 370.
At that time, Harris was aspiring to be a participant in the US presidential race when she had flagged her concern for the human rights abuses in the restive region.
“We’ve 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,” said the woman who acknowledges the role of her Indian heritage in her African-American upbringing.
She had spoken while responding to a question about the human rights abuses in Kashmir, including curfews and communication blackouts following the revocation of Article 370.
At the same event, Harris had also verbally poked Donald Trump for failing to have a full-time US ambassador in Pakistan during the inceptive period of Narendra Modi’s ‘Naya Kashmir’.
“If the US wants to take any effective step on the Kashmir issue,” she had reportedly said, “then there is a need for deployment of an American ambassador in the region (Pakistan).”
Mid-2019, when she was a presidential hopeful, Harris had uncovered the skeletons in the closet of former vice-president, Joe Biden, during her participation in the Democratic Party presidential debate. These debates take place among candidates in the campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the President of the United States.
In the course of the event, she had torn into the remarks Biden had made as a Senator representing Delaware in the 70s, on issues like school desegregation and busing.
By doing so, she gained a reputation for shooting grilling arguments during political debates and it helped her jump ahead of other Democratic candidates. Her campaign then enjoyed a powered climb in fundraising but shortly after the high, she had to suspend it in December 2019 owing to a crunch in finances.
Interestingly, this March, she endorsed Biden as the Democratic Party’s candidate to take on President Donald Trump – who has been on the receiving end of her sharp criticism for his anti-immigrant laws.
As a policy-maker and public representative, Harris has always pushed for stronger ties between India and the US.
In 2017, she tweeted a ‘welcome message’ for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited the US. “I welcome Indian PM @NarendraModi to the United States and reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our two nations.”
But she has been critical of the situation that manifested in Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019. In an effort to practice what she was preaching, Harris had boycotted the glamourous ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Texas.
She had also stood by the Indian-American Congresswoman, Pramila Jayapal, who had introduced a bill in the first week of December 2019, in the US House of Representatives (akin to the Lok Sabha), urging India to lift the communication clampdown, release political detainees, and “preserve religious freedom for all residents” in Jammu and Kashmir.
Her support for Jayapal, who happens to be the first US Congresswoman of Indian origin, was especially highlighted when Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar had refused to attend a diplomatic meeting in the US over her participation.
“It’s wrong for any foreign government to tell the Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill,” Harris had said.
Even Senator Elizabeth Warren had come out in support of Jayapal at that time. “The US and India have an important partnership – but our partnership can only succeed if it is rooted in honest dialogue and shared respect for religious pluralism, democracy, and human rights,” she had tweeted.
Although many Congress and Senate members have cried foul over New Delhi’s actions in Kashmir since the clampdown last year, Harris’s comments were placed in the spotlight because of her Indian roots.
Harris and her back story
In her 2019 memoir, The Truths We Hold, Kamala Harris has briefed her readers about her origin story and her degree of attachment to it. After Biden’s announcement on August 12, Harris’s sister, Maya tweeted: “You can’t know who @KamalaHarris is without knowing who our mother was”.
Shyamala Harris, the woman who brought up the first person of Indian descent to be nominated by a major political party for a national office in the United States of America, was a graduate from Delhi University. Referring to her as a ‘proud, brown woman with a heavy accent’, Kamala Harris credits her Tamilian mother, who raised her single-handedly since she was seven years old, for deeply influencing her life, especially her political career.
Born in 1938, in the Madras Province of British India, Harris’s mother was expected to return to get married after she left for the US to pursue a career in cancer research – nutrition and endocrinology to be precise. But, she met and married Donald Harris – an economics professor from Stanford University of Jamaican origin.
Theirs was a partnership of seven years that blossomed in the University of California, Berkeley, during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. As an infant and the firstborn daughter of immigrant academics, Kamala Harris was pushed in her stroller with the protesting crowd as her parents hosted weekly study groups. This was a phase in her mother’s life that contributed much to her own political ideology.
Shyamala Harris has been termed, in the words of her daughter, a woman “born with a sense of justice imprinted on her soul.” Interestingly, the concepts of human rights and activism seem to be genetically passed on in the household as Harris’s maternal grandparents were freedom fighters who resisted British colonists in India and educated rural women about the much-tabooed topic of contraception.
Prosecutor to Appeaser?
However, like any other politician in business, Kamala Harris also comes with a record of contradictions. Her tenure in California as a prosecutor, district attorney, and state attorney general before representing the state as a Senator in 2017, has led her critics to dub her not as a progressive reformer but as a living memory of the ‘tough on crime’ era of the 1990s and 2000s.
As per the New York Times, soon after her selection as Joe Biden’s running mate was announced, Trump and his top campaigners tried to box her as a politician who will “try to bury her record as a prosecutor” and someone who will appease “anti-police extremists.”
There are fears that her previous position as a prosecutor for the state will come to haunt her because she was a defender of the policies that swelled prison populations. But as progressive activists are calling to make the criminal justice system less punitive and racist, Harris has argued that her views match those of the new movement.
Speculations back home swing between regarding Kamala Harris as an important ally to Kashmir given her own statements and actions since the historic abrogation, or looking at her as a metaphorical Judas, who might, owing to her own professional background, find merit in the government of India’s arguments of ‘justice and peace’ for defending its military actions on the ground.
Thus, whether Kamala Harris’s assertions on Kashmir will materialise into substantial foreign policies will depend on the success of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and the issues his office aligns itself with later.
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