Kamala Harris' Niece Meena Joins Rihanna, Greta Thunberg in Speaking Out on Indian Farm Protesters
The Indian government offered a thinly veiled criticism of "celebrities" who have spoken out against its prime minister on social media
Kamala Harris' niece, Meena Harris, has joined a chorus of celebrity voices speaking out against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent agricultural reforms, which have sparked protests by farmers across the country (some of which have turned deadly), and led to the detainment of activists in the country.
She has also urged the release of Nodeep Kaur, a 24-year-old activist in India who was detained after being accused of assaulting police officers during the protests.
Here's more about the protests themselves, what Meena has said about the Indian government and how those comments have been received.
What to Know About the Protests
The demonstrations — which began in November in the agricultural regions of India and have since made parts of the capital of New Delhi inaccessible due to enormous crowds — came as a result of a set of laws passed by the country's parliament which aim to loosen the sale, pricing and storage of agricultural produce.
Protesters have called on Modi, a Hindu nationalist, to repeal the legislation, worrying that the new rules will make their livelihoods (and, in effect, their source of income) more vulnerable to private investors.
Dozens of protesters have reportedly died during the unrest, though the Indian government has been quick to claim that police officers have been "physically attacked, and in some cases stabbed and seriously wounded."
The government has also been criticized for blocking internet access in some parts of the country amid the protests, which India's Ministry of Home Affairs has said was done "in the interest of maintaining public safety and averting public emergency," according to CNN.
The Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology recently sent orders to Twitter to block a number of accounts and hashtags connected to the protests (many of them critical of the government and of Modi). Though Twitter initially complied with two of those emergency blocking orders, it said in a blog post Wednesday that it had "subsequently restored access to the content in a manner that we believe was consistent with Indian law."
The government has also defended reforms that first sparked the protests, arguing they "give expanded market access and provide greater flexibility to farmers," and "pave the way for economically and ecologically sustainable farming."
It's a defense that has seen some support from the Biden administration, with a State Department official telling Politico: "The United States welcomes steps that would improve the efficiency of India's markets and attract greater private sector investment."
The administration has criticized Modi's crackdown on the internet, however, with the official telling Politico that access to the internet "is fundamental to the freedom of expression."
A State Department spokesperson tells PEOPLE: "We recognize that peaceful protests are a hallmark of any thriving democracy, and note that the Indian Supreme Court has stated the same. We encourage that any differences between the parties be resolved through dialogue."
What Meena Harris Said
Meena — a Harvard and Stanford-educated lawyer, children's book author and the founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign — is an outspoken social media presence whose profile has drastically increased in connection with her aunt. She often posts memes and personal videos of the vice president on Instagram and TikTok.
On Feb. 5, Meena tweeted in support of the release of Kaur, the activist who remains in custody after being arrested on Jan. 12.
In her tweet, Meena shared reports alleging that Kaur was sexually assaulted, though Kaur's sister has reportedly denied those claims (according to The Hindu, her sister did say that the activist was "beaten up by the police, and she had injuries on private parts.")
In a separate tweet, Meena wrote that the issue of the Indian protests wasn't one strictly of agricultural policy. She echoed other critics of Modi's nationalist policies and stance on the country's Muslim minority.
"It's also about the persecution of a vocal religious minority," she wrote. "It's police violence, militant nationalism, and attacks on labor rights. It's global authoritarianism. Don't tell me to stay out of your affairs. These are all of our issues."
On Instagram, Meena's criticism was more barbed, with a post suggesting that Modi was a "fascist dictator" in a caption beneath a photo of farm protesters.
"Trump may have left office, but look around: the tide is still rising," she wrote. "Militant nationalism remains just as potent a force in American politics as it is in India or anyplace else. And it can only be stopped if people wake up to the reality that these FASCIST DICTATORS aren't going anywhere."
While she is a private citizen with no formal advisory role to the Biden-Harris administration, Meena's personal link to the White House means that her criticism of the Indian government brings with it increased scrutiny.
The Harris family's Indian heritage also brings them increased attention in India. The vice president made history last month when she was sworn in as the first woman, first Black person and first person of Asian descent to hold the office.
Following Meena's comments, some counter-protesters (identified by journalists as activists from United Hindu Front), even burned photos of her and Thunberg.
On Twitter, she shared reports of the photo-burning, writing that she would not be "intimidated" or "silenced" by those who believe she should stop speaking up.
The Response from Indian Officials and Prominent News Sources
In a statement issued last week, the Indian embassy defended itself against the mass protests (which it claimed were being initiated by a "very small section of farmers") and alluded to comments by Meena Harris and other "celebrities" as being inaccurate and irresponsible.
"Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken. The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible," the Indian embassy's statement continued.
According to Politico, a slew of English-language Indian media outlets (including Times of India, ABP, Hindustan Times and National Herald India) have picked up Meena's comments and support of the farm protests and Kaur.
The Biden administration hasn't offered any comment on Meena's remarks, though Biden himself spoke with Modi in a phone conversation earlier this week.
The full context of their conversation has not been made public.
A spokeswoman for Harris declined to comment this week on Meena's activism.