Hindu American groups have taken objection to an image tweeted by Kamala Devi Harris’ niece, Meena Harris, depicting her aunt as Goddess Durga. Seeking an apology from Meena Harris, they say the tweet, posted on Oct. 17, the first day of Navratri, offends the religious sentiments of the community.
The now-deleted tweet showed the Democratic vice presidential candidate killing President Donald Trump with a trishul or a trident. Trump was depicted as Mahishasura,” the buffalo demon, while Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is portrayed as a lion that serves as Durga’s vehicle. “I am actually speechless, other than to say that the first day of Navaratri was LIT,” Meena Harris captioned the photo. Meena Harris, 35, is a lawyer, a children’s book author and the founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign.
Indian Americans with progressive or secular outlook and those closely associated with the Biden-Harris campaign, criticized the reactions of the Hindu American groups. “Our Hinduism is strong, vibrant and diverse, and is not fragile and threatened by jokes and play,” said Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of the Hindus for Human Rights.
According to Neha Dewan, national chair for South Asians for Biden, “the issue is a distraction from the fact that both Biden and Harris are supportive of the Hindu American community.” Dewan mentioned Navratri greetings issued by both Biden and Harris on Oct. 17, “becoming the first presidential ticket to do so.”
Offense and Outrage
Representatives of Hindu American groups and supporters of President Trump said the tweet is offensive and hurtful to the community and creates Hinduphobia in communities that already have very little knowledge about the Hindu Dharma.
Ajay Shah, convener of American Hindus Against Defamation and convener of HinduPACT (Hindu Policy Research and Advocacy Collective USA), an initiative of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), said the Hindus “are offended and outraged,” because Sen. Harris has “assumed the form of a revered Hindu Goddess during one of the most auspicious Hindu festivals, Navaratri for scoring political points.”
Similarly, Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, said the tweet had upset Hindus across the world. “Dear Meena Harris, by now you know that your tweeting a caricature of the feminine divine, Maa Durga, with faces superimposed, deeply aggrieved many Hindus globally,” she said in a tweet. She advised her to follow the organization’s guidelines on the commercial use of religious images.
To some, the tweet is another example of Vice President Joe Biden’s lack of interest in acknowledging Hindu Americans as a community.
“It’s quite telling that a campaign that won’t even put out an agenda for the Hindu American community when they have done so for other religious communities is misappropriating the religious symbols and pictures of this same community for their own purposes,” Rakhi Israni, executive director, legal, of HinduPACT, said in a statement. “In other words, it seems that what the Biden/Harris Campaign is saying is don’t ask what we will do for you, but continue giving your all to us,” Israni said. “It’s about time Hindu Americans wake up. We can’t afford to be emotionally tied to one party or another lest we are taken for granted.”
Hindu American Voting Bloc
While most Indian Americans support the Democrats, factors such as the personal dynamics between Trump and Prime Minister Modi, his close business ties to India and his anti-Muslim rhetoric have been playing well with Hindu Americans aligned with the rightwing politics of Modi and his BJP. Many say incidents like the Oct. 17 tweet could alienate more Hindu American voters who already feel distanced by the Biden campaign. Others say the campaign is courting Hindu Americans after realizing their significance as a voting bloc.
Calling Sen. Harris “a self-acknowledged non-Hindu,” Shah said that she is rapidly discovering her Hindu roots,” after realizing that “Hindu votes matter in battlegrounds states.” In an earlier interview with this writer, Shah said Biden is taking the Hindu vote for granted. “They seem to relish the fact that in past elections, a vast majority of Hindus voted Democratic and that the Hindu vote is in the bag, and Hindu issues do not need to be addressed.”
Hemant Bhatt, founder of the South Asian Republican Coalition told American Kahani that the tweet not only hurts the sentiment of Hindus, it also alienates them from the Democratic party. “I don’t understand what they will achieve by hurting the religious feelings of all Hindus,” he said. “Elections should be fought on important issues and policies,” he said, “not religious bigotry and divisions.”
“Hindu Democrats took more offense to Sen. Perdue mispronouncing Kamala’s name but no one took offense for her niece’s caricature of Hindu goddess Durga.”
But Dewan argued that “the Biden-Harris ticket has issued policy platforms aimed at supporting our faith communities, while President Trump has overseen the largest spike in hate crimes against South Asians and our faith communities during his presidency.”
Several Trump supporters took to social media to criticize the tweet. Kartik Bhatt of Georgia, in a Facebook post, said the tweet is a clarion call for Hindus who are planning to go Blue. Sharing the photoshopped image, he wrote: “See what all is happening; for God sake we should not take this — someone playing with our Dharma.”
Narender G. Reddy, also of Georgia, noted on Facebook that while the Hindu Democrats took more offense to Sen. Perdue mispronouncing Kamala’s name but no one took offense for her niece’s caricature of Hindu goddess Durga. “Not even one Democrat who jumps on my FB posts every time, condemned or commented on Sen. Kamala Harris’ niece insulting an Hindu Goddess. Now, that is a shame!”
‘Putting Boundaries on Our Faith’
Both Dewan and Viswanath observe that the use of religious imagery in political satire and commercials is nothing new. “The use of religious imagery is not a new subject,” Dewan said. “Hindu deities have been used by political parties in India — as well as both major parties in the United States — for various political purposes.”
Noting that such reactions “put boundaries on our magnanimous, expansive and inclusive faith and philosophy,” Viswanath said, Hindus for Human Rights “did not find anything objectionable” in Meena Harris’ “playful depiction.” She observes that “as Hindus, we do not have limitations on our relationship with the divine. It is a terrible shame that people are putting boundaries on our magnanimous, expansive and inclusive faith and philosophy.”
Viswanath also highlighted other depictions of Goddess Durga. Whether it is “Devi Maa bruised and battered, a statement on violence against women,” or an image of a woman in a business suit, juggling her many responsibilities, “a Navrathri statement on the superwoman that a modern woman has to be.”