Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sonal Shah - A case of political naivete

Let's be clear:  Sonal Shah is not a Hindu Fundamentalist.  She is, however, politically naive and was unable to grasp what any association with the VHP, BJP and RSS would mean for her and her commendable social work.  This is either because she is out of touch with ground realities in India, or felt she didn't need to make serious efforts to distance herself from what she may have perceived as just exaggerated leftist smear campaigns.  But while Leftists are more alarmist, ridiculous and unconvincing with their rhetoric (fascist, Hitler, etc), the underlying assertions, of her troubling affiliations and collaborations, are valid.  And with her recent appointment to Obama's transition team, the issue has inevitably come to the spotlight.   

The only comments, thus far, from the Shah family have been Anand Shah's recent statements condemning the Gujarat riots.  Who doesn't?  But what about condemning VHP and specifically CM Narendra Modi for his documented role in the massacres?  Why does he choose not to condemn the Sangh?  Most probably, because he feels Indicorps' work would be compromised as a result.  Most of their social projects are based in Gujarat.  They need to be on Modi's good side and, also, when your father does (or did) have leadership roles within these organizations, you want to respect your elders.  But sometimes a clear stand is necessary, and one must break away from those you love.  Obama did it with reverend Jeremiah Wright.  He was forgiven the moment he dissociated himself.  The same would have been true, and is still true, if both Anand and Sonal dissociate themselves from their parents and their own former collaborations and activities with the Sangh.    

But that would take guts, and would politicize an organization focused on "Service for the Soul".  But Sonal Shah's and Indicorps current stand is not neutral.  What is best at this moment, if she wants to salvage her reputation and that of her work, is to admit she made a mistake.  That she wasn't careful, that she believes firmly in the secular founding principles of the country and not an India dominated by those who wish to impose a Hindu state.  These very curt and brief statements would go a long way in allowing her to make the many meaningful contributions she is, and will continue to make, in her ascending and bright future.  

We need Sonal Shah.  I am saddened by those who want to bring her down, hurt her work, and are calling for her resignation.  Her work, commitment, vision and dedication to public service are laudable and all efforts should be made to work and dialogue with her, instead of destroying her.  Take it from someone who has had many, many brilliant dialogues with the woman (see old posts on this blog).  Her openness, ideas and life, are  exemplary.  I firmly stand behind her, wish her the best in her new role as advisor and ask now - for the practical concern of moving on from this controversy now and forever - that she make her apology and make clear her dissociation from the Sangh.  Saying you have no links, when your father has had a leadership role with the Sangh, when you were a former national coordinator yourself for the VHP-A, when Narendra Modi has been a guest in your house, when you have received an award from the man himself, all come off as unconvincing.  I realize her dilemma in this.  Sonal does not want to jeopardize her relationship with Gujarat, but she can't have it both ways.  A clear stance is necessary and I look forward to some official statement in the forthcoming days.  


gabo arora said...

Below is Sonal Shah's official statement:

“As an Indian-American who has lived in this country since the age of four, serving on the Obama-Biden transition team is a unique privilege for me. A presidential transition is always a time of excitement and, in some cases, of rumors and unfounded gossip. I’d like to set to rest a few baseless and silly reports that have been circulating on the Internet. First, my personal politics have nothing in common with the views espoused by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or any such organization. I’ve never been involved in Indian politics, and never intend to do so. Second, I’ve always condemned any politics of division, of ethnic or religious hatred, of violence and intimidation as a political tool. Some factually inaccurate internet rumors have attempted to link me to Hindu Nationalist groups through a variety of tenuous connections: Relief work I’m proud to have helped coordinate following the Gujarati earthquake of 2001, or cultural and religious affiliations of some of my family members, or apolitical humanitarian work I’ve been privileged to do as a founder of the NGO Indicorps and as the Director of Global Development for Google.org. Finally, I do not subscribe to the views of such Hindu nationalist groups, and never have. Ridiculous tactics of guilt by association have been decisively repudiated by the American people. I am delighted with what the victory on November 4 says about my country, and about our place in the world. I look forward to serving our President-elect in this time of transition.”

gabo arora said...

A virtual melee has ensued in print and digital media over the selection of Ms. Sonal Shah, an American of Indian origin to the Obama transition
team's advisory board. Shrill accusations of Ms. Shah being a "racist and Hindu chauvinist" are being reciprocated by equally shrill attempts to portray anyone who raises serious questions about the selection as being anti-India, anti-Hindu, anti-progress, and recently, as against "liberal civility." We condemn such baseless and unfair statements.

At the outset we wish to acknowledge that Ms. Shah has had a record of being a visible and an important face of the "desi American" community - a successful professional, and a politically and socially engaged citizen.

We are also happy to note at least one positive effect from this debate. Even as this issue gets played out on pubic fora, the din of militant
Hindutva drumbeats has suffered some dampening. Almost all participants, including those who have come out in support of Ms. Shah, have said that
the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) -- both integral to the Hindutva movement, are part of the "politics of hate" that must be resisted. We wish such statements had come much earlier, such as the time when people were being butchered in Gujarat, or when Indicorps (an organization Ms. Shah co-founded) was felicitated by Mr. Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Ms. Shah has become something of a point of pride for many Americans with origins in India. But Ms. Shah does have feet that leave tracks, has written words that have been archived, and has occupied offices of responsibility. We wish to explore this material record below by examining two of the most persuasive claims made by supporters of Ms.
Shah. These are:

1. That accusations of Ms. Shah being a closet Hindutva ideologue amount
to "guilt by association" , a reference to the fact that her father Mr. Ramesh Shah has well documented leadership roles within the Sangh
Parivar (Collective Family, the name for the set of organizations of

2. That Ms. Shah's only association with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of
America (VHPA) was in the context of the Gujarat earthquake; surely, she
cannot be faulted for not picking the right organization when urgent
action was the need of the hour.

Our claims of Ms. Shah's Hindutva associations are not based on guilt by association. Instead, we ask: What organizational and ideological work did Ms. Shah perform for and as part of the VHPA?

We have archived records demonstrating that Ms. Shah was a part of VHPA's leadership group--the governing council and chapter presidents/coordina tors. She participated in strategy discussions with
prominent leaders of the Sangh Parivar. Ms. Shah was not just a bystander, she was considered important and trustworthy enough by the Hindutva leadership to be included in a core group with Ajay Shah, Gaurang Vaishnav, Mahesh Mehta, Yashpal Lakra, Vijay Pallod, Shyam Tiwari, and others. Does Ms. Shah deny that she played such a role?
Even in light of the recent public statement by Gaurang Vaishnav, General Secretary of the VHPA, that Ms. Shah was made a member of the
governing council as she came out of college?

We are glad to hear Ms. Shah assert that her "personal politics have nothing in common with the views espoused by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad
(VHP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or any such organization" , and that she does not "subscribe to the views of such Hindu nationalist
groups". However, in view of her close association with VHPA, as summarized above, Ms. Shah's claim to have "never" subscribed to such
Hindu nationalist views strains credulity.

Ms. Shah's participation in the VHPA Governing Council predates by a few years her position as National Coordinator of VHPA's Gujarat earthquake
activities in 2001. The position of earthquake relief coordinator doesn't seem to be an easy one to ascend to -- VHPA's website states that "national projects are executed by a committee of members drawn from the Governing Council and the various chapters." Thus, Ms. Shah's coordination of VHPA earthquake relief seems to have built upon her earlier leadership role within the VHPA. We do not know when/if her affiliation with the VHPA ceased, but VHPA media secretary Shyam Tiwari has recently claimed: "Sonal was a member of VHP of America at the time of the earthquake. Her membership has [now] expired."

A note about Ms. Shah's earthquake relief work. Calamities such as the 2001 Bhuj earthquake often bring out the best in humans, but the Sangh Parivar is notorious for using such moments instrumentally and cynically for advancing its violent ideological agenda. An ordinary donor or fund-raiser can be excused for not knowing the Sangh agenda, but for
someone like Ms. Shah, who grew up in a family deeply rooted in the Sangh Parivar, it is more than a little disingenuous to claim that such fund-raising was apolitical or neutral. There are numerous documented instances of the Sangh Parivar's religion- and caste-based discrimination in doling out relief. Therefore we are shocked that Ms. Shah has expressed pride in coordinating relief work (under the ambit of VHPA) following the Gujarat earthquake of 2001. The relief work
coordinated by the VHP is known to have rebuilt villages in the Kutch region exclusively for caste Hindus while marginalizing lower caste Hindus and Muslims to the periphery. The VHP thus took the opportunity of the earthquake to re-create multi-ethnic villages into exclusive Hindu spaces. In addition, given the pivotal role played by the VHP and other Sangh organizations in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom, we fear her pride is entirely misplaced.

Although we appreciate the positive influence Ms. Shah has had on many second-generation desis, we have a hard time forgetting the many victims
of Hindutva. If Ms. Shah really wants to dispel doubts about her linkages with the VHPA and other Sangh Parivar outfits, we urge her to be more forthcoming in her condemnations of the Sangh Parivar, especially its branches in the United States since that has been the site of her involvement. Some ways for Ms. Shah to do this would be

1. acknowledge her past organizational associations with the Sangh Parivar

2. distance herself from the public reception reportedly planned by the
RSS in her native village in Gujarat

3. categorically condemn the role played by Hindutva forces in anti-minority violence in India, and the facilitation of this violence by funds sent through various Sangh Parivar affiliates in the United States

In Peace and Justice
Campaign to Stop Funding Hate (www.stopfundinghate.org)

White Lotus said...

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