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 Shah does have feet that leave tracks, has written words that have been archived, and has occupied offices of responsibility.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 Hindutva).
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/coordinators. 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 to:
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, 14 November 2008
*Campaign to Stop Funding Hate www.stopfundinghate.org