In Defense of Sonal Shah [Updated w/statement from Sonal]

Last week Abhi did a post on Sonal Shah, who is working for the Obama transition team. Over the weekend, however, a controversy erupted over Shah, who has worked for the Center for American Progress and (the philanthropic arm of Google), and who has started, with her siblings, a do-good organization called Indicorps.

Vijay Prashad makes some very harsh accusations in an article in Counterpunch, basically suggesting that Sonal Shah is a supporter of a Hindu right organization, the VHP.

The accusations have been widely covered in the Indian media, including The Hindustan Times, TOI, and DNA. Most of those are simply echoing the statements made by Prashad. I have also been getting emails from left-leaning Indian academic friends, who are outraged about Sonal Shah.

I am skeptical about Prashad’s accusations. First, I think it’s important to keep a little perspective: Sonal Shah has been hired because of her experience with Google.Org and Center for American Progress, not because of her former affiliation with the VHP-A. She is also not actually working for the “Obama administration” — she is working on the team that will hire people to work for the Obama administration. If and when she has an official government post, and especially if that post has something to do with policy on India, this kind of scrutiny might be merited. Right now, it is not.

Second, Prashad’s accusations against Sonal Shah smell like a smear — not so different from Sarah Palin saying Barack Obama “pals around with terrorists.” I have no idea whether Sonal Shah is secretly sympathetic to the VHP or not; I do not believe so. [UPDATE: We now have a statement from Sonal Shah, through her brother: here. The statement has been verified through another source.] But given that she has not made a public statement in response to Prashad’s most recent accusations, We should probably respond to Shah based on her actions and verified statements, not on her parents’ beliefs (the worst kind of guilt-by-association), not on her past membership in the VHP-A (which is not disputed), and not on what Vijay Prashad says she said at some Desi conference years ago. In this decade, and in the work she is best known for, Sonal Shah has clearly been on the right side of things.

Vijay Prashad wants to paint a very particular image of Sonal Shah, as a kind of die-hard Hindu chauvinist, who continues to harbor secret communal hatreds, even if she has not made public statements to that effect, is not formally affiliated with any relevant groups, and has been doing valuable social work with Google.Org and Indicorps. But that is just one narrative. One could easily construct a counter-narrative along these lines: Sonal Shah’s parents are in fact supporters of the VHP, and are friends of Narendra Modi. As an ABD growing up in Texas, she had little awareness of the destructive and intolerant nature of Hindu nationalism, and when the opportunity came around to work with VHP-A to raise money for earthquake victims in Gujarat in 2001, she took it. But perhaps, with maturity, and as she took a higher profile role in the organization, she also began to gain an awareness of the costs of affiliation with the VHP, and left to found an organization that does similar work, but with a secular slant. [UPDATE/CORRECTION: According to her statement, even at the time, Shah did not subscribe to the message or ideology of the VHP. She characterizes her work as purely focused on humanitarian aid. She also clearly distances herself from the agenda of the VHP, and suggests she has had no involvement in Indian politics, nor intends to have any.]

That second narrative I have presented is admittedly speculation. But I put it out there because I think there is as much evidence to support it as there is to support the narrative that Prashad has put out in Counterpunch.

I do not have the time to write more at present; I may come back to this later tonight. In the meanwhile, comments are open for discussion. Read the Prashad essay — what do you think? Is he being fair? Also, do readers know more about Indicorps? And, finally, if anyone does know Sonal Shah personally, would you vouch for her (or perhaps, for what Prashad is saying about her)?

110 thoughts on “In Defense of Sonal Shah [Updated w/statement from Sonal]

  1. I dont see why this issue of Sonal being on the transition team of Presiden Elect and VHP is being linked together. I wish the Indian News papers (nee Times of India) would try to make sensational news just to boost their circulation. This is a prime example of jumping the gun with the reporters now a dyas. Not a single person has tried to contact Sonal and get her views instead they have put up a nonsensical issues in their paper. I just want to wish Sonal all the best and am really proud to have known her..

  2. I completely agree with you Buster.

    The terms of Vijay’s piece is that of an academic argument trying to relate a certain broader context. At times in this attempt, the “microhistory” of actual individuals gets lost. Was Dr. Prashad possibly willing to steamroll Sonal Shah for his broader argument? Possibly…

    Amardeep was right to stand up for Shah, but as you stated, Amardeep also misrepresented and reduced Prasad’s piece to nothing more than a “hit” and thus completely loses out on the broader argument Dr. Prashad is trying to make. Interesting enough, Amardeep is also an academic, so one would assume he would be more astute to the nature of these articles. Oh well, usually a fan of Amardeep, but not on this post.

  3. As an academic myself, I’m a little confused by the comments above. Making a larger theoretical point is indeed a valid pursuit. Using validated sources, facts and logic is considered fundamental to this pursuit. Ad hominem attacks, insinuations and invented “facts” aren’t.

  4. As best as I can understand it per Arundhati Roy the Taliban is just a back to nature movement that rejects carbonated beverages using particularly vigorous pyrotechnic displays.

    he..he.. Did she really say that?. :-)

  5. Confused,

    Not related to this particular post, but as an academic, than you should be most aware that ad hominem attacks are a central part of the academic game. You must still be grad student.

  6. Amardeep,

    Usually your fan, but you really seem to have read another piece. Prashad only says she worked for google, nowhere does he specify .org or .com. Nor does that or the phrase “shined her corporate shoes” seem like part of a smear campaign. And how else can he introduce the confluence of VHP, modi and gujarat but by way of the anti-muslim pogrom? Also, his past correspondence with her family is a good reason for him to quote himself.

    Prashad’s point is this: why did she not deny her connection to the hindu right when questioned in 2004? Any secularist would, with pleasure. Her ability to deny it now is compromised; she has too much to lose currently by such an association.

  7. And your alternative in Indian politics is? Congress that killed Sikhs. Communist – Nandigram?

    Your zero sum reasoning makes no sense. Every time somebody points out the horrific ideology of what certain extremist organisations do, actively and continually, in demonising and fomenting hatred which leads directly to violence right now, the reaction should be to talk about what can be done to oppose the hate mongering and extremism that they foment. Not to throw up your arms and say, well, XYZ have also done bad things, so what are you going to do about that? May as well let murderous fascists carry on their way unopposed forever then. It’s a recipe for submission to a fascist, hate-mongering boot on the face, organised, in cadres, highly motivated, with a clear purpose to not only demonise and marginalise certain groups, but to see them persecuted and hounded as untermenschen, and only submissives to that creed should grin at the logic of it all, at the identification and confrontation of it all.

    I am glad that Sonal Shah has distanced herself from the ideology and politics of hatred and division. No doubt she will soon be on the list of saffron traitors and scum that the khakhi jackbooters compile and use as their revolutionary ‘internal enemy’ nuclear fission for constant derangement and motivation. Good for you, Sonal.

  8. I’ve had the priviledge with working with her during a fellowship with Indicorps and on their staff.

    Sonal’s commitment to humanitarian work speaks for itself. These accusations are a ridiculous attempt to smear her reputation. The Obama team has made a great choice, and again, Sonal’s commitment to humanitarian work speaks for itself.

    I sincerely hope she keeps her distance in getting involved with these conversations.

  9. Everyone needs to calm down. I know the family well. They’re the real deal – selfless service is their mantra. There are no “links” or “ties” to anything nefarious here. Sonal and Vijay Prashad were at a SAAN conference at U of Michigan together, he probably felt jealous of her getting so much attention as she wowed the audience and came across as very, very intelligent.

    I know the Prashad family well. Self-promotion is in their DNA.