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.
Sonal is a highly qualified and experienced public figure who has done a lot of good. There’s also no evidence that I’ve seen, from anybody, that Sonal holds sectarian or bigoted sentiments. To the contrary – people I know who know her personally have said only positive things about her and her family. I suspect this statement will put most people’s concerns to rest in terms of her participation on the transition team.
But … I think the statement reveals two areas of questionable judgment that I think might cause problems for her if she’s nominated to a position in the new administration, despite her qualifications and track record.
Firstly, it was defensive and dismissive, which is never a good way to deal with somebody else’s fears, especially when these same concerns have been around for years and could easily have been addressed long before.
Second, I think her description of her activities as relief or humanitarian work ignores the ways in which supporting the charitable wings of politically unsavory organizations is problematic, especially since the money raised rarely flows through a sealed pipeline to those it is intended to help.
Consider if Sonal had been raising funds for relief efforts by Islamic organizations that are involved in violence. (They do a lot of relief work across the Mideast and South Asia, including post-earthquake relief in Kashmir) It’s not a politically tenable defense to say that you were only involved in the non-violent charitable side of things. Given that it’s always possible to send money to a relief organization that is not affiliated with violent groups, the choice to work with a violent sectarian organization raises eyebrows, and indeed, questions of judgment.
I know some of you consider the VHP a totally legitimate organization in India. However, involvement with the VHP, in whatever form, is a political problem in America given that the US State Department has documented VHP’s involvement in violence against Christians:
On June 22, 2008, “Hindutva” extremists belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal, and BJP attacked a Christian prayer meeting, beating participants and the pastor, Jonathan Singh… the police in UP physically assaulted a Christian convert, allegedly at the behest of VHP members. [link]
Similarly, Amnesty International has reports of VHP leaders leading pogroms against Christians in Orissa. These were just the first two examples I found, these are far from isolated incidents.
So while I welcome Sonal’s statement, I wonder if it’s too little too late if she is interested in a major position of responsibility in the new government.