Sonal Shah’s statement

Sonal’s brother posted the following statement from Sonal in the comments of Amardeep’s post In Defense of Sonal Shah (boldface mine):

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

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.

That’s the sort of unequivocal statement of her political views that I had been hoping for. It’s also what the groups that were concerned about her appointment were asking for.

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.

55 thoughts on “Sonal Shah’s statement

  1. To those trying to uphold the best of democratic practice/possibility in India and the U.S. (not quickly pass judgment), the offer still stands. This is not Gotcha style journalism – but an attempt to bring into conversation advocates on both sides, given that this may not be a story that is picked up by mainstream media outlets. PEACE

  2. But at the same time, I do think there are some very important political issues that are raised, and I was interested in discussing how they will play out.

    Ennis, by writing this post you are actively contributing to how those “very important political issues” play out – and to some extent that seems your point. Especially if you’re going to contribute to letting someone’s reputation dangle like this, perhaps you ought to make your own stand perfectly clear, rather than treating your punditry is merely detached “prediction.” You seem to have opinions about all of this. If you’re willing to say as much as you already have, calling people’s judgment into question and all the rest, then perhaps it makes sense to just say what you think more directly, rather than filtering those views through the lens of what you think might be important to unnamed lawmakers.

    Politics is about the way things are at this moment. And at this moment, there is a very strong precedent, and there is a reason for Americans to be concerned with the VHP.

    Politics is most assuredly not just “about the way things are at this moment.” We just spent an entire political campaign establishing otherwise. For you to characterize a controversial set of practices as a “very strong precedent” doesn’t make it so, and doesn’t mean that it should be. Are you accepting at face value the way in which Muslim charities and people connected to them have been targeted in recent years? How much else that has happened over the last eight years are you willing to assume away as “very strong precedents” to be applied to new situations, rather than as things to be assessed more critically? The questions you say that you’re not engaging are not peripheral, they’re crucial. None of this is a spectator sport.

    As for Sonal Shah herself, I’m with Siddhartha’s comments. Judge her based on her words and actions in the context of her actual responsibilities — she’s made clear she doesn’t endorse the Sangh’s political views, which don’t seem relevant to her role in the transition in any event. I’m glad she’s spoken to these questions, and I don’t think they’re unimportant or irrelevant. But I think we can now all move on and evaluate her based on her actions and record. The discussion we need to have as a community on these questions implicates a lot of individuals who are perfectly well-meaning and decent people in lots of ways, and doesn’t easily reduce to the question of Sonal Shah’s individual judgment or anyone else’s. We should have that conversation, and individual responsibility isn’t altogether irrelevant, but I’m not convinced that we advance the ball very far by emphasizing questions about her judgment while downplaying the substance of what she has said. We would all do well to reread the President-Elect’s “More Perfect Union” speech on Rev. Wright before judging her as harshly as some of us are prepared to.

  3. We are also bringing on Vijay Prashad to make his argument about Ms Shah’s participation (not mere association)to fueling communalism, through speaking engagements at HSS Youth Conferences

    HSS? Whats that? Hitler Youth or something?

  4. The Indian Army’s corroboration in the state sponsored genocide of Kashmiris and now the Bengali Muslims of Assam has been chronicled by numerous intellectuals. I suggest you read Arundhati Roy or attend S.A.R Geelani’s seminars at Delhi University. And please, try being a human being first and a Hindu later.

    yeah right. I guess time for Obama’s army to goto war against the Indian Army. BTW, what’s up with the caste name. isn’t that uncool ?. :-)

  5. Anil,

    I put most of my views up front. I think she’s talented and experienced. I also think that her statement should allay most people’s doubts about her involvement in the transition team, especially given that there is no evidence to contradict it. I said that everything I have heard about Sonal and her family has been positive, and I believe it.

    But I think as a community we have to come to grips with the consequences our diasporic activities have for our political activities in America. Amardeep’s post was about Sonal Shah the person. My post was about the important political lessons that Sonal Shah’s story has to offer for other ABDs.