Let me start by posting Sonal Shah’s newly-released statement in full, as one goal of this post is to let readers judge her words for themselves:
I was recently maligned by a professor at a college in Connecticut who wrote an article in CounterPunch accusing me of association with Hindu extremism. Then, a few days ago, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, published an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer, to which this site linked, that echoed the CounterPunch accusations. These attacks sadden me, but they share one other thing in common: the accusations are false.
In reaction to these attacks, my closest friends — and many strangers — have rallied to my side. I am touched by this outpouring of support. And as painful as this episode has been for me personally, I welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue with the seriousness that it deserves, but the conversation should proceed on the basis of verified facts and reasoned argument, not innuendo and defamation.
Indian politics and history are contested and emotive, but also unfamiliar to most Americans. I understand why so many Indians and Indian-Americans feel strongly about religious extremism in India, because I share the same concerns.
I am an American, and my political engagements have always and only been American. I served as a U.S. Treasury Department official for seven years, and now work on global development policy at Google.org. And I am honored to serve on the Presidential Transition Team of President-elect Obama while on leave from Google.org.
I emigrated from India at the age of four, and grew up in Houston. Like many Americans, I remain proud of my heritage. But my engagement with India has been exclusively cultural and humanitarian. After the devastating earthquake in Gujarat in 2001, I worked on behalf of a consortium of Indian-American organizations to raise funds for humanitarian relief. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP-A), an independent charity associated with the eponymous Indian political group, was among these organizations, and it was the only one to list my name on its website. I am not affiliated with any of these organizations, including the VHP-A, and have not worked with any of them since 2001.
The experience with the Gujarat earthquake did, however, teach me an important lesson. It pointed up a lack of dedicated infrastructure to help alleviate suffering in India, so together with my brother and sister, I founded Indicorps, an organization modeled on the U.S. Peace Corps that enables young Indian-Americans to spend a year in service to marginalized communities in India. The fellows come from every religious background, and have worked among every religious community in India. Indeed, some Indicorps fellows focus on inter-faith dialogue as part of their projects.
In 2002, Gujarat suffered one of the most profound tragedies in its long history, when extremist political leaders, including some associated with the VHP, incited riots that resulted in the deaths of thousands. Had I been able to foresee the role of the VHP in India in these heinous events, or anticipate that the VHP of America could possibly stand by silently in the face of its Indian counterpart’s complicity in the events of Gujarat in 2002 — thereby undermining the American group’s cultural and humanitarian efforts with which I was involved — I would not have associated with the VHP of America.
Sadly, CounterPunch and Senator Santorum have suggested that I somehow endorse that violence and the ongoing violence in Orissa. I do not – I deplore it. But more than that, I have worked against it, and will continue to do so. I have already denounced the groups at issue and am hopeful that we can begin to have an honest conversation about the ways immigrant and diaspora communities can engage constructively in social and humanitarian work abroad. (link)
I was happy to see a believable account of how Shah’s name appeared on the VHPA website as a coordinator for earthquake relief in 2001. Shah doesn’t specifically address the statements from a VHPA spokesman to the effect of “she was part of our leadership council for three years,” but there is a clear and convincing account of what she now believes about the VHP as an organization in India, as well as a clear statement about Gujarat 2002. I think we should also not overlook the statement “I am an American” that is here: she considers her personal political commitments to be first and foremost oriented to the American political landscape. I think this fact is important to remember whenever we talk about 2nd generation South Asian Americans’ relationships to specific political issues within South Asia.
After the fold, some thoughts following a personal meeting I had with Anand Shah, Sonal Shah’s younger brother, today in Philadelphia.
First, Anand is a pretty intense person — he had a lot to say about the work he and his siblings have done with Indicorps. What came through is a real passion for the kind of work Indicorps does, namely help people find NGOs in India that need hard-working, compassionate people who have skills that can help people all over India. I got the strong sense that Anand would infinitely prefer to be talking about his experiences on that front in India (where he has lived full time since 2002), than dealing with this attack on his sister’s reputation. (Though he is an extremely passionate defender of his sister, don’t get me wrong.)
Second, I get the sense that at least these two Shah siblings are “doers” rather than “talkers.” In our conversation today, Anand repeatedly emphasized his desire to work with people of different political stripes, if it can result in positive outcomes for people in need. He seemed especially impatient with lefty academic types in the U.S., who tend to talk a lot about poverty over dinner at pricey restaurants in New York City. He sees himself bi-partisan in the Obama vein — if a conservative wants to work with him to get something done that will have a positive impact, he’ll go there. These folks are pragmatists, not ideologues.
Third, he stressed the need for second-generation South Asian Americans (the target readership for this blog, incidentally) to take charge of our own self-representation, and not leave it to people like Vijay Prashad. Many of us have complicated affiliations that don’t fit the Indian paradigm of “hardcore religious” or “hardcore secular/Marxist.” For example, some of us have strong connections to religious identity (and associations that come with those strong connections), but nevertheless also would want to be identified as tolerant and progressive when it comes to the broader social order. (I’m thinking of my friends over at blogs like The Langar Hall, or perhaps Ali Eteraz [who has stopped blogging]. And I’m also referring to the religious youth camps that I discussed in my previous post on “Yankee Hindutva”)
Fourth, he agreed with my assessment that all this close attention to an association in Sonal Shah’s past is a bit insane given the gravity of the ongoing communal problem in India, where a person’s political and religious affiliations generally are worn on one’s sleeve. (No one needs to snoop and speculate to find out what you really think; chances are, it’s right out there in the open.)
Sonal Shah, I’ll say again, has never been heard to say anything remotely intolerant — and she’s not exactly been a shrinking violet when it comes to speaking engagements over the past few years. It’s also not clear that she ever did anything for the VHPA other than this role as an earthquake relief coordinator in 2001 (which she describes as only one part of a larger effort involving a consortium of organizations). In her own narrative of this association, as well as her brother’s account of it that I heard in person today, this was not a sustained or major involvement. Their decision to found Indicorps emerged precisely out of a need to establish a mechanism by which second generation Indian Americans could channel their desire to do good secularly, specifically where it would be of real benefit in India.
I hope there is enough evidence out there now that Sonal Shah is not some kind of ideologue for the Hindu right (in fact, she is not an ideologue at all). Moreover, her role as a member of the Obama transition team has had no involvement with policy related to India, so why exactly are we still talking about it?
It’s by the standard of Indicorps that Anand Shah wants to be judged — and I for one am willing to give him that.