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In defence of Sonal Shah

In defence of Sonal Shah

I have not met Sonal Shah. A member of President-elect Barack Obama’s transition board, Shah is a director at Google’s philanthropic arm, where she has funded right-to-information campaigns in India and elsewhere. But, overnight, people who call themselves progressive have turned her into a hate figure. US-based organizations such as the Coalition Against Genocide (which campaigned successfully to deny a visa for Narendra Modi, the Gujarat chief minister) have protested against her appointment.

This seems odd. Shah has worked at Andersen Consulting, Goldman Sachs and the US treasury. She has been with the liberal think tank, Center for American Progress, and the Soros Foundation at the US treasury. She worked in post-conflict Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and crisis-ridden Indonesia. With her siblings Anand and Roopal, she set up Indicorps, which brings young Americans of Indian origin to India to work on specific projects. This is the kind of resume that makes many Indians disproportionately proud.

I have not met Vijay Prashad either. He holds the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian history at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, with a record of books and advocacy opposing racism and imperialism. For some time now, he has been challenging Shah. In 2001, Shah helped raise money for the Gujarat earthquake which killed nearly 20,000 people. She did so as an office-bearer of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad–America (VHP-A). In an attack on her in the Left-leaning publication, Counterpunch, Prashad also questions Shah’s support for the Ekal Vidyalaya project, which claims to provide “value-based" primary education in single-teacher schools in tribal areas. Prashad says those schools have an aggressive, pro-Hindutva agenda. Finally, it is pointed out, her father Ramesh is associated with the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

There is now a subcontinental media frenzy regarding Shah, with articles appearing in the Hindustan Times, DNA, The Indian Express, and Pakistan’s Daily Times. The Daily Times has even insinuated that she somehow may bear some responsibility for the post-Godhra massacre of Muslims in Gujarat.

To link Shah with the Gujarat massacre is preposterous, tendentious and disingenuous. Yes, Shah is named VHP’s national coordinator for the 2001 quake relief, but she raised funds from several sources, and channelled funds to Gujarat through several agencies. (In many American towns, faith-based organizations such as VHP are often the only entities where like-minded immigrants can meet for socio-cultural comfort, linking them with the home left behind.) Prashad suggests Shah has a deeper involvement with the VHP. “It is not guilt-by-association, but by participation," he says. But if participating in a Gujarati youth camp is the same as inciting riots, then maybe David Goldhagen had a point, and all Germans were Hitler’s willing executioners (of course not).

The Campaign to Stop Funding Hate has raised serious, legitimate questions about how donations from well-meaning employees (with matching corporate contributions) could end up supporting the Sangh Parivar’s pernicious agenda. Money is fungible, and your cheque for quake relief can end up supporting brick-building for the proposed Ayodhya temple, or buy trishuls for Hindu militants. But it stretches logic to suggest that every donor and fund-raiser for the VHP-A after the 2001 earthquake wanted to see defenceless Muslims killed after the Godhra incident a year later.

Prashad’s work in exposing the Sangh Parivar is necessary, but Shah should be judged by her resume and her deeds (not her father’s). To ask her to express her views on her father’s political choices sounds like a leaf from McCarthy, Stalin or Pol Pot’s book—where children or family and friends were asked to denounce their near ones publicly.

Prashad says Shah has been silent about the Sangh Parivar. Not any more. Calling these tactics “ridiculous", she says: “My personal politics have nothing in common with the views espoused by the VHP, the RSS, or any such organization. I’ve never been involved in Indian politics, and never intend to do so. I’ve always condemned any politics of division, of ethnic or religious hatred, of violence and intimidation as a political tool."

Prashad has called her political neutrality in the Indian context “self-serving", saying neutrality is not an option in dealing with Modi. Opposing the sort of politics Modi, the BJP, the RSS and the VHP represent is legitimate activity, and for some, an honourable calling (although it is hardly the Left’s monopoly). But in targeting the Sangh Parivar, indiscriminate shooting at anyone with tenuous personal links with those organizations is different. Shah is accessible, visible and vulnerable. That may make her an attractive target, but makes the attack all the more regrettable and reprehensible.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at

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