Monday, November 10, 2008

In Defense of Sonal Shah [Updated]

[After I posted this, Sonal Shah released a statement distancing herself from the VHP. I was able to verify the statement via another source; for me this puts to rest any questions about her views, and reinforces the argument I make in the following post.]

Last week at Sepia Mutiny 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, 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. But given that she has not made a public statement in response to Prashad's most recent accusations, we should probably respond to her 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, 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.

That second narrative I have presented is admittedly complete 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)?

Labels: ,


Blogger Falstaff said...

I know nothing about Sonal Shah, but I do know a little bit about Indicorp, having interacted with a number of their volunteers and been involved in a couple of projects they were involved in as well. Based on my (admittedly limited) interaction with the organization, as well as everything I've heard from friends of mine who have worked closely with them, I would say that there's absolutely no question of Indicorps being in any way associated with fundamentalism, fascism or any form of Hindutva. On the contrary, I would say they are an entirely well-meaning organization dedicated to the cause of social change. Prashad's questions about the organization are both illogical and baseless.

As, for that matter, is most of the rest of his piece. Nowhere is the jaundiced nature of Prashad's article clearer than in this line from the second paragraph:

"Shah, a product of the University of Chicago, shined her corporate shoes at Anderson Consulting (who was Enron’s accountant), which probably made it easier for her to go into Clinton’s Treasury Department, where she helped Robert Rubin put a U. S. stamp on the post-1997 Asian economic recovery"

First, Anderson Consulting is an independent subsidiary of Arthur Anderson which undertakes business consulting projects and does not do accounting work; which, incidentally, is why they would employ Shah who is an economics graduate, NOT an accountant. Second, even if Shah had worked with the accounting arm of Anderson, this would in no ways connect her to the Enron scandal - thousands of people have worked for Anderson - are we to consider them all tarnished by Enron? Third, what does Prashad mean by "probably made it easier for her to go into Clinton's Treasury Department"? I may be naive, but I fail to see any connection between the two, except that both require fairly high levels of competence. Is Prashad trying to suggest that there was something underhand about Shah's move into the Treasury Department? It certainly sounds that way.

I have no doubt that Prashad, if put to the question, would deny that he meant to imply anything by that sentence. Yet as an exercise in scurrilous misrepresentation that statement (and the rest of his article, which is riddled with the same kind of shadowy insinuation coupled with a careful cherry-picking of facts to show the Shahs in the worst possible light) comes straight out of the worst chapters of the Rove-Palin playbook.

Finally, I think there is a higher order guilt-by-association question implicit in this discussion: are all initiatives of an organization that stands for an evil ideology necessarily evil, and therefore to be shunned? There is no question that what the VHP stands for is execrable, but can we (and must we) therefore assume that anything the VHP does is wrong? And how, if they are to avoid any and all cooperation with the Hindu Right, are NGOs working in areas where the Hindu right holds political power to function?

You offer an alternate (and to my mind entirely plausible) narrative in your post. Allow me to offer a third - with the same caveat that I have no reason to believe that this version is any more true than the others. Let's say that Ms. Shah knew perfectly well what the VHP stood for. Let's say that she also knew that there was a desparate need for earthquake relief in the region; for humanitarian efforts that cut across ideological boundaries. And she was pragmatic enough to realize that in a state where the Hindu Right was in power, and where the VHP has a strong grassroots network, collaborating with the VHP and aiding them in their efforts to provide relief to distressed families (efforts I have no reason to believe were not genuine) could be an effective way to make a difference. Would it be wrong of her to take that opportunity? Would it have been somehow nobler to refuse to have anything to do with the Hindu right, even if this meant compromising the effectiveness of relief efforts? And would making that choice, assuming it was the choice she made, make her a VHP sympathizer?

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Maltesh Ashrit said...

I agree with both of you that this involves that there is a larger extent of guilt by association involved here. I shun to believe that Sonal Shah associated with the VHP because of its Hindutva idealogies. Well, in India not every things happen by their choice, may be some one convinced here, someone from family or friends cirle. I have a similiar incident to narrate. I was made to attend certain RSS meets in my childhood just because I was asked to do so. I went there because my friends were there, and it was just an activity for me. I didnt go to scrutinise RSS's ideologies or fundamentalist mindset (which now after learning about them I object to it)

For Sonal, helping the earthquake victims ccould be the major intent VHP was just a medium.

10:53 PM  
Blogger Pinku said...


this is plain crazy...even if she were to have VHP leanings it shouldn't make any difference to the responsibility thats been given to her by the Obama team.

5:56 AM  
Blogger Mampi said...

I personally detest the policies that VHP, RSS and the staunchly right wingers in the Hindutva camp support. However, from both these articles, yours and Prashad's, Shah happens to emerge as a winner in the Obama team because of her talent, not because of any affiliations she/her family might have had. I gather that there are more hidden skeletons in the Indian Politicians and senior aides' closets from the so-called secular parties-and yet we go on voting them to power; there should be no cause to label this person as a fanatic.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Rhona said...

I actually worked with Indicorps in Ahmedabad, and I can say with conviction that it does not have any religious agenda!! This is really ridiculous and unfounded accusation.

2:39 PM  
Anonymous aswin said...

Amardeep - I I assume you have seen Vijay Prashad's response to the discussion/questions surrounding his article on Sonal Shah. Here it is, just in case:

The questions he raises seem valid enough, and Shah's statement doesn't really clear the air. I would have liked to post this on sepia mutiny, but the comments section are closed.

4:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amardeep, I assume you have seen the statement put out by CSFH:

The links with VHP-America are there alright, and it isn't limited to just fundraising. And seeing as she comes from a family steeped in the Sangh, her participation cannot really be due to political naivete either. And this is not the first time that she is being asked for clarifying her links with the VHP-A or Sangh--in 2005 also, she was publicly asked to do so at a Yale conference (see ) where she declined to do so (See the 3rd item in CSFH 2005 newsletter$/Jan-Feb2005.htm)

So, it is not only that:
A) Sonal Shah has induspatable links with VHP-A (and other Sangh organizations such as Ekal Vidyalaya)

B) When asked to publicly state her positions around them, she refuses to do so (in 2005)...

C)...till it becomes such a hot issue that some denial needs to be made...

D) ..and then, she puts out a weak, defensive, inaccurate statement in which she deliberately obfuscates some issues (implying that she has never been associated with VHP and RSS groups, that the affiliations of her family are only "cultural" and "religious" in nature.)

I certainly think the questions Prashad is raising are pertinent ones, given that the whole premise of this election is one of "change", and instead of giving Sonal Shah any more latitude to dawdle, we should be demanding some direct and honest answers.

3:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Meh. I've been in the audience when she's been asked about this - repeatedly - and have even asked her diffidently once or twice myself. She's never come out categorically before in the way she has just now. In fact, she's avoided it. Its quite obvious to me what's happened, but in this defending-our-own kind of vicious atmosphere, nobody's going to come out and say it.

1:49 AM  
Anonymous Murli Natrajan said...

Dear Amardeep,

Been a fan of your comments over sometime now. On the Sonal Shah issue, things are now a little more clear than earlier and hence need to be revisited. I am posting this comment here since Sepia comments are closed. I am writing this as an invitation to further dialog, not to close dialog since this issue goes far beyond a single personality, Ms. Shah. Hoping you will revive the dialog on Sepia.

The CSFH statement (which was released a couple days ago) makes the following points that change the discourse so far on this issue. The points from CSFH are:
1. That Ms. Shah's resume does show that she was part of VHPA's leadership group--the governing council and chapter presidents/coordinators. She participated in strategy discussions with prominent leaders of the Sangh Parivar. Ms. Shah was not just a bystander, she was considered important and trustworthy enough by the Hindutva leadership to be included in a core group with Ajay Shah, Gaurang Vaishnav, Mahesh Mehta, Yashpal Lakra, Vijay Pallod, Shyam Tiwari, and others;
2. That Ms. Shah's claim to have "never" subscribed to such Hindu nationalist views strains credulity;
3. That almost everyone (except for the openly proud members of VHP, VHPA, RSS and their affiliates) have been quite clear that having truck with the Sangh Parivar organizations is at the least problematic, and at worst quite at odds with any claim to being democratic and non-divisive;
4. That the issue of doing philanthropy is not a politically innocent act (even if individuals tend to think about it as such), but that it depends on the organizational contexts in which it occurs, and that the Sangh efforts in relief work has been criticised by many independent observers as contributing to divisive agendas at best and violent displacements at worst.

Given all the above, would it not be reasonable for people to ask for clarifications from Ms. Shah without being given the by-now-hackneyed labels of being anti-India, anti-desi, anti-development, anti-progress, etc.?

Peace and Justice
Murli Natrajan

10:00 AM  
Blogger Amardeep said...


I've been following the recent developments, and am well aware of The Campaign to Stop Funding Hate.

My attitude on this now, as expressed in my comment on SAJAForum, is that 1) Sonal Shah's good works outweigh the questions raised by this prior associations, and 2) I just don't care enough to bother parsing her every word to see if there is some slippage there. She has not been appointed to the Supreme Court -- she's just working for a transition team.

As I said on SAJA, it's obvious to me why she had earlier been slow to distance herself from an organization her family has been involved with. It also doesn't bother me that she's phrasing her disavowal carefully and precisely, though I obviously would be happy if she were able to be more forthright and direct on these matters.

In the end, she says she does not subscribe to intolerant or communal views now, and I believe her. Not one of the dozens of people who have come forward in the past week who know her give us any reason to doubt what she is saying about what she believes.

All in all, I think it's absurd how there are now dozens of people making it their business to evaluate everything about Sonal Shah's life, accomplishments, and record. It really shows that some people have too much time on their hands.

10:21 AM  
Anonymous Conrad Barwa said...

So hang on - she was a member of the VHP-A branch and she claims to condemn religious hatred and intolerance?! As for her work in Gujarat, I have no problem in beleiving that it was well-intentioned and genuine - the problem is the lack of judgement, the Gujarat state govt has systematically discriminated against the Muslim community in reconstruction and aid efforts and as several NGOs remarked not been impartial. NGOs that dared to challenge or criticise the state govt for this like ActionAid India, ran into problems. At the very least it was a gross error of judgement for Sonal Shah to be involved imo to be invovled with such groups.

Anybody who has done aid work in India can tell you that many secular organisations are wary of being involved with religious ones Muslim, Hindu or Christian because of this reason being in one way or another being caught up in religious politics. given the inflamed situation in Gujarat I think that Shah should have exercised more caution. She certainly seems to have done little to distance herself from these organisations until it became expedient for her to do so and I find your reaction somehwat blase to this. I mean how the heck can you be the national co-ordinator of the VHP-A and escape any sort of responsibility for the wider actions of this organisation. During the early Soviet era there were many well-meaning liberals and leftists who got hoodwinked by Bolshevik propaganda about what life in the USSR was really like and who acted as ambassadors for the USSR in their western home countries. "Useful idiots" is the phrase Lenin used for them I think. Sonal Shah seems at the very least to have replicated this role.

Sonaldhe Desai has a more balanced if generous view of the whole issue in the EPW.

I don't think Sonal Shah is a closet fascist or anything; but she is very much similar to so many of my middle-class, upper caste Hindu friends in India - wiilling to tolerate the BJP and its ilk being attracted by its model of cultural nationalism and willing to close their eyes to its more unpalatable aspects and actions. Does this make Sonal Shah a fascist - of course; but does this make Shah as someone who would stand up for minority rights, substantive democracy and targeting of discriminated groups in society - no and this is what is really damning in my eyes.

10:06 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home