Mumbai, the Hindu Right, and the Problem with Sonal Shah

Guest post by SVATI P. SHAH

Like so many millions of others, I was glued to the news for days during the Mumbai attacks.  In the aftermath of the terrible human tragedy that reverberates from those long hours, I share the universal concern about the political context for these attacks, a context that is about to change as the governments of India and the U.S. each undergo another major governmental transition. In his response to the attacks, President-Elect Barack Obama said that militants based in South Asia represent the biggest threat to the United States. As we well know by now, South Asia is about to become a foreign policy priority for the Unites States like never before, and this should give us pause.

While Obama’s response intends to reassure, it also implies that this incident will lead to a set of foreign policy moves that will continue to conflate “Muslim” with “terrorist,” missing a host of extremist movements and their consequences in the process. A case in point is a controversy that lit up the Indian and Indian American presses and blogosphere a week before these attacks, one surrounding Sonal Shah, a Google executive who is a member of the Obama’s Transition Team, and, depending on which blog you read on which day, is on the shortlist of candidates for Energy Secretary.  The controversy was triggered by the publication of an online article that recounts Shah’s affiliation with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad-America (VHP-A), and led to a wave of controversy between secular, progressive South Asian organizations and members of the Hindu Right in the U.S., both mobilizing their networks to lobby the Transition Team.  In addition to being a part of the Sangh Parivar in India, the VHP-A works to build the Sangh’s network of members, and donors, in the U.S. with a high level of efficiency.  This work has included efforts to mobilize American college students through a network of groups known as Hindu Student Councils, which offer students access to Indian ‘culture’ (singular) as ‘Hindu culture,’ and recruiting young people to the vision of Hindu nationalism in India in the process.  The VHP-A has also been active on other levels, waging a campaign in 2006 to have California’s primary and secondary school history textbooks edited such that they would conform to the Hindu fundamentalist view that the caste system should be maintained as an essential aspect of Hinduism, and that all non-Hindus in India, especially Muslims, are ‘invaders’ that should be eliminated.  This genocidal view essentially seeks to rewrite history within the Indian diaspora, mirroring and seamlessly supporting the Sangh’s efforts in India.

The public debate on Shah’s appointment is worth paying attention to, especially as South Asia, and India, come into sharper focus for the anti-terrorism establishment.  To my generation of second Indian Americans – who, like Ms. Shah, immigrated to the United States at a very young age, or whose parents immigrated in the late 1960s or 1970s – India seems worlds closer than it did when we were children.  At the same time, the U.S. is more unequivocally our home than ever before, as we happily participate in mainstream American culture and, now, politics, as well.  However, it seems to me that Indian Americans often marvel at our newfound representation in mainstream American politics without pausing to ask what the terms of this representation might be.  Many bloggers immediately came to Ms. Shah’s defense, saying Shah was being attacked unfairly via the ‘politics of association,’ although there is ample documentation of her holding key leadership roles in the VHP-A in 1998 and in 2001, when she coordinated the VHP’s earthquake relief efforts.  Progressives also cited Shah’s having received an award on behalf of her organization Indicorps in 2004 from Narinder Modi among their list of concerns about her potential appointment.  The award was received without any mention of the 2002 anti-Muslim attacks whatsoever.  Three years ago, Modi was denied a visa to the U.S. because of his role in the 2002 attacks, thanks to a successful campaign waged by anti-Hindutva activists who managed to gain the ear of supportive members of Congress who publicly intervened in Modi’s visa application process. If Shah were appointed to any significant post within Obama’s administration, she would have considerable power to undo this precedent, giving operators like Modi far more legitimacy than he now enjoys.

For her defenders, South Asian and non-South Asian alike, Shah’s first, brief disavowal of being allied with the Hindu Right agenda, along with her ivy league pedigree and corporate experience, made her the iconic innocent victim of left wing attack, and a deserving member of Obama’s ‘dream team.’  Unfortunately, this rationale does not satisfy me as a basis for her defense, nor does it satisfy countless others who understand the severe implications for U.S. foreign policy if Shah were to gain a significant appointment in Obama’s administration.  Her appointment would be a pass for the Hindu right in the U.S., even as it becomes more and more clear that the money and infrastructure the Hindu right has built in the U.S. constitute a serious threat to India’s secular democracy.  These issues are even more critical in the wake of the attacks in Mumbai.

Shah’s potential appointment ultimately recasts the new transparency of political appointments under an Obama administration, described by the New York Times as the most stringent governmental vetting process ever.  However, in an era when American organizations with ties to ‘terrorists’ in the Muslim world are coming under unprecedented scrutiny, Shah’s free pass raises questions that the administration-elect can and should address.

20 thoughts on “Mumbai, the Hindu Right, and the Problem with Sonal Shah”

  1. It’s worth pointing out that Shah does not have an “Ivy league pedigree”. She went to UChicago and Duke, neither of which are Ivy League or even on the same level, though they are on the next tier.

  2. Gee! Isn’t the world lucky?? Not only does cynical American cold war politics produce Islamist terror, but America now kicks terrorist butt, ‘the world over’! In the process making the world more unsafe for everyone, including Americans and right-wing Hindu apologists like Kaustav! That’s so cool dude! I can hardly contain my gratitude for uncle sam! How much do you think uncle would ask to kick yours? Maybe if I asked nicely?!

  3. This is glum news for those of us who think (and continue to hope) that the Obama administration will hail in a new era of American politics. I have been reading with dismay Sonal Shah’s vague disavowal of her associations with the VHP-A . I can’t help but draw a parallel between this situation and Obama’s own experience with and handling of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright episode. He was forthright about his associations with the church, explained clearly why he participated in it, what he gained from that experience and why it was untenable for him to continue to participate in that gathering given the Reverend’s extreme views on race in the US.

    I am not comparing the VHP-A to the Reverend’s church (this would be an awfully far-fetched and erroneous comparison, I know), but what I am trying to compare is the honesty of Obama’s response to that of Sonal Shah’s in this situation. I keep wondering why she doesn’t take a leaf out of Obama’s book in this matter.

    Maybe I am too naive about Obama and what he signifies. It has been distressing reading about this appointment.

  4. @Arti

    “Not only does cynical American cold war politics produce Islamist terror, but America now kicks terrorist butt, ‘the world over’!”

    you mean islam was peaceful before 9/11???

    “In the process making the world more unsafe for everyone, including Americans and right-wing Hindu apologists like Kaustav!”

    its not people like me but pinkos like you who make the world unsafe by not acting tough on terrorism.

    “That’s so cool dude! I can hardly contain my gratitude for uncle sam!”

    of course how could you? he’s threatning ti kill of your holy jihad!

    “How much do you think uncle would ask to kick yours? Maybe if I asked nicely?!”

    india, america, and israel are natural allies, all victims of terror. we cant let our friends down by acting soft on terrorists.

    jai hind

    PS: i know you are a muslim posting with a hindu name.

  5. @Arti

    “Not only does cynical American cold war politics produce Islamist terror, but America now kicks terrorist butt, ‘the world over’!”

    well mr. kaustuv. i am a hindu posting with a hindu name. not that it should make any difference because any human being has the right to speak out for truth.

    therefore, i’d like to inform you that your islamaphobic rhetoric IS what is actually making the world more terrifying to live in.

    this is not a competition – who is the biggest victim – but since you’ve pointed out the unholy alliance of india, america, and israel, i should point out that pakistan itself is one of the biggest victims of terrorist activity. not only do taliban and al-qaeda take innocent pakistani lives every day, but then to top it off, the US has been indiscriminately bombing pakistan, killing women, children, and ordinary citizens rather than their supposed “targets.”

    where were you during 2002? why does india continue to treat its minority communities as second-class citizens? is a muslim or christian child’s life not worth as much to you as a hindu’s life? is this what your hinduism teaches you?

    did you never hear of ‘ekam sat viprah bahuda vadanti’ – that truth is one, paths are many? why don’t you learn some tolerance, peace, and respect? that is the only thing that will save our world.

  6. “therefore, i’d like to inform you that your islamaphobic rhetoric IS what is actually making the world more terrifying to live in.”

    and thats the difference between me and you. you’re afraid of “rhetoric”, while I’m worried more about bombs.

    also i see that you don’t care to cite any evidence for this outlandish statement of yours.

    “this is not a competition – who is the biggest victim”

    i’ve never said it was. reread my post care fully. muslims are the only victim mongers.

    “but since you’ve pointed out the unholy alliance of india, america, and israel”

    why is this unholy? blaming the victim? is this another “secular” game?

    “i should point out that pakistan itself is one of the biggest victims of terrorist activity. not only do taliban and al-qaeda take innocent pakistani lives every day, but then to top it off, the US has been indiscriminately bombing pakistan, killing women, children, and ordinary citizens rather than their supposed “targets.” ”

    so? if they care, then they can join forces with the rest of the world. or get ready to be declared a terrorist state.

    “where were you during 2002? why does india continue to treat its minority communities as second-class citizens?”

    haha, in the same 2002, a train coach was burnt by muslims, resulting in the death of several hindus, mostly women and children. where’ the condemnation. hundreds of thousands of hindus were killed and kicked out of kashmir. where’s the condemnation.

    you talk about equality, so why selective condemnation?

    or maybe i am too communal to see that?

    “did you never hear of ‘ekam sat viprah bahuda vadanti’ – that truth is one, paths are many? why don’t you learn some tolerance, peace, and respect? that is the only thing that will save our world.”

    i never talked about disrespect? all i said was that uncle sam will kick jihadi terrorist butt world over, sonal shah or no sonal shah.

    i hope you dont take offense in that!


  7. if the real victims of terror comes out and respond will the so called “US, India, Isreal” withstand it?

    the terror that lies in the rhetoric of ‘Jai hind’ calls for action. Peace no longer remains a US-Indo-MOzad project lured out of cultural greediness and politcal bankruptsy.

  8. Here is a statement that Sonal released which I believe addresses the issue thoroughly and thoughtfully:

    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 And I am honored to serve on the Presidential Transition Team of President-elect Obama while on leave from

    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.

  9. dis dangerous lunatic,wats his name.. Kaustav iz so throughly brain-washed….its dificult 2 resist ur spontaeous impulse 2 ‘kick’ his butt”.. but no,on second thought he needs compassionste understanding if not pity,its not his fault,its da venomous mindset,ths ‘faulty bringing-up’…i feel so embarasd as a hindu somtyms,thi is again misplaced anger ….Let the blazing fire shoot from Lord Shiva’s ‘tri-netra’ burn these evil axas of thought.amen….when wil they ever learn…wait til their own house burn ???? writing is prevaigeting clarer on da wal….seen da election results,dada!

  10. Campaign to Stop Funding Hate (CSFH) statement on Sonal Shah —

    Friday, November 14, 2008: A virtual melee has ensued in print and digital media over the selection of Ms. Sonal Shah, an American of Indian origin to the Obama transition team’s advisory board. Shrill accusations of Ms. Shah being a “racist and Hindu chauvinist” are being reciprocated by equally shrill attempts to portray anyone who raises serious questions about the selection as being anti-India, anti-Hindu, anti-progress, and recently, as against “liberal civility.” We condemn such baseless and unfair statements.

    At the outset we wish to acknowledge that Ms. Shah has had a record of being a visible and an important face of the “desi American” community- a successful professional, and a politically and socially engaged citizen.

    We are also happy to note at least one positive effect from this debate. Even as this issue gets played out on public fora, the din of militant Hindutva drumbeats has suffered some dampening. Almost all participants, including those who have come out in support of Ms. Shah, have said that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — both integral to the Hindutva movement, are part of the “politics of hate” that must be resisted. We wish such statements had come much earlier, such as the time when people were being butchered in Gujarat, or when Indicorps (an organization Ms. Shah co-founded) was felicitated by Mr. Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat.

    Ms. Shah has become something of a point of pride for many Americans with origins in India. But Ms. Shah does have feet that leave tracks, has written words that have been archived, and has occupied offices of responsibility. We wish to explore this material record below by examining two of the most persuasive claims made by supporters of Ms. Shah. These are:

    1. That accusations of Ms. Shah being a closet Hindutva ideologue amount to “guilt by association”, a reference to the fact that her father Mr. Ramesh Shah has well documented leadership roles within the Sangh Parivar (Collective Family, the name for the set of organizations of Hindutva).
    2. That Ms. Shah’s only association with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) was in the context of the Gujarat earthquake; surely, she cannot be faulted for not picking the right organization when urgent action was the need of the hour.

    Our claims of Ms. Shah’s Hindutva associations are not based on guilt by association. Instead, we ask: What organizational and ideological work did Ms. Shah perform for and as part of the VHPA?

    We have archived records demonstrating that Ms. Shah was a 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. Does Ms. Shah deny that she played such a role? Even in light of the recent public statement by Gaurang Vaishnav, General Secretary of the VHPA, that Ms. Shah was made a member of the governing council as she came out of college?

    We are glad to hear Ms. Shah assert that her “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”, and that she does not “subscribe to the views of such Hindu nationalist groups”. However, in view of her close association with VHPA, as summarized above, Ms. Shah’s claim to have “never” subscribed to such Hindu nationalist views strains credulity.

    Ms. Shah’s participation in the VHPA Governing Council predates by a few years her position as National Coordinator of VHPA’s Gujarat earthquake activities in 2001. The position of earthquake relief coordinator doesn’t seem to be an easy one to ascend to — VHPA’s website states that “national projects are executed by a committee of members drawn from the Governing Council and the various chapters.” Thus, Ms. Shah’s coordination of VHPA earthquake relief seems to have built upon her earlier leadership role within the VHPA. We do not know when/if her affiliation with the VHPA ceased, but VHPA media secretary Shyam Tiwari has recently claimed: “Sonal was a member of VHP of America at the time of the earthquake. Her membership has [now] expired.”

    A note about Ms. Shah’s earthquake relief work. Calamities such as the 2001 Bhuj earthquake often bring out the best in humans, but the Sangh Parivar is notorious for using such moments instrumentally and cynically for advancing its violent ideological agenda. An ordinary donor or fund-raiser can be excused for not knowing the Sangh agenda, but for someone like Ms. Shah, who grew up in a family deeply rooted in the Sangh Parivar, it is more than a little disingenuous to claim that such fund-raising was apolitical or neutral. There are numerous documented instances of the Sangh Parivar’s religion- and caste-based discrimination in doling out relief. Therefore we are shocked that Ms. Shah has expressed pride in coordinating relief work (under the ambit of VHPA) following the Gujarat earthquake of 2001. The relief work coordinated by the VHP is known to have rebuilt villages in the Kutch region exclusively for caste Hindus while marginalizing lower caste Hindus and Muslims to the periphery. The VHP thus took the opportunity of the earthquake to re-create multi-ethnic villages into exclusive Hindu spaces. In addition, given the pivotal role played by the VHP and other Sangh organizations in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom, we fear her pride is entirely misplaced.

    Although we appreciate the positive influence Ms. Shah has had on many second-generation desis, we have a hard time forgetting the many victims of Hindutva. If Ms. Shah really wants to dispel doubts about her linkages with the VHPA and other Sangh Parivar outfits, we urge her to be more forthcoming in her condemnations of the Sangh Parivar, especially its branches in the United States since that has been the site of her involvement. Some ways for Ms. Shah to do this would be to:

    1. acknowledge her past organizational associations with the Sangh Parivar

    2. distance herself from the public reception reportedly planned by the RSS in her native village in Gujarat

    3. categorically condemn the role played by Hindutva forces in anti-minority violence in India, and the facilitation of this violence by funds sent through various Sangh Parivar affiliates in the United States

    In Peace and Justice
    Campaign to Stop Funding Hate (

  11. @lord shiva’s terror

    “Lords of terror” was the reason for internal hindu colonialisation and the resultant tensions in the subcontinent. such divine violence can only aggravate the already violent, undemocratic and illogically perceived indian society

  12. Oh! I was so dumb, I always thought that the Muslims were invaders. Such rubbish.

    I have been such a silly bloke the Turk, the Arab, the Afghan, the Mongol the Farsi marauders, they were all victims of bad publicity, they never invaded. They did not desecrate temples, break sacred idols, burn libraries and forcibly convert natives. I was such an idiot to believe such false Hindu lies. Babar did not proudly carry the title Butt Shikan, all a fragment of Hindu imagination.

    Even the Bamiyan Buddhas, they were never there, they were never blown up, cows were never cut to celebrate their vandalism. All Hindu falsehood.

    Such a shame, I have been such an ignorant fool all along. Us Hindus are such blatant liars.

    Sorry folks and thank you for showing me the path to the true God.

  13. Terror is a mindset; an ideology entrenched in the psyche that makes one belive that i am “superior in birth”; that shows no qualm in ‘Othering’ other culture and people as ‘meritless’, ‘inefficient’ and ‘untouchable’. candlelights at india gate can’t even lighten these narrow idiotic minds and their “middle class/caste” outrage is nothing but the fear of the masses and democracy; the idea of representation frightens them; it will shake their caste/class power positions that they had been enjoying as ‘cultural pirates’ for long. They appear in many forms from Imagining india to reporting india and as safron selling business abroad…

  14. Nuking Mecca, Medina, Riyadh will be the first option if the Pakis wave their Chinese supplied nukes at India. Th Hindus, Sonal Shah included, will repay a 1200 year-old debt to Islam. China is in the next tier of targets, with Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai high on the list. Just watch India’s mssile development programme and the new generation of unstoppable ones being designed by those awful south Indian Brahmins. Can’t wait for that happy day. Pakistan is a mere priapic mosquito, if such a phenomenon is possible! Do recall the bluster of the rapist Paki General, Niazi blabbering tearfully to India’s great Jewish General, Jacob, terrified that Tiger Siddique’s boys would shove something hot up his rear for running slave brothels through 1971.

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