[Update: Please scroll down to the comments section to see Vijay Prashad's responses, as well as those of both supporters and critics of his piece. You can also read a letter in defense of Sonal Shah, by some prominent academics and others]
The history of the Indian-American community is so brief - roughly the four decades since doctors, engineers and others started arriving in this country in large numbers - that the passage of even a few years seems like a long time. The community grows that much larger (and wealthier), its youth climb to higher posts in a greater variety of fields, and the barometers by which we measure our collective success are re-calibrated: what we thought of as a big deal, not too long ago, now seems just normal.
And so, when I read Vijay Prashad's recent attack piece, "The Many Faces of Sonal Shah," I had something of a flashback. Prashad's column, in Counterpunch (along with numerous other pieces in the South Asian press), raises questions as to whether Sonal--one of 15 members of the Obama-Biden transition team--is in fact a closet Hindu fascist. And suggests that her silence on anti-Muslim violence in India is consistent with others on the Obama transition team: "many of them have similar commitments to the far Right in Israel or in other parts of the world."
Vijay raised the exact same issues about Sonal in 2005. At the time, I was with India Abroad, and writing a longish piece on desi summer camps like Youth Solidarity Summer, where activists can learn about social justice issues. I noticed that desis on the political left were having heavy online discussions about Indicorps, the group Sonal started with her brother Anand in 2002. Indicorps is a little like Peace Corps, in that it arranges for young Indian-Americans to work with development projects on the ground in India. Sonal had also worked at the Treasury department, which sent her to Bosnia, Kosovo and Southeast Asia, but it was her creation of Indicorps that earned her India Abroad's Person of the Year Award in 2003 (which I also covered).
On one hand, the prize sort of canonized her--here was a new kind of Indian-American youth, who combined Beltway success with entrepreneurial, homeland activism--but on the left, some people were unhappy with her and Indicorps, and the accolades they received. They felt she and the group were secretly aligned with the Hindu right. For those on the left, operating in a post-Godhra environment, this was an Indian-American culture war, in which one could not be involved in any way with a Hindu group without being fully implicated in its worst acts.
In his Counterpunch piece Vijay writes about Sonal's family:
The Shahs remain active in Houston’s Indian community, not only in the ecumenical Gujarati Samaj (a society for people from Gujarat), but also in the far more cruel organizations of the Hindu Right, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Overseas Friends of the BJP (the main political party of the Hindu Right) and the Ekal Vidyalaya. Shah’s parents, Ramesh and Kokila, not only work as volunteers for these outfits, but they also held positions of authority in them. Their daughter was not far behind. She was an active member of the VHPA, the U. S. branch of the most virulently fascistic outfit within India. The VHP’s head, Ashok Singhal, believes that his organization should “inculcate a fear psychosis among [India’s] Muslim community.” This was Shah’s boss. Till 2001, Shah was the National Coordinator of the VHPA.
Vijay aims for guilt by association until that last part, when he names Sonal the VHPA's National Coordinator. However, that title appears to be incorrect: Sonal headed U.S. relief efforts for the VHP in 2001, when the Gujarat earthquake struck (see her statement below). So what exactly is the issue? Here I quote from the article I wrote for India Abroad, more than 3 years ago:
Vijay Prashad, a professor at Trinity College and one of the founders of FOIL and YSS, concedes that there are no smoking guns, so to speak, to implicate the work of Indicorps, and even praises the organization's effect on youth.
"I've seen a number of people who have gone to Indicorps," says Prashad, author of The Karma of Brown Folk and Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses. "It's really shaped their lives."
He also notes that Anand Shah has tried to initiate a dialogue with progressives. But he maintains that the central concerns voiced by YSS leaders and others have not been addressed, such as a visit Anand paid to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi after the Godhra riots. Why, asks Prashad, would Indicorps associate itself with the man who has become synonymous with the communal violence that took place?
According to Indicorps, however, the only time any of its members were in the same place as Modi was an event meant to honor Indicorps fellows, organized by the publisher of Gujarat Times. Before that event, Indicorps fellows, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, were supposedly told they could decide whether to attend. [Download india_abroad.pdf]
When I first read Vijay's Counterpunch piece, I realized that he was simply re-visiting the NRI skirmishes that may have existed in some form, for a brief period, several years ago, when communalism in India was central to the political identities of some Indian-Americans. He hadn't accumulated any more facts between then and now; the only difference is that now, he has a presidential peg on which to hang his piece. I didn't see much purpose in addressing it, until I noticed that his criticisms had found a home in many badly written, unsourced articles in the Indian and Pakistani media. My former editor at India Abroad/Rediff, Prem Panicker, breaks it down nicely on his personal blog:
The Times of India suggested that Sonal's family is 'rooted in the Sangh Parivar'. Sure--as I pointed out earlier, so is mine. And even assuming that to be associated in some fashion with the Sangh Parivar is criminal, why is the 'sin' of parents being visited on us children?
The Hindustan Times in an exemplary piece of echo-chamber journalism further disseminated the story, in the process even managing to get the name of Sonal's brother wrong, despite ostensibly having spoken to him. It is Anand Shah, folks, not Amit Shah.
Across the border in Pakistan, the Daily Times upped the ante. Never mind that in its rush to judgment the paper couldn't even get the VHP's name right--the commonality between these three pieces is that it merely picks up and regurgitates one man's often fact-challenged opinion piece.
This is journalism? Maybe it is, today, where the formula is: pick a name in the news, link it to controversy real or imagined, front page it and the devil take the collaterally damaged. Anything Obama sells just now--if you can somehow link him, seven degrees of separation style, to Hindu fundamentalism and anti-Muslim pogroms, what fun!
This has been, overall, an ugly episode, in large part because it relies on hazy associations of long ago, and ignores the actual work performed by Indicorps, right now. This is a group, after all, whose speakers have included Harsh Mander, the IAS officer who famously spoke out after the violence in Gujarat. What more needs to be said?
Well, here is Sonal's statement:
"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 Google.org. 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."
And if that doesn't suffice, check out Reuben Abraham's posting at Zoo Station, where he makes the inescapable comparison to Obama and the William Ayers episode. He includes testimonials from an all-star list of Sonal's associates, including journalist Manjeet Kripalani, Fawzia Naqvi (a Pakistani Muslim), and former fellows of Indicorps. Here are the words of Dr. Larry Brilliant, who helped eradicate small pox and co-founded Seva. He also hired Sonal to work at Google.org:
Please help stop the real bigots who are maligning her, stop circulating their venom. Remind them, please, that the path to heaven is closed for those who bear false witness against their neighbors. When I was working in India to eradicate smallpox, my associate Zafar Hussain and an imam in Lucknow "took me under their wings" and helped me study the Koran, to understand Islam better. I remember so vividly when they taught me about pul-e-sirat, the bridge from this world to heaven. The soul must cross this bridge, as narrow as a knife's edge, constantly pulled down by the sins of a lifetime. One of the worst sins, the worst obstacles to crossing pul-e-sirat into Heaven or Paradise was the sin of bearing false witness against a good person.
Sonal Shah is a credit to India, a credit to the Obama transition, a credit to America and a friend to all who know her. Let's rally around this remarkable woman and support her against false accusations and innuendos and let's pray for her success in helping create an Obama Administration that can help heal this broken and divided world. The stakes are too high for false divisiveness and petty fabrications. Sonal will help make "Hindi-Yankee bhai bhai" stronger and better and we all need to support her in building this friendship.
- Prem Panicker responds to Vijay Prashad's comment below
- Salil Tripathi at LiveMint: "In defence of Sonal Shah"
- Amardeep Singh at Sepia Mutiny: "In Defense of Sonal Shah"
- NDTV: "Sonal Shah denies links with VHP, RSS"
- Times of India: "Indian-American groups protest Sonal Shah's appointment"
- Statement from Shyman Tiwari of the VHPA: "Sonal is not associated with VHP of America in any capacity whatsoever."
Earlier on SAJAforum: