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.