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)?