Imaduddin Ahmed has contributed this post exclusively for the Pak Tea House. The piece deals with an appointee of the US President-elect Barack Obama whose track record is a cause of concern. We are grateful for Imaduddin for the interesting arguments supported by due investigation. (Raza Rumi-ed.)
“And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.”
President-elect Barack Obama’s November 5th acceptance speech acknowledged forgotten voices around the globe, inspiring hope to be heard among marginalised communities. To live up to this pledge, Obama needs administrators who share this vision. One of the people who is helping him pick his administrators is Sonal Shah.
So far, co-chairperson of Obama’s transition John Podesta’s appointment of Sonal Shah to the transition advisory board has been a poor choice. It would be best for the credibility of Obama’s ensuing presidency that she be removed from the board. Ms Shah has, to put it mildly, shown a lack of sensitivity to marginalised minorities.
Her resume is impressive, boasting Google.org, Goldman Sachs, the Department of Treasury, Arthur Anderson and the University of Chicago. She co-founded a non-profit. She was a fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think-tank where her association with Podesta likely started.
However, it also contains a red mark– America’s chapter of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP – ‘World Hindu Council’) in 2001 – which cannot be ignored.
Shah coordinated the American chapter of VHP’s 2001 earthquake relief fund-raising effort. But the Hindu nationalist organization, founded in 1964, is better known for its violence against minorities. Numerous mainstream Indian newspapers criticized the organization for its attacks on Christian minorities prior to 2001. In 1999, the US Department of State’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999: India noted that ‘there was a significant increase in attacks against Christians by Hindu extremist groups . . . sparked by rumors of “forced conversions” of Hindus to Christianity.’ The report cited VHP several times.
In 2007, Indian newsweekly Tehelka published a hidden camera expose showing several VHP members admitting to their role in the 2002 mass murders of Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat, claiming upwards of 800 lives, according to Human Rights Watch. VHP President Ashok Singhal justified the murders, according to Express India: “What happened in Gujarat after the Godhra carnage had the blessings of Lord Ram.” He was also quoted as saying that he believes that his organisation should, “inculcate a fear psychosis among [India's] Muslim community.”
In late August of 2008, following the murder of five Hindus, the VHP called for a statewide shutdown. CNN quoted Amit Sharma of the VHP as saying that Hindu people in the area had taken the death of the swami “very seriously, and now they are going to pay them [the Christian community] back.” The following two weeks saw, according to the All India Christian Council, the destruction of 170 churches, 59 murders and the displacement of over 50,000 people
Sonal Shah’s appointment to Obama’s advisory board has rightly excited India’s mainstream press. Three American based Indian organizations – the Indian Coalition Against Genocide, Indian-American Coalition for Pluralism and Non-Resident Indians for a Secular and Harmonious India – are protesting Shah’s appointment and demand that she clarify her association with the VHP. 
Sonal Shah states that she condemns politics of division, religious hatred and intimidation as a political tool and that she is proud of her work as an earthquake relief fund-raiser. The fact remains, however, that Shah was a National Coordinator of VHP America. She fund-raised in the VHP’s name. By doing so, she effectively endorsed as legitimate an organisation that promotes politics of division, religious hatred and intimidation as a political tool.
To be judicious, Shah failed to see the VHP for what it was – an organisation of hatred. She failed to see in spite of numerous newspaper reports and a critical US Department of State report prior to her endorsing the organisation as legitimate. This judiciousness does not, however, support Shah’s case as a suitable advisor to Obama on the selection of his future administration. An advisor should know what or whom she is endorsing and should have suitable powers of foresight. If Gujarat 2002 and Orissa 2008 were not foreseeable to Shah then neither will be the actions of her nominees for Obama’s administration.
Tellingly, in a public statement published on November 11th, not only did Shah refrain from admitting her mistake in fund-raising in the VHP’s name, she stated that she was ‘proud to have helped coordinate relief work’.
Sonal Shah has failed to see how offensive her endorsement has been to minorities. Barack Obama has a vision to de-marginalise minorities. Marginalised communities cannot trust Shah. Neither should President Obama.
Imaduddin Ahmed runs a small business in London