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Barack Obama’s victory in the U. S. presidential election warmed the hearts of millions around the world. When Jesse Jackson wept, I cried too. I had worked for Jackson’s campaign in 1988. With Jackson’s defeat came the long hibernation of American progressivism. Obama’s victory awoke that tradition. A few days later Obama began to announce his transition team. The names were not from the progressive tradition, but from the more cautious, even conservative side of the Democratic Party. In the list I saw the name Sonal Shah.
That day, I wrote an essay for counterpunch.org calling attention to Sonal Shah’s affiliations with various Hindutva groups. In this viral age, essays such as this leave their locales and take on a life of their own. This one created a little kerfuffle. People excited by the Obama victory and by the ascension of an Asian American to a position of authority were miffed that I had rained on their parade. Some claimed that I had stooped to the Sarah Palin tactic of guilt by association. Just because her parents are closely affiliated with the Hindutva groups does not mean she is associated with them, they said. I agree. Sonal Shah released a statement against “baseless and silly reports” on the Internet. She forthrightly pointed out 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.” The VHP and the RSS are well known to spread hate and to have participated in ghastly acts of violence within India against Muslims, Christians, and oppressed castes, not to speak of spreading the general misogyny that their ideology preaches.
Sonal Shah’s statement is gratifying, but unpersuasive. The VHP’s Shyam Tiwari recently said, “Sonal was a member of the VHP of America at the time of the [2001 Kutch, Gujarat] earthquake. Her membership has expired.” This was eight years after the 1993 Gujarat riots, when the VHP had an active, and ghastly role. Ms. Shah was 33 years old then. Her parents were active in Hindutva organizations. How could she not have known of their role, and the controversy surrounding them? She was not from an apolitical household, but an activist one. I brought up her parents only to suggest that she cannot claim now that she was ignorant of the VHP’s role in India. She must have known. And yet she participated in its activities. There were a host of other agencies that raised money for the earthquake survivors. All the earthquake survivors: credible media reports showed that the money raised by the VHP did not go to Muslim survivors, only Hindu ones (for example, “Communalizing Relief: VHP seizes earthquake opportunity,” Statesman, Kolkata, 12 February 2001 and Vijay Dutt, “Discrimination in Distribution of Relief against Dalits in Gujarat Causes Concern,” Hindustan Times, 27 February 2001). This is hardly an act of charity.
The VHP says Ms. Shah left the organization in 2001. Three events from 2004 bear mention:
(1) Ms. Shah delivered a keynote address at the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh young conference. The HSS is the U. S. branch of the RSS. The University of Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum describes the RSS as “possibly the most successful fascist movement in any contemporary democracy.” The RSS “guru” (teacher) M. S. Golwalkar wrote glowingly about Nazi “race pride,” and called it a “good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.”
(2) Ms. Shah delivered a keynote address at an Ekal Vidyalaya conference in Florida. The Ekal Vidyalaya’s are schools set up in tribal areas. The RSS’s Chief of Service work, Premchand Goel, said that the RSS and the VHP run “thousands of Ekal Vidyalayas.” One Ekal Vidyalaya teacher, Mohan Lal, told Frontline reporter, T. K. Rajalakshmi, “We go for the RSS shakha [branch] meetings regularly. The teachers are selected only if they subscribe to the RSS way of thought.”
(3) On her behalf, her brother Anand Shah received an award from the Gujarat government in the presence of Chief Minister Narendra Modi. When Mr. Modi became Chief Minister of the State in 2001 was the first RSS pracharak (volunteer) to be in the position. The RSS celebrated its victory. Human Rights Watch’s 2002 report calls attention to the way the RSS and Mr. Modi have used Gujarat as “Hindutva’s laboratory,” stacking the higher administration with RSS-VHP cadre. No Muslim police officer has a field posting. As Frontline reporter Praveen Swami wrote at the time, “Chief Minister Narendra Modi has become something of a hero for many Hindus because he presided over the pogrom.”
At none of these events did Ms. Shah or her brother raise their voices for the broken hearts and bodies, the survivors and victims of the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat. By 2004, even mainstream human rights organizations and media outlets had recognized that the Gujarat riots were state-engineered, and that their author was Narendra Modi. In 2005, the U. S. government refused to allow Mr. Modi a visa on these grounds. And yet, Ms. Shah received an award given by Mr. Modi. The novelist Amitav Ghosh refused to be considered for the Commonwealth Prize in 2001 because it commemorated imperialism. That is a sign of sound moral judgment. To have taken an award from a man who conducted a pogrom is a sign of moral turpitude.
It is a dark cold day if high expectations are to be dashed by such convoluted ethics.
VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org