November 21, 2008

About Sonal

I don't think I had ever heard of Sonal Shah before this month. She is, of course, the (now) best-known Indian-American on Barack Obama's transition team. I heard about her because soon after she was named onto that team, people found out about her family's links to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

I will admit, those links unsettle me. I mean, among many other things, I have had this unpleasant personal encounter with VHP men. Why would I not find the Shah news unsettling? I tried to think of it like this: how would I feel if my kids' school appointed to its board a person whose brother was in the VHP? Or if a close friend turned out to have a relative there?

In fact, I've had experiences like those. (Hasn't everyone?) A good friend has an uncle in the VHP. Someone else I knew well started an organization to fight corruption where I was an on-and-off participant, and it turned out his brother was a VHP office-bearer.

In both cases, nothing much happened. One person I respect a great deal (and with whom I still work on other things from time to time) resigned from the organization on hearing the news about the brother. But it carried on nevertheless for some years, with its quiet but effective work. I asked my friend to introduce me to the uncle, but the uncle (I heard) politely declined. And because of our years of friendship, I never had any questions about my friend's feelings about the VHP or its politics.

So, about Sonal Shah again.

First, I don't believe it amounts to guilt by association to find the news of her family's links to the VHP unsettling, especially for people who don't know her from Eve. (Like me). I think it is understandable that those who don't know her have questions about her, and legitimate that they voice them. This seems obvious to me.

Second, those who know Ms Shah well must speak in her defence, and many have. This seems obvious to me too. Though I don't know why some of them seem so outraged by the questions ("disgusting" and "garbage" are just two of the words I've seen used to refer to them). My friend with the VHP uncle was hardly outraged by my concerns, and instead patiently explained that the uncle was a reasonable man -- which is why I asked to meet him.

But let's also remember that such defence is not, by itself, enough. If you whom I don't know from Adam say excellent things about Ms X whom I don't know from Eve but have worries about, that's good -- but why should that alone allay my worries? If guilt by association is a hollow tactic, what should we think of innocence by association?

Third, and therefore far more important to me than #2, Ms Shah has explained her stand and views in what are, to me, clear terms: "[M]y 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 always condemned any politics of division, of ethnic or religious hatred, of violence and intimidation as a political tool ... I do not subscribe to the views of such Hindu nationalist groups, and never have."

Given that, I don't believe Ms Shah should be asked more and more questions. I think what she has said answers the concerns about her in full. With her words, and with what others whom I know and respect have said about her, I'm entirely satisfied about Sonal Shah's credentials and record.

I wish her and Barack Obama only the best on their hard road out of a disastrous eight years.


Anonymous said...

As nearly always, thought provoking.

At a first pass, some of this post didnt square up with both "renounce association" (about IMs having to condemn every terrorist act) or with "as if a mere declaration of my being vocal liberal would make me that" your comment a few posts back- and these two pull in different directions.

Sorry of course, I keep seeing this kind of analog stuff, not just on your blog but everywhere including with me. Im not saying things should line up neatly either, one way or the other. I'm just trying to be more *aware* of the analog within me.


Nilu said...

Whom did you vote for, Dilip? Obama? If yes, good for you.

If you don't have a vote in that country, I have a question. Shouldn't you shut the fuck up?

Abi said...

I agree with pretty much everything you have said.

I just want to note a couple of things:

(a) The allegations levelled by people like Vijay Prashad are not just 'guilt by association'. They have cited her direct link with VHP-A (in what appears to be a one-time association), and her appearances in meetings of organizations that have a less than stellar reputation.

(b) As a Sepia Mutiny blogger pointed out, if Shah's interested in elective office (and I don't know if she is), she'll certainly be called upon to to provide a more complete explanation of her past association with VHP-A (and also with what are perceived to be its surrogates). In other words, she had better start preparing her own version of A-More-Perfect-Union speech.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Yes, Abi, she will have to account for those links at some point: either embrace them or repudiate them. (After all, I imagine VHP-A is not thrilled about her saying she does not subscribe to their views).

I think too many people have gone to town attacking the "guilt by association" angle. Feels good, maybe, but is ultimately empty.

Anonymous said...

The company of the most jingoistic Hindu is safer than that of any Christian in India who is just a wolf in sheep's clothing.

I say this as someone who was raised a Christian. In the West, there are real liberals like Richard Dawkins who oppose Christianity. OTOH, Indian liberals are extremely dangerous people as they are supporters of the Christian church.

In short, I am willing to accept that VHP is dangerous, but then a member of any church in India is more dangerous and we should not be shy of stating this. Notice what has happened to the Baptist controlled Nagaland. They have banned every religion but Christianity. This sort of thing did not happen under BJP or any other party in India.

As always, I want to urge you to fight for correct economic policies instead of falling for divisive politics by blaming Hindus or any other community.

As long as you advocate conspiracy theories, you simply do harm to the cause of leftists as the focus of your discussion is a bogus social division which can be set right by a strong police.

Notice what has happened to the American economy. It has collapsed like a house of cards. Viva free market or whatever! Instead of using this opportunity to further progressive ideals, Indians are making the mistake of supporting the very people Western liberals have correctly identified as dangerous people - Christians.

AmOK said...

Nilu, your eloquent prose brings home the point very well. If Mr. D^3 shuts up, he has zero influence in "that country". Do you know for a fact that no US voters read this blog, and none are influenced? Noting that the US has no vote in India but does NOT shut up about anything, it is only fair that persons like Mr. D'Souza speak up. Go ahead, Nilu. You can speak up too.

Pareshaan said...

Dilip Sahib,
your rediff article ended with the promise of a meeting between the VHP guy and you. Do such meetings ever afford either party any satisfaction. Are convictions shaken, opinions reformed. In your experience does dialogue of this kind help? How'd that particular exchange of ideas go - or was it too much of a shouting match to be called an exchange of ideas? Do you have a write-up about such encounters elsewhere?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Pareshaan, unfortunately the promised meeting didn't come off. I called three times, if I remember right. Once I got him and he said he was busy and would call back the following week; twice more someone told me he was out and would return my call. I didn't hear from him and then gave up. Perhaps I should have persisted.

I have had meetings and discussions with RSS people. In at least two cases, I'd say we had some meeting of minds. It helps if both sides are willing to listen. From personal experience, I'll say it: it's hard.

Here's one account I wrote of some of this.

Anonymous said...


It all depends on dessions you make and choices you like, some like Steve Erwin love crocodile
some dont. Its perfectly fine and you have free will to choose what you want luckily you
got this free will in free world which you dont like to live in.

Ramki something is fundamentally wrong in your upbringing as Christian or you are
acting like a christian.
Richard Dawkins does not oppose Christianity only, he opposes all religions.
Did you start liking him becase he opposes christianity?? looks like that from
your Richard Dawkins obsession. he opposes it just because its a established
religion in west, he does not like any religion for your kind information.

Do you have any link or information on Nagaland Baptists
banning of other religions or did they declare independence from secular India? let me know
i did not know this.

Violence must be blamed by one and all because we are not in Jungle if its
done by hindus then one cannot stop blamming hindus.

Can you tell me something about conspiracy theories here?

Looks like you are happy at Americas economic downfall, but unfortunately everybody
will face music not just Americans.

Ramki are you harbouring hatred against christians? looks like you hate christians
a lot in the world than anything else and you claim to be a christian if you have brain/rational
why dont you think on this for some time? Please let me know what you find.


Pareshaan said...

Dilip Sahib,
that was a very nice article. The youths uttering platitudes without their hearts being in it, and then one of them suddenly breaking loose to say what was on his mind, that came across as very true.
Most people can be swayed by a reasonable argument - trouble is that specious rhetoric is often very convincing. Very easy to believe, very hurtful and very anger provoking.
About two years back I spent six months rooming with a very intelligent and very "right-wing" Hindu.
Initially I used to dismiss his tirades against minorities as total bull shit.
He used to curse my ignorance and had a habit of cross-referencing his claims; books, essays, videos, he used them all.
I was intrigued at first - here's a fellow Hindu - doing right by his religion and his tradition - living at least as far as the doctrine is concerned, a much more righteous life than me - smarter, greater self-discipline, better read as far as scripture is concerned.
If it weren't for his rabid Hindu lean he would be somebody I would hold in regard.
It pissed me of that though I was his Hum-Mazhabee, it was religion that was keeping us apart.
Over whiskey in the evenings I started paying mind to what he had to say about the Hindu-Muslim equation in India, the ravages of Islam on the fabric of Hindu India, the shameful state of Hindus in the one last place that they could call their own etc. etc.
I totally bought into it - I was absolutely enraged.
It was very easy.
I am educated, have moved around some, have yet to choose my friends based on community - yet he had me convinced.
It's almost as though he opened a deep old wound. As though all that I had been taught to be right was but a scab that he peeled away.
I have thought a lot about why this should have happened. I talked to several people I hold in high esteem hoping that they would condemn this, but instead discovered that they suffer from similar misgivings.
That such thought is wrong, against common sense, against human decency - utterly destructive, there is little doubt.
Yet it seems so right in certain company, during certain times. The atmosphere just makes you not give a shit.