Transition official rejects ties to controversial Hindu group

Sonal Shah says she was unaware of organization's ties to violence in India.

After weeks of questions, Obama transition team member and former Google executive Sonal Shah renounced on Wednesday her former connection to a Hindu organization accused of fomenting violence against Muslims and Christians in India.

In a statement obtained exclusively by Nextgov and National Journal, Shah said if she could have anticipated the role of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in the 2002 outbreak of communal violence in the Indian state of Gujarat, she never would have associated with the group's U.S. branch a year earlier:

"In 2002, Gujarat suffered one of the most profound tragedies in its long history when extremist political leaders, including some associated with the VHP, incited riots that resulted in the deaths of thousands. Had I been able to foresee the role of the VHP in India in these heinous events, or anticipate that the VHP of America could possibly stand by silently in the face of its Indian counterpart's complicity in the events of Gujarat in 2002 -- thereby undermining the American group's cultural and humanitarian efforts with which I was involved -- I would not have associated with the VHP of America," Shah said in her statement.

The controversy escalated in early December when Shah asked supporters for their help in stopping the spread of allegations that she had been a member of VHP.

In an e-mail sent to her political supporters on Friday, Shah asked for help combating the allegations and expressed fear that the Obama transition team would ask her to resign as a result of the story.

"I need your help," wrote Shah. "This is gaining legs as the National Journal also picked it up and likely Fox. I need to moblize [sic] people against the leftists and the right wing. There is a likely chance that they will ask me to resign as team does not need my publicity."

The controversy has been gathering steam in the Indian press and South Asian blogosphere for weeks, but it went mainstream on Thursday when former GOP Senator Rick Santorum published an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer questioning the appointment of Shah to the transition team -- prompting a post in the Government Executive and National Journal's Lost in Transition blog on Friday.

Shah, a Google executive who previously worked for Goldman Sachs and served as a Treasury Department official in the Clinton administration, was appointed to the Obama transition team in November and has since been tapped to be part of the three-person team to develop technology policy. She also is reportedly being considered for Energy secretary. But her appointment to the administration has drawn strong reactions from the South Asian community. Many prominent Indian-Americans have stood behind Shah, but others have raised doubts about her past. Shaikh Ubaid is part of a group including several Muslim and Sikh associations and dozens of college professors that sent letters to Shah and President-elect Barack Obama, requesting further information on Shah's past associations.

"When she was appointed, it was initially a proud moment for us, her being an Indian-American," said Ubaid in an interview given before Shah's latest statement. But reports about her past ties to the VHP gave Ubaid and others cause for concern.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad is an international Hindu organization that is a part of the Sangh Parivar, the Indian nationalist movement organized around Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism. The Bharatiya Janata Party is the political face of Hindutva; VHP is the social wing of the movement.

The nonprofit group Human Rights Watch and the State Department have condemned the BJP-led government and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi for not stopping the 2002 violence in Gujarat following the burning of a train containing Hindu pilgrims by a Muslim mob. In rioting that followed, more than 1,000 people were killed -- most were Muslims.

"I'm not saying Sonal Shah is involved in that," Ubaid said. "But we have questions."

On Nov. 11, Shah released a statement calling the allegations "baseless and silly reports" stemming from her charitable work for victims of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. She denied any involvement in Indian politics, but her critics quickly pointed out that nowhere in the original statement did Shah formally acknowledge her role in VHP-America or specifically condemn the violence in Gujarat and the actions of Narendra Modi.

Ubaid and Vijay Prashad, a South Asian history professor at Trinity College who wrote a November article for the CounterPunch Web site questioning Shah's ties to VHP, pointed to a recent interview in which a VHP-America leader indicated that Shah was more than tangentially connected to the group. Prashad, interviewed before Shah's latest statement, called her a leading figure of the organization from 1998 to the early 2000s and said her claims of having participated only in the organization's earthquake relief efforts were disingenuous.

"I can understand someone raised in a suburb, whose parents are apolitical, coming to college, seeing the earthquake, finding an organization and getting involved in raising funds [without knowing any better]," said Prashad. "But here is someone not from an apolitical household. She was well-aware of the politics. And she had been in a leadership role. It was not just happenstance."

Shah's brother, Anand Shah, said she was co-opted by the organization's leadership who were eager to show a younger face to the public.

"If the situation wasn't what it is, if it was someone else, I would be asking these questions," said Anand Shah. "It's not a nonserious issue; the questions being raised are legitimate ones." But he added that he hoped people would judge his sister by her own words and actions, and not by her associations.

The text of Sonal Shah's full statement is as follows:

I was recently maligned by a professor at a college in Connecticut who wrote an article in CounterPunch accusing me of association with Hindu extremism. Then, a few days ago, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, published an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer, to which this site linked, that echoed the CounterPunch accusations. These attacks sadden me, but they share one other thing in common: the accusations are false.

In reaction to these attacks, my closest friends -- and many strangers -- have rallied to my side. I am touched by this outpouring of support. And as painful as this episode has been for me personally, I welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue with the seriousness that it deserves, but the conversation should proceed on the basis of verified facts and reasoned argument, not innuendo and defamation.

Indian politics and history are contested and emotive, but also unfamiliar to most Americans. I understand why so many Indians and Indian-Americans feel strongly about religious extremism in India, because I share the same concerns.

I am an American, and my political engagements have always and only been American. I served as a U.S. Treasury Department official for seven years, and now work on global development policy at Google.org. And I am honored to serve on the Presidential Transition Team of President-elect Obama while on leave from Google.org.

I emigrated from India at the age of four, and grew up in Houston. Like many Americans, I remain proud of my heritage. But my engagement with India has been exclusively cultural and humanitarian. After the devastating earthquake in Gujarat in 2001, I worked on behalf of a consortium of Indian-American organizations to raise funds for humanitarian relief. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP-A), an independent charity associated with the eponymous Indian political group, was among these organizations, and it was the only one to list my name on its website. I am not affiliated with any of these organizations, including the VHP-A, and have not worked with any of them since 2001.

The experience with the Gujarat earthquake did, however, teach me an important lesson. It pointed up a lack of dedicated infrastructure to help alleviate suffering in India, so together with my brother and sister, I founded Indicorps, an organization modeled on the U.S. Peace Corps that enables young Indian-Americans to spend a year in service to marginalized communities in India. The fellows come from every religious background, and have worked among every religious community in India. Indeed, some Indicorps fellows focus on inter-faith dialogue as part of their projects.

In 2002, Gujarat suffered one of the most profound tragedies in its long history, when extremist political leaders, including some associated with the VHP, incited riots that resulted in the deaths of thousands. Had I been able to foresee the role of the VHP in India in these heinous events, or anticipate that the VHP of America could possibly stand by silently in the face of its Indian counterpart's complicity in the events of Gujarat in 2002 -- thereby undermining the American group's cultural and humanitarian efforts with which I was involved -- I would not have associated with the VHP of America.

Sadly, CounterPunch and Senator Santorum have suggested that I somehow endorse that violence and the ongoing violence in Orissa. I do not -- I deplore it. But more than that, I have worked against it, and will continue to do so. I have already denounced the groups at issue and am hopeful that we can begin to have an honest conversation about the ways immigrant and diaspora communities can engage constructively in social and humanitarian work abroad.

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