Could Obama Use Some Scholarly Advice on One of His Advisors?

President-elect Obama clearly wasn't seeking the advice of South Asia experts when he chose the India-born economist Sonal Shah (now an American citizen) for his 15-member transition team, according to a group of South Asian studies scholars. In their view, because Shah is closely identified with Hindu nationalist causes in India, she may not be an appropriate choice for a position in the administration.

They have signed a letter detailing their misgivings about Shah and also expressing the hope of opening a dialogue with Obama and his administration “about Hindu nationalist politics and related issues.” The letter further encourages the Obama team “to be wide-ranging and judicious in seeking out expert knowledge and advice on South Asia and South Asian diasporic communities in the U.S.”

SSRC.org recently spoke with some of the letter's signatories:

We asked them to tell us what motivated them to join in the public expression of concern over Shah’s appointment.

All four were quick to acknowledge Shah’s accomplishments. Her resume includes top jobs at Goldman Sachs and the Center for American Progress, as well as working as a Treasury official in the Clinton administration. She now heads Google.org’s global development efforts. What they find disturbing, they said, are her longstanding connections to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Hindu nationalist groups that, along with several local affiliates, have routinely conducted hate campaigns and violence against India’s Christian and Muslim minorities. Shah served on the governing council of the VHP-A, the U.S. sister organization of the VHP. She failed to speak out against VHP-led violence in Gujarat in 2002 or even earlier this year as VHP violence against Christians escalated in Orissa and Karnataka.

Shah’s role in founding Indicorps in 2001, an Indian version of the Peace Corps, is also troubling, these scholars said, noting that Shah and Indicorps received an award in 2004 from Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi at a time when Muslim survivors of the 2002 violence still had not received relief and compensation and NGOs working with afflicted communities faced state harrassment. Modi's administration is thought to have been complicit in the VHP-led violence that claimed the lives of 2,000 Muslims and resulted in the displacement of 200,000 more.

According to Ludden, such ties raise the possibility that Shah could influence U.S. policy makers in ways that are “detrimental to Indian minorities and to peace among countries in South Asia.”

“VHP and BJP stand for violence against Muslims and Christians in India and for war against Muslims across national borders,” he said, “a matter of particular concern in the wake of the Mumbai attacks.”

Visweswaran, who is about to finish a book on what she calls the “Gujarat genocide of 2002,” agreed, adding that she remains unmoved by an argument made in Shah’s defense that her area of expertise is technology policy. “Much of India’s economic growth has been in the IT sector,” she said. “We cannot risk the saffronization of the U.S. government with its potential to seriously skew U.S. foreign relations with South Asia.”

At another level, however, the scholars' campaign is less about Shah than about the need for the United States to develop a more nuanced understanding of the politics of South Asia. “India sits at the end of a long arc that begins in Palestine and ends in Kashmir,” Appadurai said. “Thus the Obama administration will need to look at both Hindu and Muslim ethnonationalisms. Having major policy advisors with discernible links to the radical Hindu right is not an acceptable risk.”

What is more, the exclusivist focus the United States has had on Islamic extremism since 9/11 has blinded it to the part played by Indian American communities in stoking the flames of Hindu nationalism—what Appadurai refers to as “the big gap between American knowledge of global Islam and of diasporic Hindu politics.” As Visweswaran explains: “Muslim community organizations in the United States have been under intense investigation, while members of U.S.-based Hindu nationalist organizations escape scrutiny.”

“The singular focus on Islamic terrorism misses half the story—namely, the military occupation of large portions of South Asia,” she said. “In Indian-occupied Kashmir, combined Indian forces number approximately 500,000 and exceed the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.”

For Appadurai, another imperative is to make the American government aware that Indian democracy “should not be seen as a guaranteed fact of the future.”

“Hindu nationalism in India can be as ugly as its ideological counterparts in Europe, Africa, and elsewhere,” he said.

Basu agreed, noting that the strength of Indian democracy has been "its pluralism and the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Hindus for most of its history.” She finds it heartening, for instance, that the Mumbai terrorist attacks did not lead to reprisals against Indian Muslims.

Basu said she hopes that in addition to convening meetings of opposing parties in Iran and North Korea, the Obama foreign policy team will convene meetings of opposing parties in South Asia. “Dialogue and negotiation among India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only way to ensure lasting stability," she said.

All four scholars remain hopeful that moving forward, the new administration will not hesitate to call on South Asia scholars for policy input and advice. Basu noted that in general, area studies scholars are unafraid to question conventional boundaries, such as between domestic and foreign policy, between religion and politics, and between movements and parties. "They can also offer policymakers an appreciation of less visible, informal political transactions on the ground,” she said.

Visweswaran reiterated the point the scholars had made in their letter about the need for the Obama team to broaden the base from which they seek knowledge on the South Asia region. “Humanists, legal scholars, and social scientists all have something to contribute,” she said, particularly when it comes to raising awareness of the “range and seriousness of Hindu nationalist activities in the United States.”

Related Links

Coverage on news sites and in blogs:

Other letters protesting Shah's appointment:

Reported by Mary-Lea Cox and Craig Zheng.


The above photo was taken by Amrita Basu on her visit last month to an area known as Bombay Hotel in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat, India. The residences are of Muslims whose homes were destroyed in the 2002 carnage in Gujarat--which Sonal Shah condemned only under pressure from critics.

photo by Amrita Basu

Published on: Friday, December 19, 2008