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RE: SONAL SHAH – ‘Transition official rejects ties to controversial Hindu group’

December 13, 2008

http://www.nextgov.com/nextgov/ng_20081210_7973.php

Transition official rejects ties to controversial Hindu group

BY GAUTHAM NAGESH, GNAGESH@NEXTGOV.COM 12/10/2008
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 Journalalso 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, wasappointed 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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Exclusion of Muslims By Dr. J. S. Bandukwala

September 2, 2008

Exclusion of Muslims

 

 

By J. S. Bandukwala

The Prophet of Islam was aware of India, once remarking that there is a fragrant breeze coming from India. Islam reached India almost immediately after his passing away in 632. The long Western coast had trade links with the Arabs, much before the arrival of Islam. The Islamic injunction of fair and honest trading, impressed the local people. Many Arabs settled down in Kerala, marrying local women. Shia Sufis converted many Brahmins and Rajputs in Gujarat. Four hundred years later, invaders came from Central Asia. They were followed by Sufi Syeds from Arab lands, escaping persecution from the Abbasid Caliphs. The most prominent was Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti (1142 – 1236), preaching love of God , combined with equality, brotherhood and concern for the poor. Millions, particularly from the lowest strata of society, responded to his teachings, and that of other Sufis such as Khwaja Bande Nawaz in the South, Nizamuddin Aulia and Baba Farid in the North. The Guru Granth Sahib extensively refers to Baba Farid. The foundation stone of the Golden temple was laid by Mia Mir. Sufism had a tremendous influence on the Bhakti movement, producing such spiritual figures as Guru Nanak, Kabir and Mirabai. Today the Muslim population in South Asia is about 500 million. That is about one third of the world Muslim population. Almost all these Muslims have forefathers of local origin, who converted to Islam. A miniscule are of non South Asian origin. The discrimination against Muslims is rooted primarily in this conversion, mostly from Dalit and backward classes. Six hundred years of Muslim rule widened this gulf. The religious policies of Muslim rulers ranged from the most liberal Akbar to his ultra orthodox great grand son Aurangzeb. Frequently Muslim kings fought Hindu rulers, such as Maharana Pratap and Shivaji. In due course these kingly wars were viewed as religious wars between Muslims and Hindus, widening the communal divide. This historical twist fails to notice that Shivaji’s general was a Muslim, while the Mughal general was a Hindu. But perhaps the most vital factor was the upper caste resentment at the large scale conversion of lower castes into Islam. This is the genesis of the communal hatred we see today.

As the Mughal Empire weakened, Muslims comprised a small elite of Nawabs and zamindars. There was no middle class. Most Muslims were economically and socially backward. Conversion to Islam gave them a sense of equality and identity within a larger Muslim world. But it had no effect on their living standards. Islam was superimposed on the caste structure. The Hindu dhobi became a Muslim dhobi. But he still remained a dhobi. The caste structure of Hinduism became the jamaats of Muslims. Marriage was strictly within the jamaats. Often even burial grounds were on jamaat lines. This was against a basic feature of Islam that all Muslims were brothers, as witnessed in the marriage of the Prophet’s cousin Zainab with Zayd, a former slave.

The rise of the British saw Muslim elite lose political power. In their resentment they turned their back on anything Western, particularly the English language and science. They clung to a shadowy world of Persian language and culture, and to a princely lifestyle, they could no longer afford. A total lack of vision can be gauzed by their refusal to accept a British offer to open an English medium college. They demanded a Persian medium college. Around this time the British offered Hindus a Sanskrit college. They declined asking for an English medium college. Note the sharp contrasts in their responses. The 1857 mutiny ended Muslim rule. The British, replacing the Mughals, were especially harsh on the Muslims, who reacted by withdrawing further into their shell. Any attempt at an English education was strongly opposed and even declared as un-islamic. The great Sir Syed Ahmed, the founder of Aligarh was vilified and offered a garland of shoes. On the other hand Hindus responded most enthusiastically to Western education. Within a few decades there was a marked contrast between widespread Muslim poverty and decay, and a vibrant Hindu middle class. This Hindu awakening found expression in the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885. But the Muslims largely kept aloof. Sir Syed Ahmed was wary of antagonizing the British. His focus was only on the uplift of the community, and that required building bridges with foreign rulers. The religious divide soon became a political divide, with the partition of Bengal in 1905. Hindus opposed it strongly. Muslims favoured it, reflecting the nature of East Bengal, with Hindu zamindars and Muslim landless. After the First World War, Hindu aspirations for self government were turned down by the British. Resentment, led to harsh measures culminating in the Jalianwala Baug tragedy. This brought Mahatma Gandhi into the national limelight. Sadly this coincided with the British deposing the last Turkish Sultan, who as Khalifa was also the nominal head of the Muslim world. Indian Muslims reacted most strongly to this loss. The khilafat movement was born. Gandhiji sensed an emotional issue that would bring Muslims into the national mainstream. He offered Congress support for Khilafat. The result was a deluge of orthodox maulanas into the Congress, and the exit of its principal liberal figure Jinnah. The later was bitter about his eclipse from national politics. This bitterness contributed years later to the partition of the country. Equally important, Muslim leadership passed into the hands of maulanas, and it has largely remained so ever since. The khilafat movement died within a few years. But the damage had been done. Religion and politics were mixed in a deadly concoction. Moplah riots in Kerala followed, leading to the birth of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. Inspite of Gandhiji’s attempts to project Sarva Dharma Sadbhav, the two communities drifted apart. The end result was partition, with frightening brutalities and a migration of millions across the borders.

Gandhiji’s assassination and Nehru’s stress on science and humanism cooled the communal fires. But this social peace lasted barely fifteen years. With Nehru’s death, and the constant irritants of Pakistan and Kashmir, the Hindu Muslim divide widened once again. Electoral politics, vital to a democracy, was also the incentive to inflame communal passions. Caste politics with the coming of Mandal, threatened the BJP hold on its Hindu vote bank. In response the Ayodhaya movement was launched. The last twenty five years have been most difficult for Indian Muslims. They are under a constant physical threat and mental stress.

The situation is particularly grim in a state like Gujarat that has become a laboratory of Hindutva. My own house has been attacked four times, the last time in 2002 it was completely destroyed. My daughter and I just escaped certain death. I have been in prison three times. Post Godhra saw an elected Government sponsor the mass killings of Muslims. This had never happened before in free India. The poison goes beyond Narendra Modi. For years the Gujarati language media, would carry provocative articles against Muslims. Repeated requests to the Press Council to stop this yellow journalism had no effect. Gujarati intellectuals would write long articles on the need to civilize the barbarian trends in the Muslim community. This author made numerous public appeals to persuade top Gujarati religious figures to express remorse for the horrors of 2002, in particular the rape and killing of Muslim women using trishuls, while shouting Jai Shri Ram. There has been no response. Honestly I have often wondered what has happened to this society that once produced a Mahatma.

Politically Muslims have no voice in Gujarat. Although the Muslim population in Gujarat is about 10 %, the communal polarization is so deep that it is impossible for a Muslim to win a significant election. With the rise of Hindutva, Gujarat has not elected any Muslim to the Lok Sabha, nor has there been a Muslim Minister in Gujarat. Since the coming to power of Narendra Modi, most Muslim officers have been sidelined. In national perspective, the hatred shown by the Gujarat BJP towards Muslims has poisoned relations between Muslims and the saffron party. All over the country, Muslims tend to vote strategically such that the BJP loses. This has been exploited by other parties to avoid doing anything substantial for Muslims, other than talk about protecting them from the BJP. The Islamophobia of the BJP has hurt Muslims tremendously. It also puts a brake on BJP winning elections. More important it damages the democratic basis of our
country.

The situation could have been rectified substantially if the lower judiciary in Gujarat had been just and fair. Sadly case and after case against those accused in the post Godhra riots were thrown out, due to a deliberate sloppy police investigation, combined with Public Prosecutors appointed from the VHP. Even so notorious a person as Babu Bajrangi, who in a TV sting operation confessed to having slashed the pregnant Kauserbanu, to kill both the unborn and the mother, was granted bail by a High Court Judge. Later this same Judge was appointed on the Nanavati Commission to examine the causes of the riots. How can we have any faith in such a Judge? On the other hand the draconian POTA law was applied on about 270 people in Gujarat. Of these 269 were Muslims. Those arrested for the Sabarmati train burning, are languishing in jail for the past six years. The Government case is so weak, that it deliberately delays bringing it before a Court of law. Since the expiry of this law, the Gujarat Government has passed another POTA type Bill, which has not so far been signed by the President. It is called GUJCOC. It allows any confession made before the police as admissible before a Court of law. With the strong anti Muslim bias of the police force, one can well imagine the third degree methods that will be used to force any confession desired by the authorities. I just hope the President withholds his consent to this Bill.

The recent Ahmedabad blasts have been tragic. In Islam terrorism is strongly condemned in Surahs 5, 6, 17 and 25 of the Quran. Life is given by the Creator and it is sacred and no individual has a right, to take it away, except in the course of justice. To kill an innocent is a sin that will deserve double punishment from Allah. Tragically many victims of 2002 are filled with burning revenge. I urge these youth to look for justice in the majesty of Allah. But they must never hurt innocents.

History tends to divide. Geography forces us to unite. 150 million Muslims are spread over every state, district and taluka of this country. There is no alternative but to live in communal harmony with our 800 million Hindu brothers. Muslims must play their part in making a success of the idea of India. After all which country in the world can claim a Father of the Nation who laid his life for its minorities? Muslims must realize that all Hindus are not supporters of the RSS. India is secular because of these Hindus. We must do everything possible to win their goodwill. Without diluting our roots in Islam, we must make adjustments in our world view and our own life styles. One sad aspect is the decline in Sufi beliefs among Muslims. Sufism enabled a reconciliation of different philosophical and religious tenets in India. It brought Muslims closer to Hindus. Under increasing threat from Hindutva, Muslims have sought to reassert their distinct identity in appearance. They are also moving away from Sufism. In the process they are distancing themselves from those non RSS Hindus, whose friendship is essential for their own welfare. This may damage secularism in the country, and ultimately hurt the Muslims of India.

Muslims must emulate the gentler, warmer and nobler nature of the Holy Prophet: his integrity, his simplicity, his laughter with children, and his concern for women, the old and the sick. Somehow we have drifted away from the life of the Prophet. A society is judged by how it treats its women. Muslim men have not realized the psychological damage the practice of triple talaq does to women. It is a sword that hangs over every woman. The Quran refers to talaq in (2,226 / 232) and also (65, 1/ 7), with the clear stipulation that the process be spread over a period of about four months. This is to prevent any misuse by anger or pettiness. There is no mention at all of instant triple talaq. The Quran directs the husband to treat his divorced wife with dignity, honour and kindness. Horribly women are divorced on the telephone, or in a drunken state, or for not cooking the right type of meal. Tragically it is considered valid by our Muftis.

 


This is wrong in religion. It is also against all the tenets of human rights, and we must condemn the same. Similarly polygamy is mentioned in the Quran (4, 3) wherein a man is allowed to marry up to four wives. But it stipulates that they must all be treated just and fair. The very next sentence says that even if you try to be just, you will not be able to do so. This implies monogamy is the rule in Islam. Polygamy is permitted only under extreme conditions. In Islam a child is conceived when an egg meets the sperm. Allah gives it a soul. Hence Islam treats abortion as murder. But coitus interruptus was sanctioned by the Prophet. This method just stops the egg meeting the sperm. Then why do we oppose family planning, when it does the same work?

Hindutva has led to the impossibility of Muslims finding residential accommodation in most Hindu areas. This is very true of Gujarat. Strangely it is also true in cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai. The result is a ghettoisation, with Muslims forced to live in highly congested areas, with poor water supply, drainage disposal, bad roads and equally shabby public transport. I would urge Muslims not to complain. They should plan and develop their own areas such that essential facilities are provided. If necessary use community funds. Trees must be planted and properly watered. Cleanliness must be maintained. They must learn to use their electoral power to secure these rights. As an example the Juhapura locality in Ahmedabad has about 3 lakh Muslims, most of them migrants from riot prone parts of the city. Juhapura had no banks, as it was classified as a ‘negative rating’ by bureaucrats. We fought this issue for years, up to the level of the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister and the RBI. Friendly members of Parliament were persuaded to ask questions on the subject. Finally we succeeded.

Quality education is the highest priority of Muslims. That implies stress on English, Maths and Science. There has been a sharp rise in the number of Muslim students attending schools and college. Our focus must be on professional courses, such as engineering, management and medicine. That is the only way the Muslim community can come out of its present miserable state. I am totally against any form of reservation, which is ultimately a crutch that hurts the sound healthy evolution of a society. I am horrified at the mad rush for ‘backwardness’, and I pray my community avoids that pitfall.

At this stage it is best that Muslims stay away from power politics. The experience of the last sixty years is that Muslim leaders, who join political parties, do gain at a personal level. We have had Muslim Presidents, Vice Presidents, Cabinet Ministers and Governors. Sadly they are so scared of being branded communal that they just completely avoid the community. Muslims must treat the vote as a sacred power, and use it wisely and hopefully for the best candidate. That requires that the BJP come out of its hate Muslim politics. Hopefully that day will dawn. That will be the highest tribute they can pay to Gandhi who laid his life so we can usher in the idea of India.