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Thursday, December 11, 2008

In Defense of Sonal Shah

Eboo, Thanks for writing about Sonal. We are learning first hand accounts of her work, her quality as a human,and her humanatarian work is simply adorable and laudable.

Thanks to Vijay for questioning about Sonal, had he not done that, we would not have discovered this diamond and none of the people would have written about her and we would have missed so much about her. Vijay fulfilled his obligation for democracy to find out about her, and it was the right thing to do. That's how a democracy works and diamonds are discovered.

Mike Ghouse

In Defense of Sonal Shah


Eboo Patel

When I heard that Indian American Sonal Shah was named to be part of
the Obama transition, I thought to myself, 'What a perfect pick.
President-elect Obama couldn't have chosen a better exemplar of India,
or America.'

Now, according to India Abroad, a handful of groups are trying to link
Sonal with the nefarious forces of Hindu nationalism.

Let me be very clear about something: I consider the Hindu right (an
alphabet soup of totalitarian groups which includes the VHP, the BJP,
the RSS and the Bajrang Dal) a serious danger - to the safety of
Muslims and Christians, to the ideals of Hinduism and India, and to
the possibility of pluralism. I devoted significant parts of my book
Acts of Faith to exposing their recruitment of young people for the
cause of Hindu extremism.

But to link Sonal to their activities is frankly offensive.

A few years ago, I was flipping through a stack of old India Abroad
newspapers at my wife's parents' home, when I ran across a story about
Sonal Shah. A young Indian American woman, she had been named India
Abroad's "Person of the Year" for founding Indicorps.

The more I read, the more I found myself impressed.

First of all, Sonal has denounced Hindu nationalism in no uncertain
terms, stating: "my 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".

Second, the evidence linking Sonal to Hindu extremism is laughably
thin. It amounts to Sonal passing a Hindu nationalist on the street
and not performing a citizen's arrest.

Some of Sonal's accusers are pointing fingers in the name of defending
Indian Muslims. They correctly say that the Hindu right was
responsible for a pogrom against Muslims in the state of Gujarat,
which resulted in the heinous murders of one to two thousand people in

Well, I'm a Muslim from India. I have Muslim family in Mumbai and
Gujarat who have personally felt the destruction of Hindu nationalist
violence. And I don't feel defended by these accusations.

In fact, they strike me as particularly disturbing precisely because
I'm a Muslim.

Here's why: the mode of the attacks is guilt by association, which
goes something like this. Person X was in a room when Person Y said
something offensive, and Person X didn't immediately issue a statement
denouncing Person Y, therefore Person X should be held responsible for
Person Y's crimes (all of them).

I recognize that tactic - that's how good American Muslims get smeared
all the time.

Well, I hope the hatchet job doesn't work on Sonal. Her talents have
benefited many many people.

I first read about Sonal a few years ago in India Abroad. She had been
named India Abroad's "Person of the Year" for founding Indicorps.

The more I read, the more I found myself impressed.

Sonal not only had big dreams, she had the commitment to make them
reality. Indicorps sent diverse groups of young Indian Americans back
to their homeland for an extensive period of service with Indian-based
nonprofits. Indicorps members have included Muslims, Hindus,
Christians and Jains. They have worked on projects ranging from making
musicals with slum children to deepening wells in villages to
launching a rural design school for artisans.

I started recommending Indicorps to idealistic young Indian Americans.
Most of them already knew about it. They felt like it was "their"
Peace Corps - an opportunity to connect their Indian heritage and
American citizenship through the common value of service.

I started thinking of Sonal Shah in the same way that I think of
people like Wendy Kopp (who founded Teach for America), Michael Brown
and Alan Khazei (who founded City Year) and Vanessa Kirsch (who
founded Public Allies and New Profit) - as part of a new generation of
service leaders.

Then something startling happened: I met Sonal (through the Clinton
Global Initiative), and found her to be even more impressive in person
than she was on paper. I watched people in meetings continually defer
to Sonal and ask her opinion, and I watched Sonal deftly turn the
tables and find a way to do more listening than talking. I discovered
that Sonal's expertise was both wide and deep, and that she commanded
respect from a broad range of ethnicities and across the political
spectrum. Most of all, I appreciated Sonal's combination of humility,
spirituality, intelligence and idealism.

That's the best of India, I thought; and the best of America.

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