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Generals of Saffron

Neither are Sonal Shah's associations with the Hindutva organisations in the United States as innocuous nor are her critics McCarthyites as Sonalde Desai makes them out to be ("Soldiers of Saffron, Sonal Shah and Secularism", EPW, 14 February 2009).

Generals of Saffron Vijay Prashad innocent of what was going on, or that she took a position against the VHPA. The exclamation point in this involvement came when Sonal Shah’s brother accepted an award from the Gujarat government (in the

Neither are Sonal Shah’s associations with the Hindutva organisations in the United States as innocuous nor are her critics McCarthyites as Sonalde Desai makes them out to be (“Soldiers of Saffron, Sonal Shah and Secularism”, EPW, 14 February 2009).

onalde Desai (“Soldiers of Saffron, Sonal Shah and Secularism”, EPW, 14 February 2009) takes the controversy about Sonal Shah to make some general points about young Indian Americans who might be drawn to Hindutva groups out of identity grievances. In making her general point, Desai provides a “saffronwash” of Sonal Shah’s own relationship to Hindutva groups. “If Sonal Shah is innocent of religious bigotry and intolerance”, asks Desai, “what would prompt her to join VHPA [the VHP of America”]? Till 2001, Sonal Shah was not simply a member of the VHPA (a soldier of saffron), but she was one of its leaders (a general of saffron). Shah, who would have been about 33, was on the Governing Council of the VHPA, and actively participated in its deliberations. Shah has not given a complete account of her role in the organisation; based on remarks by VHPA members, we know that she was in the VHPA since at least the 1990s. This period coincides with her time in the US treasury department – she was no innocent naïf, but a very capable and smart official in the Bill Clinton administration. Desai makes it sound rather innocuous, as does Shah in her res ponse to the essays that I wrote when her appointment was announced.1 In the p eriod when Shah was on its governing council, the VHPA actively tried to minimise its role in the Ayodhya movement at the same time as it pushed its very jingoi stic positions on Pakistan and Kashmir.

I found no evidence in the governing council’s email record that Shah was either presence of Narendra Modi) on behalf of his sister. I have not seen a word in public from Sonal Shah on the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, until she joined the Obama transition and was challenged on this count by many. Even then, she offered a wishy-washy disavowal, until, that is, former senator Rick Santorum raised the issue in the Philadelphia Inquirer (Santorum is from the far right, whose bigoted and irrational views on most matters curdles my blood. He raised the Sonal Shah issue because he was moved by the anti-Christian violence in India). Only then, when it appeared that mainstream attention would fall on her did Shah come out with a stronger, but again guarded statement.2 She accepted contact with the VHPA, but restricted it to the earthquake relief work she did in 2001. She said nothing about her leadership role in the 1990s to 2001. At any rate, I welcomed her statement, because it was forthright in its denunciation of the VHP and its politics.

Desai points out that young Indian Americans suffer from cultural bigotry, and that this experience sends them in search of an identity fix – either to benign or not so benign organisations. The VHPA and its “Yankee Hindutva” parivar know this fully well. The Hindu Students Council bemoans the “loss and isolation” faced by youth in this “dual culture – Hindu and Judeo-Christian”. So, “it was precisely to assist you with this spiritual, emotional and identity needs that HSC was born”. For 15 years I have written about the mechanisms by which groups like the HSC draw on liberal multiculturalism to create rigid Hindutva identities in

Vijay Prashad ( is with Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, USA.

march 14, 2009 vol xliv no 11

Economic & Political Weekly


the diaspora. My main argument has been seat of power. Desai flips the script of need your help. This is gaining legs as the National Journal also picked it up and likely Fox. I need to

that the VHPA and its kin do nothing to chal-power. There are no McCarthyites here. mobilise people against the leftists and the right wing. There is a likely chance that they will ask me

lenge the root of this feeling of loss and iso

to resign as team does not need my publicity.” lation, which would drive it to actively take 3 It is remarkable that Desai is able to render in-


1 Gautham Nagesh wrote two useful summaries of the nocuous a brahmin group, the Anavil Samaj of

on racism. Instead of doing the difficult

controversy at the Washington DC, National Journal:

North America, whose point is to celebrate hierarwork in the anti-racist movement, the VHPA chy; this is not to say that Anavil brahmins are all cgi?tag=Sonal%20Shah&blog_id=49&IncludeBlogs

given over to hierarchy (vide Mahadev Desai) harnesses young people into a cultural big-=49. My initial essays are at http://www.counter-only that the celebration by the Samaj of Anavil otry of its own: against Indian Americans and http://www. “identity” without an active disavowal of the Hali 11132008.html. system and its effects remains prejudicial.

who are Muslims and dalits.3 Groups like

2 On 5 December 2008, the day after Santorum’s opin-4 For which, see the VHPA are less concerned with the broad

ion essay appeared, Shah wrote to her friends, “I and

problems of racism that motivate the loss and isolation, than they are to push the Seventh Annual Winter Course on Forced Migration Hindutva agenda in the US and Canada.

Applications are invited for a 15-day orientation course on Forced Migration to be held in

I recognise that political commitments

Kolkata, India (1-15 December 2009). The Course, certified by the UNHCR and Calcutta are hard to gauge, and that one carries all Research Group, will be preceded by a two and a half month long programme of distance education. The course is intended for younger academics, refugee activists and others

kinds of obligations, some of which are

working in the field of human rights and humanitarian assistance for victims of forced

held because of the personal ties that link

displacement. The curriculum deals with themes of nationalism, ethnicity, partition, and partition-refugees, national regimes and the international regime of protection, issues relating to regional patterns of forced migration in South Asia, internal displacement, the gendered

one to the organisation rather than for any

actual programmatic dedication. Having

nature of forced migration and protection framework, resource politics, climate change and met Shah a few times, Desai writes, “I am environmental degradation, and several other themes related to the forced displacement of people. Applicants must have (a) 3 years experience in the work of protection of the victims

quite willing to take her at her word that

of forced displacement, OR hold a postgraduate degree in Social Sciences and (b) proficiency

she does not share the values of the VHP

in English. Besides giving all necessary particulars, application must be accompanied by an and RSS”. Perhaps this is so, and perhaps, as appropriate recommendation letter and a 500-1000 word write-up on how the programme is relevant to the applicant’s work and may benefit the applicant. Selected candidates from

I suggested in my first essay, her reticence

South Asia will have to pay INR 7000/US $ 150 each as registration fee and from outside to be more forthright in her condemnation South Asia the fee is US $ 700. CRG will bear accommodation and other course expenses for all participants.

comes from her connections to much of the

Applications, addressed to the Course Coordinator, can be sent bye-mail to forcedmigrationdesk@

leadership of Yankee Hindutva. I am less or by post, and must reach the following address by 31 May 2009.

interested in whether someone shares the

Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group

values of an organisation, than in whether

GC-45, First Floor, Sector-III, Salt Lake City, Kolkata-700 106, West Bengal, India

they share an organisational agenda with it.

For details visit our web site Inquiries relating to the application Groups in the UK and US have documented procedure are welcome. the way Hindutva groups raise money overseas for organisations like Ekal Vidyalaya, which, along with Seva Bharati, is resolute in its anti-Christian work.4 Shah gave a keynote a ddress at the Ekal Vidyalaya’s 2004 conference in Florida. These kinds of or-

UNCTAD-MOIC-DFID Project on “Strategies and Preparedness for

ganisational linkages can hardly be justified

Trade and Globalization in India” and Department of Economics,

as a response to “loss and isolation”, partic-

Mizoram University

ularly from a 30-something who was then in the high-powered Washington DC, Dem-

National Seminar on “Exploring ASEAN markets

ocratic Party-linked think tank, the Center

for India’s North East Products”

for American Progress. Desai ends her piece with an allusion to

The Department of Economics, Mizoram University is organizing a 2 day National

McCarthyism. She says that the critique of

Seminar on “Exploring ASEAN markets for India’s North East Products” on 28 Sonal Shah is part of a “politics of personal & 29 May, 2009. Papers are invited on the following themes: (i) Exploration of the destruction with tremendous pain for the ASEAN market for existing product from North East India; (ii) Identify potential

products which require value addition to export for ASEAN market; (iii) Examine

individuals concerned.” Many of those who

availability of infrastructure for connectivity- air, surface and sea, IT based, availability

raise the issue of Sonal Shah’s relationship

of trans-border network and other logistics service including trade facilitation measures:

with the VHPA are concerned with those who

(iv) Identify constraints and bottlenecks for trade-led development in the region. Last

suffer greatly from the effects of groups like date of submission of abstracts is on 25 April, 2009. Authors of selected papers the VHPA. Joseph McCarthy, a US senator,

after peer review will be intimated and offered travel support and local hospitality. Full papers will be submitted by May 9, 2009. For further details, contact Prof.

went after a far less powerful group of

Lianzela, Mizoram University at or phone-: 0389 2330707

people (communists, radicals of all stripes,

(O) and Mobile-: 9862324657. Details may also be seen in the university website

even liberals). Those who challenge Sonal for information.

Shah come from the margins, not from the

Economic & Political Weekly

march 14, 2009 vol xliv no 11

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