My father worked for thirty five years in an organisation that many would claim has committed some egregious acts of violence against Indians. I have worked for six years heading a project with an agency that many would claim to be at the front line of some of those acts. The ‘organisation’ is the Indian state, and my father was reputedly a bureaucrat of integrity, probity and a deep sense of accountability. The ‘agency’ was the Karnataka police, with whom I coordinated a UNICEF partnership on violence against women and children, and I believe I did it with a deep sense of justice. Yet even if one were to acknowledge that these are not monolithic structures, and they are not peopled by monsters (however monstrous some of their actions may appear), it would be easy to accuse me of co-operating with the state and being co-opted by the police. Am I coercive and violent at worst, or naive and ineffectual at best? I would hope neither, though being ineffectual is a recurring nightmare.
… I understand how invidious ‘guilt by association’ can be, as an argument for damning someone.
Yet, in the current debate around Sonal Shah’s nomination to the Obama advisory group - and her alleged links to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad through her family’s and her own varying levels of involvement with the organisation - the parallels stop here for two reasons. First, the Indian state is not the VHP (though it appeared co-terminous with the Gujarat government in 2002), and there are various ways, however convoluted or difficult, to hold the state responsible for its in/actions. Even more critically, the Indian state’s constitutional foundation is that of a democratic republic premised on principles of justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity to *all* citizens, however flawed its follow through might be; I am yet to believe that the VHP is a flagbearer for these principles.
The parallel also ends with the immutable fact that I have not been asked to join Obama’s advisory board (and never will be). However, if I were ever to be in a position of power, privilege and leadership - whether by appointment or implication - and I was challenged about my past ‘associations’ with the Indian state, I would not only welcome the challenge, I would think it irrefutably appropriate.
My key disappointment with the entire debate that has sprung up over Shah’s appointment - and her own response to it - is that it continues to be framed, if unwittingly, in problematic binaries: in the waning days of Bush, we still seem to settle on ‘you’re either with us, or against us’. On the one hand, Vijay Prashad is absolutely correct in demanding some sense of accountability for Sonal Shah’s political antecedents. If she was national coordinator of VHP-America till 2001, it means that at least until the age of 33 (she is reportedly 40 now), she was in a position of leadership in an organisation that has been implicated in egregious acts of bigotry, hate-mongering and sectarianism back in India. Amardeep Singh may claim that a scrutiny of Shah is not warranted till she is in a government appointed position that has connections with India; this seems to me to be a case of acquittal by dis-association… surely we have a right to ask probing questions of someone who is ‘representing’ both issues of ‘development’ and (even if unwillingly) issues of the Indian American community?
On the other hand, in Prashad’s somewhat lengthy telling of Shah’s history and VHP’s actions in Gujarat (while touching upon the Obama campaign and US interventionism), he fails to give us the substance of his conversation with Shah at a conference. I can well imagine that this is through the slippages of time and memory, but I would have found it helpful to hear a well-delineated argument about why he was convinced she understood, and did not repudiate, the political implications of her past associations. In personalising the encounter, and limiting its description to a ‘bitter exchange’, the very valid questions he poses lose some force. Singh’s defence of Shah is more subtle from this perspective: he posits that she may well have been involved with the VHP as she grew up, found its politics too problematic, and dis-engaged herself from the organisation. Still, this too seems disingenuous, given that she was 33 when coordinating earthquake relief in Gujarat; at this age, it is hard to think of her as being ‘naive’ about VHP politics… why not choose any of the many organisations also doing relief work with no right-wing antecedents whatsoever? This is when guilt by association slips into guilt by action (or inaction, as the case may be).
In fact, it worries me that if she was indeed unclear about the connections between disaster relief and the growing power of fundamentalist organisations (connections that have repeatedly been seen across the world, not just in India), then her understanding of the politics of development may also be suspect. In her own statement, she gives no indication that she understands that humanitarian work can be political in and of itself, or have deeply political impacts: she herself calls it ‘apolitical’. A more honest and self-reflexive analysis of her former position as VHP-A national coordinator would have helped support her claims of condemning the ‘politics of division, of ethnic or religious hatred, of violence and intimidation as a political tool’; instead she elides that past. I am deeply thankful, however, that she clearly and specifically disassociates herself from the ‘views espoused by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or any such organization’. Unfortunately, these organisations do not see fit to disassociate themselves from her; currently, the RSS is making arrangements to hold a public reception in her honour in Gujarat.
Complicating the debate, what I found both disturbing and thought-provoking, in the commentary for and against Sonal Shah, was this statement:
As far as second generation Indians affiliations with groups such as VHP, I too was raised attending some of their youth camps. I assure you they do not train us in weapons training or to hate Muslims. Being born and/or raised in this country, second generation Indian Americans have few options about learning about their faith or their culture. VHP has had a recognizable base in the US for as far as I can remember and I am 30 now. They were one of the few organizations that taught children belonging to Hindu families of their religion and culture. While we may not agree 100% ideologically with them, it does not mean we are fanatic by our associaton (sic) with them.
This is precisely the point at which the larger debate of activism around ideals of secularism and plurality, stumbles in India, and perhaps (as I witness it now), here in the US. Why is our analysis not able to convey the slippery slope between VHP summer schools and the genocide in Gujarat? Have we, as activists for a progressive world, so denounced a middle ground of faith, religiosity and associated ‘culture’, that we have ended up allowing the fascist right to take over that space? Is a VHP summer school the only option that a young Hindu growing up in America has for learning about her heritage, whatever this might mean? How far are we committed to having ‘youth camps’ about syncreticism, pluralism, and that most particular aspect of Indian heritage: secularism as both the church-state separation, as well as a respect for all faiths? With histories that include Hindu and Muslim worship at Baba Budangiri, or the Hindu and Christian celebrations at Velankinni?
And finally, do people not have the right to find some sense of meaning for themselves in a complex and violent world, even if those meanings are not always our own? Do we negate the nuances of spirituality, faith and religiosity by hardily lumping them together with conservatism and fundamentalism? Surely the common values should be of peace, equality and humaneness, even if the approaches are different? As an activist in India post the Gujarat genocide, I asked myself precisely these questions in an essay entitled ‘Fundamentalisms of the Progressive‘; knowing fully well that I could be accused of being naive at best, and renegade at worst. Yet I think those of us fighting the long fight against the politics of hate and oppression, need to keep analysing our own positions and strategies, and have the wisdom and honesty to acknowledge past omissions and commissions, an honesty I equally expect from someone like Sonal Shah. And unlike the somewhat blunt debate of is-she-isn’t-she, I see this process of probity being less about guilt, and more about responsibility by association.