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Obama Advisor's Disturbing Affiliations in India

By Vinod K. Jose

12 November, 2008

The economist of Indian origin on President-Elect Barack Obama's transition team, Ms. Sonal Shah, has one dubious credential on her resume--her relationship with the Hindu extremist group, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). This militant group was held responsible for the genocidal pogroms against Muslims in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 that killed 2,000 people and rendered 100,000 homeless. Ms. Shah was the "National Coordinator" for the VHP in North America . So the lingering question is: why hasn't the Obama team vetted enough on Ms. Sonal Shah's Hindu extremist connections?

Beyond those affiliations, Ms. Shah's resume reads well. At 40, she works in Google's global development team and promotes philanthropy. She served as Vice President for Goldman Sachs, in its environmental protection department. She also worked at the Department of Treasury. It is Ms. Shah's "charity" works that throws up some disturbing questions.

The non-profit organization she founded, Indiacorps, sends Americans of Indian origin to work on development projects in India. While Indiacorps is associated with many secular organizations, it also has Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, the educational wing of VHP as a project partner. This is an organization that has not only misused funds but also diverted the grants to "create disharmony amongst religious groups and formed political cadres [with the aid money]," says a federal enquiry report. The government subsequently stopped all grants to Ekal Vidyalaya in 2005.

In North America, Shah coordinated one of the major fund-raising campaigns for VHP in 2001, to help the earthquake victims of Gujarat. However, serious allegations were raised concerning how dollars raised in America were used on the ground. In Gujarat, less than a year later, there were mass killing of Muslims by the VHP men.

Not only was this money used to fund hate against Muslims, Christians and members from the lower caste communities, but it also violated tax laws.

In the context of an Indian television exposé on the involvement of "spiritual gurus" in money-laundering, former income tax commissioner Mr. Vishwabahndhu Gupta implicated Shah's VHP as a "religious mafia" who "floats bogus trusts" and violated tax regulations . Mr Gupta said his department has evidence of how foreign money was misused by VHP's youth wing, Bajrang Dal, in Gujarat.

In the last two months, Bajrang Dal was in the news again from the East Indian state of Orissa, where dozens of Christians were killed, 1400 houses and 80 churches burned, nuns raped and thousands pushed into refugee camps. The Orissa government, supported by the Hindu right wing parties, did very little to stop the violence against the Christians.

So this is the question to Obama from the quarters of his liberal, democratic constituency: howsoever much professionally qualified Ms. Shah might be, can she ever be an advisor in an administration of "change" when she has neither rectified her past relationships nor denounced any possible ongoing affiliations with the militant Hindu extremists?

On the contrary, newspapers in Shah's state, Gujarat, are speculating on how her proximity with Obama can help the man behind the 2002 killings rebuild his image internationally . The Chief Minister of Gujarat and the poster-boy of the extremists, Narendra Modi, was denied visa to the US in 2005 for his genocidal programs against Muslims. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and dozens of lawmakers had campaigned successfully with the State Department to bring Mr. Modi in strict accordance with the Immigration and Naturalization Act, including Section 212 (a) (2) (G) which denies access to "any alien who, while serving as a foreign government official, was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom." Every year, Mr Modi gets an invitation from the Gujarati community in the US, including from Ms. Shah's father, Ramesh Shah, Vice President of the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP). But the führer is yet to make it across the Atlantic.

Unlike what Gujarati newspapers seem to imply, it could be a long shot for Ms. Sonali Shah to get visa for a man accused of genocidal crimes. She is on the Obama advisory board to do something else: probably, to help him with the economy. doesn’t need someone affiliated to VHP Inc . That is not "diversity-representation." Remember, this is an administration that is watched closely not just in the US, but all over the world.

VINOD K JOSE is a producer with Pacifica Radio. He has a Masters degree in Journalism from Columbia Journalism School and won the Foreign Press Association award in 2008 for his reporting on South Asia. Vinod can be contacted at


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