Former VHP-America leader faces backlash for recent Biden appointment
A month after economist Sonal Shah, 53, was appointed to the US Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory Council, she faces controversy as over 12,000 have signed a petition demanding her removal due to her background as a leader in an American affiliate of a radical Hindu nationalist group in India.
Shah was tapped for the council on 17 March 2022, but the petition, launched on 21 April, claims, “Her appointment may surprise some considering she spent years as a leader in the US wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an Indian outfit categorized in 2018 by the Central Intelligence Agency as a ‘religious militant organization.’” The VHP is part of a family of Hindu nationalist organizations which includes the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary and its political arm, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). All three groups — RSS, VHP, and BJP — have been repeatedly implicated by groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in the country’s largest incidents of anti-minority violence ranging back to 1992.
Read the background article: “Sonal Shah’s Journey: From American Sangh to US Department of Homeland Security.”
This is the second presidential administration to appoint Shah. In 2008, her selection for then President-Elect Barack Obama’s transition team prompted a month-long international media firestorm focused on her three-year role as a leader in Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) as well as her family’s deep ties to the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), which registered as a Foreign Agent in 2020. Her father, Ramesh Shah, has served as a top OFBJP leader — including president — for over 20 years.
In 2014, Ramesh Shah traveled to India to campaign for then BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, who was banned from entering the US at the time due to his alleged involvement in a 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in the state of Gujarat. He was also one of the core team who organized a massive New York City reception for Modi after he was elected and — due to diplomatic immunity — no longer barred from traveling to America. According to the petition, Sonal Shah’s father’s “long-time role as an OFBJP executive was particularly helpful to Narendra Modi’s political ambitions, which Modi’s administration apparently recognized in January 2017 when Ramesh — a resident of Houston, Texas — was invited to Bangalore, Karnataka to receive the highest award India offers to Non-Resident Indians: the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award.”
VHP was one of the primary groups implicated in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, which was one of the complaints in 2008 about Sonal Shah’s past leadership role in VHPA. That controversy concluded with Shah stating, “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 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. The petition, however, claims, “Her ‘half-hearted ‘disassociation’ from VHPA was nothing more than a passing, opportunistic reaction necessitated by rising political pressure.”
The petition further highlights how Shah’s VHPA leadership role was “at a time when VHP was primarily known internationally for its involvement in the 1992 Babri mosque destruction, an act which sparked brutal riots that took the lives of thousands.”
A long-form exposé of Shah linked from the petition explains that BJP leader LK Advani founded OFBJP in the US in 1992 to “‘counter the bad press coverage the party was receiving’ for its involvement in the campaign to demolish the mosque.” Advani, who was arrested for his role in the demolition, later become Deputy Prime Minister; in 2004 (after the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom), Ramesh Shah visited the state to work with OFBJP for Advani’s reelection. Modi, who was a key organizer in Advani’s campaign to demolish the mosque, was also hosted in the Shah’s US home in the 1990s.
The petition further points out that Shah continued involvement with — even fundraising for — VHPA projects after 2008, and recently “waved off concerns” about her past VHPA leadership role as “dumb.” Over 12,000 signatories to the petition for her removal, however, apparently disagree.
“Remove Sonal Shah From DHS For Hindutva Links,” they are demanding. Amnesty International defines Hindutva — or Hindu nationalism — as “the political ideology of an exclusively Hindu nation.” While Hindutva violence sweeps across India today, to the extent that some experts are warning of an impending genocide of Indian Muslims, is Sonal Shah really the right person to be advising the US Department of Homeland Security?