Sonal Shah’s Saga: From VHP-America to Homeland Security
Shah’s origins in US wing of Hindu nationalist outfit are no bar to rising higher and higher with Biden administration
A little over a year after The Tribune reported that Indian-Americans with “links” to India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had “so far been excluded” from President Joe Biden’s administration, one of two mentioned — Sonal Shah — was picked up.
In February 2022, Sonal, 53, was sworn in as Chief Commissioner of Biden’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. On 17 March, she moved deeper into the administration when she was appointed to the Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory Council, a body tasked with “decision-making across the spectrum of homeland security operations.” 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.”
What is perhaps more surprising, however, is that Sonal’s two recent appointments came and went almost unnoticed amongst the Indian-American diaspora. It’s a sharp contrast to her first presidential appointment, in 2008, which prompted a month-long international media firestorm focused on her past Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) role as well as her family’s deep ties to the RSS-BJP’s international affiliates — including Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), which registered as a Foreign Agent in 2020.
Sonal’s father, Ramesh Shah, might be described as a founding father of America’s RSS-BJP affiliates. His long-time role as an OFBJP executive was particularly helpful to Narendra Modi’s political ambitions, which Modi’s adminstration 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.
Joining Ramesh as fellow recipients of the award were his long-time associates, Mahesh Mehta and Bharat Barai. The three had, in 2014, collaborated to organize the first of several receptions held in America for the newly-elected Modi. Held in Madison Square Garden in New York City, the event was a stunning success which introduced Modi to a roaring crowd of tens of thousands of NRIs, and must have been one reason Ramesh and his compatriots were honored in 2017.
The full reason, however, likely ran much deeper. All three, aside from jointly planning Modi’s reception, had spent decades as leaders in American affiliates of India’s Sangh Parivar, the family of Hindu nationalist organizations springing from the RSS, the paramilitary in which Modi began his public life. Moreover, all three also worked in America to support Modi’s election in India.
The late Mahesh Mehta, a “close confidante” of Modi, founded VHPA, the US wing of India’s VHP, which is the religious wing of the RSS. He was also “instrumental” in founding Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh USA (HSS), the US wing of the RSS, and helped found OFBJP, the US wing of the BJP, which is the political wing of the RSS. In September 2013, he helped found Global Indians for Bharat Vikas (GIBV), “a Boston-based Vishwa Hindu Parishad front organization” formed to mobilize NRIs to get Modi elected as prime minister in India’s 2014 General Election.
Bharat Barai was then (and remains) an advisor to VHPA’s Chicago chapter. He is also a “longtime friend and confidante” of Modi who hosted the then RSS worker in his home in the 1990s. After Modi — then Chief Minister of Gujarat — was banned from the US in response to his alleged role in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, Barai hosted multiple video conferences with him to boost his popularity in the diaspora. As Modi campaigned in 2014, Barai personally led a GIBV team of 650 volunteers to India to back his election.
For his part, Ramesh Shah has filled various top OFBJP offices, including president. In 2014, the group mobilized around 5,000 Indian-Americans to serve as boots on the ground in India to support Modi’s election. Like Barai, Ramesh also personally traveled to India to back the BJP, something he had been doing for both state and national elections for at least the previous decade, if not longer. Like Barai, he also met Modi when he visited the US in the 1990s. A “lifelong” member of HSS and a former VHPA Governing Councillor, he is also founder of Ekal Vidyalaya, a controversial educational project launched under the auspices of VHPA.
The three may not have been connected by birth, but their decades of shared labor within the same interlinked Sangh outfits still seems to qualify them as “Parivar” — as family. Yet in Ramesh’s case, his Sangh activities also connected him to his actual flesh and blood: Sonal Shah.
While Sonal Shah now serves as an advisor on Homeland Security as well as head of a body tasked with advancing “equity, justice, and opportunity” for Asian Americans, she is best known — especially within the diaspora — for her earlier role as a Governing Councillor of VHPA. Although her recent appointments received barely a passing media mention, that marks a distinct shift from the drama sparked by her 2008 appointment.
The 2008 Controversy Over Sonal Shah’s VHPA Ties
On 5 November 2008, Sonal, then a 40-year-old economist, was appointed to the 12-member advisory board of then President-Elect Barack Obama’s transition team. Within days, she became one of the most talked about — and infamous — members of that team.
On 6 November, Times of India reported that Obama’s election “brought some cheer” for Modi because it might mean an end to his visa ban, which was imposed by the George W. Bush administration in 2005. The paper claimed that expatriated Gujaratis (which would include the Shah family) — “who had supported Obama to the hilt” and were also “ardent admirers of Modi” — “are expected to lobby strong with the Obama team” on Modi’s behalf. Modi was already rumored to run for prime minister and, the paper argued, America’s disavowal of him even as Chief Minister of Gujarat meant that they were missing out on the benefits of engaging with an “emerging political force from an economic tiger-state.”
On 7 November, Times further speculated: “Will economist Sonal Shah, one of US president-elect Barack Obama’s top aides, open the doors of America for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who has been barred from entering the US by the Bush administration?” Sonal “could play a vital role” in reversing that decision. “It is vital for Modi that Sonal eventually gets an important profile in the Obama Administration because an insider could influence or change policy decisions of the previous dispensation,” concluded the paper.
The paper seemed to suggest that Sonal owed it to Modi.
She “comes from a family believed to be close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and particularly to Modi, having known him since his days as a young pracharak [full-time worker],” explained Times. Modi used to visit the Shahs “whenever he was in the US.” Moreover, not only was Ramesh then Vice-President of OFBJP, but Sonal’s mother, Kokila, was OFBJP-Houston’s chapter coordinator. In fact, as Hindustan Times reported the following day, Sonal herself was “associated with the overseas activities of the Sangh Parivar” as a former VHPA executive.
That association formed the basis for a full-blown controversy.
Indian-American historian Dr. Vijay Prashad fired the first shot in a 7 November article which warned that Sonal’s VHPA ties meant she was linked to “the US branch of the most virulently fascistic outfit within India.” What followed was a flurry of lies, prevarications, and reluctant admissions of half-truths that culminated — a month later — in a dissembling “renunciation” of VHPA which was virtually dragged out of Sonal on 10 December.
By 9 November, the controversy was already impacting Sonal so much that she reached out to top Obama team leadership for help. It was a “stupid issue,” she said in (now leaked) internal emails, but she was concerned it would gain “traction.” On 10 November, she asked for “guidance” about “managing the India press frenzy.” Should she put out a statement or just ignore the whole thing, she asked. The team directed her to put out a statement. She drafted one and Obama’s senior foreign policy advisor, Denis McDonough, reworked it into a final draft which she issued on 11 November.
Dodging the issue of VHPA entirely, she began by dismissing the controversy as “baseless and silly.” She then declared that her personal politics have nothing to do with VHP or RSS, that she has always condemned politics of division, hatred, and violence, and that she does “not subscribe to the views” of “Hindu nationalist groups.” Every allegation about her, she insisted, was the result of “rumors and unfounded gossip” based on “tenuous connections.”
Yet, as she feared, the controversy continued to grow and gain traction.
On 20 November, 13 Indian-American groups issued an open letter to Sonal, saying, “Your recent statement on Hindu nationalist groups raises more questions than it answers.” They were concerned, they told her, that her VHPA links “might possibly influence your role in the transition team and the new administration’s policies towards India and Indian-Americans.” On 4 December, a retired Republican Senator used the issue as political leverage against Obama in an op-ed warning that keeping on Sonal, especially if she failed to condemn VHP, sent a message of “condoning an organization that supports terrorism aimed at Muslims and Christians.” On 5 December, over 60 academics sent an open letter to Obama, noting that Sonal, as a VHPA executive, had been in a position of “national leadership and responsibility in an organization which has not once repudiated the violence of its sister organizations in India.”
Unable to ignore the issue, VHPA responded by first lying, then spilling a half-truth, and finally admitting the reality — sort of.
“Sonal Shah is not associated with the VHPA,” said spokesperson Shyam Tiwari. “She has not been in any office in any capacity with the organization.” Later, he doubled-down: “Sonal is not associated with the VHP of America in any capacity whatsoever.” Finally, when presented with contradictory evidence, he confessed (in reference to her role as a National Coordinator for VHPA’s relief efforts after a 2001 earthquake in Gujarat), “Sonal was a member of the VHP of America at the time of the earthquake. Her membership has expired.”
That was not the whole truth, however. Tiwari’s reluctant confession echoed Sonal’s 11 November statement which, in side-stepping any reference to VHPA, implied that the controversy was solely related to “relief work” she did with the outfit in 2001.
Yet her connection to VHPA ran far deeper. Eventually, Gaurang Vaishnav (then VHPA General Secretary, today a member of its advisory board) conceded: “She was just coming out of college. We were trying to get the younger generation involved in the VHPA. So she was taken into our governing body. Then the earthquake happened in Gujarat and she worked on that. She was there for three years.” Those years were, reportedly, from 1998 to 2001.
If involvement with VHPA was nothing to be ashamed of, why did the group initially deny that Sonal had ever been associated with it? Moreover, considering the admission was precededed by outright lies and followed by half-truths, how can VHPA’s claim that Sonal was involved for only three years be believed? Considering what we can discern from the evidence about her function and influence in the organization, it seems plausible she may have been involved for even longer.
Vaishnav’s portrayal of Sonal as “just coming out of college” when she joined VHPA’s executive team appeared to be an attempt to downplay her role as that of a young naif just stepping out into the big world. Yet, in 1998, she was 30, had finished her master’s degree at Duke University (one of the most prestigious schools in the country) several years earlier, and had already spent three years in a “high-powered job at the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington.” In other words, she was smart as a whip and knew her way around the world.
Sonal was also well aware not only of VHPA’s need to cultivate a positive public image but also of its connections to the mother organization, VHP, in India.
Such was obvious from a (publicly archived) 1998 email exchange between Sonal, Ajay Shah (who is, today, VHPA president), and Vijay Pallod (a long-time HSS member and OFBJP activist who was then also a VHPA Governing Councillor). The emails were sent via “a network exclusively for the VHP Governing Council Members and chapter coordinators.” The entire email thread includes interactions with Mahesh Mehta, sometimes copies Ramesh Shah, and references collaborations with HSS-USA Vice-President Ramesh Bhutada.
Writing from what appears to be her official Treasury Department email address, Sonal offers advice on image management for VHPA, suggesting that it should play to the same “strength” as VHP in India does and even advising on the direction which VHP itself should go. In response, Ajay Shah says he “completely” agrees with her views on “public relations,” notes that both VHPA and VHP are “weak” in that area, and references what he learned about “political action” during his days as an activist in RSS’s student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Following up, Pallod references a “long talk” he had with Sonal, says she “comes from [a] new generation,” insists VHPA should relay to VHP the direction it recommends the Indian parent group take, and concludes: “We all need to work hard to build VHP image.”
Shyam Tiwari even chimes in to argue that “what effectively lacks today in the context of media coverage of VHP is positive projection of our actions.”
The emails reflect just a brief conversation over a two-day period in 1998, but reveal that — assuming that year marked Sonal’s first as an executive in VHPA — she was not only an influential voice from the start but also quite concerned with crafting public perception about the group. The correspondence also sparks curiousity about what greater role she may have played over the ensuing years to “build VHP image.” Interestingly, it also reveals how Sonal and her VHPA colleagues constantly discussed the outfit as, essentially, synonymous with VHP.
Putting the 2008 Controversy to Rest
Ten years later, as the controversy surrounding her Obama appointment still raged, Sonal made her final attempt to put it to rest.
In a 10 December 2008 statement, she first complained about being “maligned” and subjected to “attacks” as well as how “painful” the experience had been for her. Then she lied about her association with VHPA, clearly suggesting that her only involvement with it was after the 2001 earthquake and that it was only one “among” many organizations she had worked with for “humanitarian relief” purposes. “I am not affiliated with any of these organizations, including the VHPA,” she said, leaving out all mention of her three-year (at least) executive position.
Finally, she cut to the chase. Aknowledging the 2002 Gujarat riots as an incident in which “some associated with the VHP” incited violence, she concluded: “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 possibly 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.”
Not once during the entire affair did Sonal ever come clean about her true involvement with VHPA — including the actual length of it — or, in any fundamental way whatsoever, denounce the Sangh itself. Aside from the fact that her statement came six years after the fact, was only compelled by a month of international negative press, and included continued lies about her actual role in VHPA, it also heavily implied that, were it not for the Gujarat riots, she would have had no problem being involved in the US wing of an aggressively Hindu nationalist entity which had already been implicated in violence long before 2002.
Sonal’s 2008 statement — just like her 1998 emails — made clear that she knew the VHPA was linked to India’s VHP. If she knew that much, how could she have been ignorant not only of the VHP’s Hindu nationalist ideology but of its involvement in violence before 2002?
VHP first gained major international attention in 1992 for its role in the mob destruction of the historic Babri Mosque. A year earlier, The Los Angeles Times profiled VHP as an outfit “backed by massive funding” from places like America and filled with “cosmic fanaticism” which “has transformed itself into a radical political zeal” bent on “creating the first Hindu fundamentalist government in world history.” After the mosque was torn down, OFBJP — which was formed in the US in 1992 by then BJP President LK Advani specifically to “counter the bad press coverage the party was receiving” for its involvement in the campaign to demolish the mosque — began its first advocacy efforts in Washington, DC. Was Sonal Shah ignorant not only of this notorious background of VHP but also of the origins of OFBJP itself, the political group to which her father has dedicated so many years of his life?
In India, Advani was arrested immediately after the mosque’s destruction. Though he became Deputy Prime Minister of India in 2002, he was fighting criminal charges related to his involvement in the mosque’s destruction up until 2020. In 2004, Ramesh Shah, as OFBJP vice-president, was in Gujarat traveling with Advani to campaign for his re-election to parliament. Was Sonal Shah unaware that her father was working alongside the Deputy Prime Minister of India? Or of the allegations against Advani? Or of Advani’s role in creating OFBJP?
The more one considers it (especially in light of her age, advanced education, and family background), the more inescapable becomes the conclusion that Sonal Shah must have known quite well the true nature of VHP and — whether because she agreed with it or not — chose to accept it in order to work with VHPA.
Regardless, after Sonal’s 10 December 2008 statement, the controversy over her transition team appointment largely died out as Indian media declared that she had “formally renounced” her VHPA ties — quite an exaggerated claim considering that she never actually admitted to them in the first place. Yet, as a political issue, it came to a close. What did not come to a complete close, however, was her involvement with American Sangh outfits — including VHPA offshoots.
Did Sonal Shah Really Disavow VHPA?
In the years after she supposedly left her leadership position with VHPA (in 2001), but before the controversy broke (in 2008), Sonal had already maintained some Sangh links.
Though not a direct link to the Sangh, per se, in 2004, she was awarded the “Pride of Gujarat” award, which her younger brother accepted on her behalf in Gujarat in the presence of Modi. This happened two years after Human Rights Watch released its report on the 2002 Gujarat riots in which it not only accused Sangh outfits (especially the VHP) of inciting violence but also reported that attackers had chanted “the police are with us…. long live Narendra Modi” and that the Modi administration had allegedly given police instructions “not to act firmly.” Such claims, however, did nothing to deter the Shah siblings from accepting the award.
Other pre-2008 actions linked Sonal directly to the American Sangh.
In 2005, she donated $10,000 to Ekal Vidyalaya. Founded by her father and claimed by VHPA as their original project, Ekal, according to Indian media reports, creates “RSS-run” schools which have “helped the spread of Hindutva [Hindu nationalism].” That same year, she also volunteered, alongside her father, with Sewa International, a charity which is currently chaired by HSS’s Bhutada and is (as admitted by the Sangh itself) one of “several affiliated organizations of the RSS.” In 2002, in fact, Sewa was subject to controversy in both the US and the UK over allegations that monies it raised were being funneled to RSS outfits in India which were involved in sectarian violence.
After weathering the 2008 controversy, Sonal still continued her involvement with both groups. In 2015, she was the keynote speaker at a Sewa fundraiser where she personally pledged $5,000. In 2018, she spoke at an Ekal fundraiser — presumably at the invitation of her father, who not only attended the event but was then the outfit’s chair.
Aside from the details of her curriculum vitae (working at the US Treasury Department, Goldman Sachs, Google, and a variety of think tanks as well as serving on Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign), Sonal Shah is best known to the general public for the deluge of bad press she endured in 2008.
Today, however, she doesn’t seem to take the incident very seriously. In 2021, after Biden won the presidency and The Tribune reported — prematurely — that Sangh-linked figures were excluded from the administration, she gave an interview in which she dismissed the whole affair as “dumb” and claimed the Obama transition team leadership had “laughed” at the allegations.
Meanwhile, the Shah family has not backed off its advocacy for the BJP: both of Sonal’s parents apparently joined OFBJP to campaign in Gujarat in 2019.
Sonal Shah’s Future
Whatever the future holds for Sonal, it seems that she believes the events of 2008 are buried in the past — just as it also seems that her half-hearted “disassociation” from VHPA was nothing more than a passing, opportunistic reaction necessitated by rising political pressure. She “would not have associated with the VHP of America” had she foreseen VHP’s involvement in the 2002 violence, she claimed when all eyes were focused on her, but (once the attention shifted) she showed no hesitation to associate with a VHPA project like Ekal. In 2008, she denounced the Gujarat riots as “heinous events” and expressed her shock that VHPA “could possibly stand by silently,” but in 2021 she waved off concerns about her involvement with VHPA as “dumb.”
Moreover, from at least 1998 to 2001, Sonal Shah had no issue associating with VHPA 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. She never voiced her shock that VHPA chose to stand by silently in the face of those heinous events. Why not?
If nothing else, Sonal deserves applause for so skillfully navigating through such a potentially politically catastrophic controversy. After all, she was an executive in an affiliate of a family of organizations accused of massacring minorities on more than one occasion and yet, 13 years later, still managed to secure not just one but two appointments in the liberal administration of the most powerful country in the world. A lesser politician might not have emerged so unscathed, yet Sonal pulled off the nearly impossible by (seemingly) putting it all behind her.
Things could have ended much worse. Consider, for instance, how another figure in the Biden adminstration fared — not for having been in the Sangh but simply for meeting with the Sangh.
In September 2021, the US’s then Acting Ambassador to India, Atul Keshap, met the chief of the RSS at the paramilitary’s Nagpur, Maharashtra headquarters. The 28-year veteran of the US Foreign Service soon faced outrage from segments of the Indian-American diaspora who protested him and demanded his resignation. In January 2022, he quietly left his lengthy career as a diplomat to enter the private sector, by all appearances as a result of the controversy over his brief dalliance with the RSS chief.
Strangely, Sonal Shah’s appointments within the Biden administration have not provoked a similar outcry — despite the events of 2008 — and so she seems poised to continue progressing to ever higher positions of power within the American political system.