Dealing with terrorism in India is being called President-elect Barack Obama's first foreign-policy test.
As we saw last week in Mumbai, political and religious divisions in the world's largest democracy make our disagreements seem tame by comparison. So when Obama named economist Sonal Shah to his transition team, the unifier invited division.
From India to the United States, Hindus, Muslims and Christians criticized her appointment, alleging that she has links to Hindu militants. News of Indian American groups' protests was the top story on the Times of India's Web site for days.
A statement from Shah denying her critics' allegations, posted on the Web site of Asian Americans for Obama, and the blog postings that followed didn't do anything to quell the hostile response from within the Indian American community.
Who is Sonal Shah? She is a former Goldman Sachs vice president and now leads the global development team of Google.org, the company's philanthropic arm. She has won awards as co-founder of Indicorps, a U.S.-based nonprofit that enables Indian Americans to work on development projects in India.
However, following the 2001 earthquake in the Indian state of Gujarat, Shah was a relief coordinator for Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) America, according to reports in Indian newspapers. VHP in India is a Hindu extremist group that has been tied to violence against the country's Christian and Muslim minorities.
The worst violence against India's Christians came in August, after a VHP leader was killed in the state of Orissa. Although Maoists immediately took credit for the killing, the VHP blamed Christians. Hindu mobs went door to door, killing Christian families, raping women, and burning homes and churches. The government reports that 54,000 Christians are still homeless, more than 10,000 are now living in refugee camps, and 118 are dead as a result.
The headlines are heartbreaking: "Christian woman burnt to death by rampaging VHP mobs in Orissa;" "Hindu extremists burn one nun alive, rape another." Every day brought fresh reports of violence against Christians. The response from leaders of the VHP and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP): Stop converting Hindus, and the violence will end.
In Gujarat in 2002, a similar Hindu uprising targeted Muslims after a train carrying Hindus caught fire. In the end, more than 1,000 people were killed and 100,000 were displaced. The U.S. State Department reports that the BJP-led government did little to stop the violence. Other reports suggest that the BJP didn't stop it because the party engineered it.
Sangh Parivar is a family of Hindu nationalist organizations united in favor of Hindu supremacy in India. It includes the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of which VHP is an offshoot. The BJP is the political party of these groups.
The University of Chicago's Martha Nussbaum has described the RSS as "possibly the most successful fascist movement in any contemporary democracy." Google RSS and its affiliates, and your jaw will drop. Everyone from Amnesty International to our State Department has warned about these outfits.
Shah has tried to distance herself from VHP in India by saying VHP America is different. VHP America's Web site suggests otherwise: It clearly states that it shares the ideals of VHP India.
Shah has said her politics have nothing in common with the views espoused by these groups. But she has spoken at youth conferences for groups outside India that support the RSS and VHP. And, according to several Indian newspapers, she has strong family ties to the RSS and didn't once denounce the violence against Christians and Muslims.
Shah also claims to have done only charitable fund-raising to help earthquake victims in Gujarat through VHP America. But why did she choose VHP when the Red Cross and other relief agencies also were on the scene?
Shah should condemn the VHP and its actions soon. If she doesn't, keeping her on - or, more ominously, giving her a post in the new administration - would send the message that the president-elect does not think the VHP is a radical organization. And this is a president-elect who is trying to "change" the image of the United States in the Islamic world with a foreign policy more sensitive to Muslim concerns.
I doubt that this makeover should include condoning an organization that supports terrorism aimed at Muslims and Christians.