Chandru Acharya: HSS-USA Director to Advise US Homeland Security
Originally aired October 2022.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell: As-salamu Alaykum. This is Edward Ahmed Mitchell here on behalf of Muslim Network TV. Very happy to be with you.
We want to dive in now to a discussion of an international issue that is hitting close to home. There have been concerns raised about a recent appointment to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Faith Advisory Council. Who is this individual? What are the concerns? We want to learn about that today with our special guest journalist, Pieter Friedrich.
Many of you may know Pieter. He is an author, journalist and an activist who specializes in the analysis of historical and current affairs in the South Asia region. We are happy to have him with us today.
Pieter, let’s dive right in. What are the concerns that have been raised about this appointment to the faith advisory council?
Pieter Friedrich: Well, so the gentleman that was recently appointed — just a couple of weeks ago — is named Chandru Acharya. The concerns center primarily around the fact that Chandru Acharya is currently on the board of directors of this organization in America called the Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh (HSS) USA, which happens to be the American wing of India’s Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which is a paramilitary organization, a Hindu nationalist organization which is accused of all kinds of violence against India’s religious minorities.
So, there’s two or three things about this appointment of Chandru Acharya which are particularly ironic.
So he’s been appointed to this faith-based security advisory council, and this council deals with issues relating to religious freedom in America, interfaith cooperation as well as the protection of houses of worship. Yet, as I mentioned, in the case, for instance, of religious freedom, this RSS back in India — of which Acharya is a director of the HSS-USA here in America, which is the American wing of the RSS — has been involved in seeking the extermination of Christians and Muslims who live in the country. Describes them in all sorts of atrocious terms.
Even more ironic is that this council of DHS is supposed to be involved in protecting houses of worship. Well, back in India, this RSS organization and various affiliates of it have, over especially the past year or two but historically as well, been involved in burning houses of worship. Mosques, churches. In the past year or so, there have been multiple accounts, including one just a few weeks ago.
A few weeks ago, there was a mob of about 200 armed individuals that invaded a masjid during worship. They beat up the congregants and were threatening them, locking up the masjid, and telling them they can’t worship there, and trying to drive them out of the area. In the case of churches, routinely over the past year we’ve seen mobs of anywhere from 50 to 100 or 250 or 500 people, oftentimes armed, showing up during Sunday services. Invading the sanctuary of the congregation, attacking and beating up the congregation, dragging them out of the sanctuary and into the streets.
So it’s ironic that an individual who is a director of an organization here in America — which is the American wing of that RSS back in India, which has links to all kinds of violence like this — would be appointed to a council which is supposed to be involved in protecting religious freedom.
It’s even more ironic, as far as the religious freedom aspect, that Chandru Acharya has been heavily involved — it appears from the records — in oftentimes criticizing, dismissing, and denouncing reports about the religious freedom conditions in India. In particular, most recently that I saw, he was on the record as denouncing a report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (which is an entity of the State Department) that was warning about the rise in violence against minorities, especially Christians and Muslims in India.
So to place him in this position where he is offering advice on religious freedom and protection of houses of worship while he is actually still, apparently, holding an active role as a director of the HSS-USA — which is the American wing of the RSS — is a little bit disturbing, to the say the least. So that’s what the concerns have been based around.
Edward: Now, Pieter, tell us more about the history of the RSS because I think most Americans have never heard of it and are not familiar with it. It’s my understanding that it’s a very old organization that has had connections to names that we would know, including allegedly the death of Mahatma Gandhi. Can you tell us more about the ancient history of this organization, their origins, ideologically, in India?
Pieter: Yeah, the RSS was founded in 1925, actually before India achieved its independence from the British Empire. It was founded in 1925 as a uniformed, all-male paramilitary organization with the specific goal of turning India into a Hindu nation. With the specific ideology and belief that India always has been, always should be a country reserved for and only for Hindu people. With ideological belief that especially Muslims and Christians are “foreign” to the land, and they are internal threats to the country, and they are even traitors to the nation simply because they follow a religion of their choice.
They have been involved in extensive violence from very near their origins. In particular, one of the worst incidents was in 1947, up in Jammu and Kashmir, the northern region of the Indian subcontinent, when they were involved in an anti-Muslim massacre which allegedly, according to reports at the time, killed anywhere from 25,000 to 250,000 Muslims.
Since then, they have constantly been involved in targeted assassinations including, as you mentioned, of Gandhi. One of the first terrorist incidents in independent India was committed by an RSS member in the assassination of Gandhi. They have been involved in terrorist bombings, especially against Muslim targets. They have been involved in pogroms — both small and large-scale massacres of 50 to 100 people up to, sometimes, as many as a couple of thousand people. Primarily religious minorities like Muslims and Christians.
So, as you mentioned, they have been connected to some names that we have heard of, but not just names like Gandhi. The original founders of RSS had taken actual direct inspiration, by name, from Mussolini and Hitler in Italy and Germany at the time, in the 1930s, when those original fascist movements were taking root in Europe. The RSS founders looked to movements like the Nazi movement in Germany and pointed to it as what they saw as a good role model to adopt towards religious minorities in India.
Edward: Well, that is deeply concerning, to say the least, and again, many Americans may not be familiar with all of this history. So now what is the concern about this group’s potential influence in the US? I mean, is it more concern you’re hearing that people are worried about political influence? Getting the government of our country to ignore what’s happening in India? Or is there some concern about violence breaking out here? We saw there were some violent incidents in England recently where it appeared to be supporters of this extremist movement engaged in violence against Muslims in the area. But what do you think are the main concerns there: is it violence or is it just political interference in our nation?
Pieter: Well, that’s a good question: is it violence or is it political interference? Now, if I can just briefly touch on one of the deepest concerns, which is the presence of the HSS operating in the US — as well as other affiliated organizations that typically are legally separate entities but typically are on record operating in collaborative efforts with the HSS.
The HSS, you know, I would not actually initially ask the critics of the HSS if it is or is not connected to the RSS, but I would ask pro-RSS voices. For instance, just briefly, we have here in New Jersey a gentleman named Rajiv Malhotra who’s an infamous pro-Hindu nationalist author. He is on record writing, I quote: “HSS is RSS, and it is RSS’s foreign name. This is important for those unfamiliar with RSS.”
Then, you know, I will also ask, here in America as well, Professor Walter K. Andersen and Shridhar Dhamle, who were co-authors of a kind of comprehensive history of the RSS. It was written basically with unprecedented access to the RSS back in India and originally, essentially, as an RSS-approved history of that organization. Now, it’s interesting to note that, of these two co-authors, this gentleman Shridhar Dhamle also happens to be — or to have been — actually a president of the Chicago chapter of the HSS.
They have written that, in their words, the HSS is “the overseas counterpart of the RSS.” They have also gone on to explain how the HSS workers, here and in other countries, often travel back to India to attend advanced training camps that are run by the RSS. They say that “the goal of these camps is to create an international pool of potential RSS workers to be assigned anywhere in the world.” And then they further go on to report, as far as the association between the groups, that HSS leaders in America oftentimes include or are former members from the RSS back in India and also that many of these HSS teaching sessions or training sessions conducted here in America are oftentimes run by teachers who come from the RSS back in India.
And, as far as the one last thing I would say as just kind of visual, concrete, hard proof that the HSS is linked to the RSS is that, routinely, at almost every single HSS meeting here in America — they put these pictures out on their own social media — we can see that they have on the stage featured, garlanded pictures of the first two chiefs of the RSS, including the second chief being the one who had actually pointed to Nazi Germany and praised the Nazi treatment of the Jews as a supposed justification for how the RSS should treat Indian minorities.
So in terms of political influence or violence — now in terms of political influence: yes.
That’s actually one of the primary concerns here in terms of any of these people being appointed to any kind of a position or being elected to any kind of an office in this country. We have seen this, for instance, in the past with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who had a strong association with and strong financing by members and leaders of the HSS and other organisations which are linked to it. She used her time in office to push policies that were favorable towards the current RSS-BJP regime in India, to attempt to derail and sabotage congressional efforts to hold that regime accountable and to call out the violence of Hindu nationalism, and so on and so forth. And that’s the primary concern when we have people like this in positions in the DHS or in any other cabinet or in any other office is that their bias towards these organizations and towards the ideological direction that the RSS seeks to take India will override any efforts or any interest in sincere humanitarian concern about the burgeoning human rights crisis in the country there right now.
As far as violence, I would say that the primary concern is that of political influence. In terms of how these people being in positions of political power have great and concerning potential to use that power to help prevent accountability for the violence that is occurring against minorities back in India and to empower the regime there back in India to continue and expand its atrocities and human rights violations. That’s my primary concern.
Violence being perpetrated here in America, I would say that’s a very limited concern. I don’t believe we have ever seen anything like that committed by the HSS or even any HSS member in the United States or, on record to my knowledge, in any other country which has these organizations. However, what we have seen — and there is no proof that the HSS is linked to this — but what we have seen is violence being perpetrated and intimidation in the streets being perpetrated by people who are apparently obvious sympathizers of the Hindu nationalist movement in India.
We saw it, in particular in the past couple of months, in Leicester, UK. We saw a mob of 200 plus people — armed, hooded, and masked — marching down the streets in broad daylight in a fashion that was highly reminiscent of the way that the RSS cadres march down the streets, to dominate them and intimidate the residents along those streets, and strike fear into their hearts by seeing these cadres. We saw them doing that. We saw violence breaking out there.
We also saw in Anaheim, Southern California, just a couple of months ago (on 14 August, I believe), during an India Day Gala at a public park, we saw a small group of protesters respectfully walking through this festival holding placards protesting against the human rights situation in India, protesting in favour of defending the lives of Indian Muslims and so on. And — unprovoked, aside from the fact of the presence of these peaceful protesters — attendees at this festival began screaming at these protesters, attacking them, assaulting them, pushing them, shoving them, threatening them, calling them stupid Muslims (even though many of them or actually most, if not all, of them were not actually even Muslim) and then seizing, stealing, and destroying their signs.
So, these kinds of outbursts are combined with what we saw here in the streets of Edison, New Jersey, also on 14 August during an India Day parade. The parade was being presided over by a BJP spokesperson while within the parade there was a bulldozer being included with images of Modi and the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of India, both of whom are BJP members. Modi himself, of course, being an RSS member and both of them — especially this chief minister of Uttar Pradesh — being involved currently in this new policy of intimidating and attacking dissenters or critics or activists (especially from Muslim backgrounds) by bulldozing their homes, their businesses, and even their masjids. And here, in Edison, we saw this bulldozer being included, which was a de facto endorsement of that brutal, violent policy of bulldozing these facilities of critics of the Modi government back in India. It has violent overtones. So certainly, there is cause for concern there.
Edward: Well, Pieter, all that is very concerning and disturbing. We are just about out of time, everyone. Thank you for coming to the program today and sharing some of this information with us. I know there could also be concerns about other appointees in the administration, so we look forward to having you back to discuss that in the future.
Pieter: Yes, I would love to come back and talk about that because this is the third appointment now to a DHS role of somebody who has some kind of link to these organisations.
Edward: Absolutely. Well, yes, let’s definitely continue this conversation and, sadly, it sounds like we will need to. Thank you so much, Pieter, for joining us and looking forward to getting more updates from you in the future.
Pieter: Thank you.