“Despicable”: Indian-American Groups on US Envoy Meeting “Fascist” RSS

“What we saw in India with Atul Keshap, the acting ambassador of the United States — this, my country — meeting with a fascist leader, Mohan Bhagwat of the RSS, is despicable,” said Zahir Adil at a 12 September 2021 webinar.

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Adil, speaking on behalf of human rights organization Justice for All, was among the six representatives of Indian-American groups who gathered together on Sunday to offer their perspectives on the 8 September meeting of US Ambassador Atul Keshap with the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary. All speakers expressed staunch disapproval, with several calling for the diplomat’s resignation. Speakers variously termed the RSS as supremacist, militant, and violent, arguing that Keshap’s meeting legitimizes the outfit, which they compared to everything from ISIS to the Taliban to the Ku Klux Klan and even the Nazis.

“A lot of people in this last 50 or 60 years have observed how much the Nazis, with their supremacist philosophy in Germany and Europe, how much damage they caused,” remarked Dr. Kaleem Kawaja of the Association of Indian Muslims. “Also in the United States is the Ku Klux Klan, which is also a supremacist and a racist body. Now, RSS is exactly identical to these two bodies. It’s a racist and violent organization.” Describing the ambassador’s meeting as an issue of “earth-shaking importance,” Kawaja stated, “Mr. Keshap, by his actions, has disqualified himself from serving as a representative of the United States.”

“We have such an abomination,” declared Sana Qutubuddin of the American Federation of Muslims of Indian Origin. “We have Ambassador Keshap meeting with Mohan Bhagwat…. Every sense of what we value as a nation is completely being corroded by this celebratory meeting with Mohan Bhagwat, and it’s something that all of us need to call out together, because what this spells for us is very dangerous.”

Speaking from the Federation of Indian-American Christian Organizations, John Prabhudoss noted his group’s concerns “about the public recognition of a paramilitary organization.” While acknowledging that they understand the need for US officials “to meet with all sides, including the RSS leaders,” he explained, “The concern that we have is that the RSS uses this to show the world that they are part of the mainstream in India. What they crave for is a legitimacy for their policies and their ideas, and Atul’s meeting just amounts to giving that legitimacy in a silver platter.” His concerns were echoed by Adil, who insisted, “The United States should never, ever normalize a fascist organization such as the RSS.”

Accusing the RSS of instigating “continuous violence,” Naresh Barsagade of the Dr. Ambedkar International Center pointed out, “We, the United States, just came out of 20 years in war in Afghanistan, and we don’t want to keep any ties with the Taliban, which is a militant, religious outfit, but our ambassador to India wants to glorify the relationship with RSS. It’s a similar organization: a militant, religious outfit of India. We seek explanations from the State Department.” Kawaja mirrored Barsagade’s opinion. Calling the Taliban and the RSS “two sides of the same coin,” he said, “Just as I condemn extremist Muslim philosophy projected by the Taliban, I also condemn the racist, Hindu supremacist philosophy of the RSS.” Kawaja urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to investigate the issue.

In the measured words of Prabhudoss: “It would be prudent upon our State Department to be more careful in who we legitimize and who we go to bed with when it comes to foreign policy.”

What is “particularly disturbing,” said Qutubuddin, is that the meeting must have occurred with Blinken’s approval. “It’s as though we have a government, with Secretary of State Blinken, that would essentially herald the Capitol Hill rioters, and celebrate them, and celebrate their baseline ideology, which is ultimately white supremacy,” she argued. Warning that RSS Chief Bhagwat controls millions of paramilitary forces who “uphold and maintain a social and economic apartheid,” she stated, “It’s very dangerous for India as well, but this is a very dangerous move in the international community.”

Dr. Shaik Ubaid of the Indian Muslims Alert Network shared a similar perspective. “RSS is an ISIS-like, international, terrorist, supremacist movement,” explained Ubaid, pointing out that it has affiliates in the US which should be investigated by federal agencies. Calling for “a grassroots movement to confront this threat from the largest terrorist organization in the world, which has access to nuclear powers,” he warned, “The threat that they pose is not just to the minorities in India, but also to the regional stability, and the whole world.” He concluded, “It is in the national security interests of the United States — and of the world — that RSS not be legitimized and that RSS activities in the US be thoroughly investigated and stopped.”

Ubaid, as the final speaker, reiterated the demands of the first speaker, Adil. “We call upon Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and we really do hope that you will immediately distance the United States from Atul Keshap’s meeting with Mohan Bhagwat and remove him immediately from any position within the State Department or any other department in the United States,” said Adil. Ubaid, for his part, insisted that Keshap should “be removed from his post and not be allowed to work for the federal government.”

Keshap’s meeting with the RSS is highly unusual, but not unique among Western diplomats in recent years. While it appears there were no meetings of ambassadors with Bhagwat before 2019, Keshap is now the fourth ambassador to meet Bhagwat in just two years. All the meetings — which frequently involve photo-ops and even praise for RSS programs — have sparked controversy within the home countries of the diplomats involved.

In July 2019, German Ambassador Walter Lindner launched the growing but contentious diplomatic trend of formally recognizing the RSS. Yet after he met Bhagwat, nearly a dozen German Members of Parliament questioned their government over the incident. “The ideology of the RSS is based on the idea of a leadership claim by political Hinduism (Hindutva) and the political striving to create a state according to radical Hindu rules,” they warned. “It was inspired by the fascist movements in Europe led by Mussolini and Hitler.”

The following year, that sentiment was echoed in Australia when High Commissioner Barry O’Farrell met with the RSS chief in November 2020. Speaking from the floor of her country’s parliament, Australian Senator Janet Rice denounced the visit as a “disgrace” and demanded that O’Farrell resign. Terming the RSS “a fascist organization that openly admits admiration for Adolf Hitler and the appalling genocide that occurred under his Nazi regime,” she elaborated: “Time and time again, the RSS has attacked Indian people’s rights to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and safety. Their advocacy of a Hindu Rashtra [nation] is for an India where, by definition, minorities are denied rights and privileges. They demonize and encourage persecution of some of the non-Hindu citizens of India, particularly those of Muslim background.”

French Ambassador Emmanuel Lenain’s February 2021 meeting with the RSS prompted MP Clémentine Autain to echo Rice’s views. Speaking out in protest in her own country’s parliament, she stated: “The RSS is a Hindu nationalist paramilitary group, whose early leaders openly admired Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and which has been repeatedly accused of stoking inter-religious hatred and committing acts of violence.”

Only time will tell if Keshap’s visit produces similar or greater controversy, but the swelling outrage of many Indian-American groups is inescapable.

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