Group Linked to RSS’s US Wing Repeats Tired Lies About Friedrich

Following the vandalization of a statue of Mohandas Gandhi in California, a local group with ties to Hindu nationalist outfits has seized the opportunity to smear independent journalist Pieter Friedrich as a “Khalistani.”

The controversial statue in Davis, CA was torn from its pedestal, apparently on 27 January. The Indian Association of Sacramento (IAS) responded with a 31 January vigil at which they told media that “Khalistani separatist organisations, led by the OFMI and its leaders Bhajan Singh Bhind[e]r and Pieter Friedrich, had been demanding that the Gandhi statue be removed from the park ever since it was installed by the city of Davis in 2016.”

OFMI is the Organization for Minorities of India and Khalistan is a movement to create a separate state for Sikhs in the Punjab region of South Asia.

Friedrich, however, has no ties to OFMI. He formerly served as an advisor to the human rights collective, which was not a leadership position, but he left that role several years ago. Moreover, OFMI itself has no connection whatsoever to the Khalistan movement, as evidenced by its work.

Furthermore, Friedrich has repeatedly and explicitly noted that he does not support Khalistan. He has never written or spoken in support of it. And he has never been involved with any group or event in support of it.

Despite this, and without offering a shred of evidence, various vested interests continue to periodically float the false allegation.

Considering that the focus of Friedrich’s work for the past several years has been on India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary, its Hindu nationalist agenda, and its international influence, it’s no surprise that IAS itself has ties to RSS elements. IAS describes the Sacramento branch of Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) —a group known as the “overseas counterpart of the RSS” or, simply, “the RSS’ foreign name” — as its “partner organization.” The group’s website further names IAS as a “joint operation” of not only HSS but also Ekal Vidyalaya (an educational project linked to Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the religious wing of RSS) and Sewa International USA (a charitable project which is reportedly “managed mainly by HSS activists” and whose chairperson is HSS-USA Vice-President Ramesh Bhutada). IAS has also recently hosted collaborative events with HSS which also featured speakers from the Overseas Friends of Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP), the international arm of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP.

IAS describes HSS-Sacramento as its “partner organization”

Friedrich has extensively researched and documented the history and activities of the HSS, the OFBJP, and a number of affiliated groups, with a particular focus on their support of US congressional candidates like Tulsi Gabbard and Sri Preston Kulkarni.

To the consternation of these groups, this led Congressman Ro Khanna, in 2019, to publicly denounce Hindu nationalism. In August 2020, after over a year of Friedrich writing about the group, the OFBJP was compelled to register as a “foreign agent” in the US. In November 2020, after extensive focus on his campaign by Friedrich, Kulkarni lost his second bid for Congress; meanwhile, days after a media watchdog upheld Friedrich’s investigation of Gabbard, she announced her retirement from Congress.

This is the second time that HSS-linked elements have publicly attacked Friedrich in his native state of California. In October 2020, HSS protested outside a Khanna constituent town hall event. Although inspired to protest by Khanna’s statement against Hindu nationalism, they held placards with Friedrich’s photo and slogans such as “Ro, Stop Supporting Anti-Gandhi Racists.”

HSS protests Friedrich outside Khanna town hall in October 2020

Notably, Friedrich’s criticism of Gandhi has focused particularly on his pattern of anti-black racism in South Africa. Yet HSS and its affiliates appear determined to use Friedrich’s perspective as an opportunity to attempt to undermine his work against the RSS in India and abroad.

He called this out at a June 2020 speech in front of the Davis, CA statue, stating:

“Hiding behind the mask of Gandhi as the so-called ‘Father of India,’ the violent and supremacist rulers of [India] today use ‘Gandhiplomacy’ or ‘propaGandhi’ as a foreign policy weapon to conceal their atrocities and divert attention from their constant and most egregious violations of human rights.”

Ironically, Gandhi was himself assassinated by a member of the RSS — which was briefly banned in response —and Hindu nationalist elements in India, including BJP politicians, have not only celebrated but re-enacted Gandhi’s assassination. A “cult of personality” has risen around the assassin, reported The New York Times, explaining: “The rise of a Hindu nationalist government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has uncorked many extremist beliefs, and admiration for Gandhi’s killer, among some, has become more open.”

Acts of vandalism and vigilantism should be repudiated. And yet — whatever one may think of Gandhi (whether positive or negative) — it is worth questioning the motives of an HSS-linked group which is cynically using the incident to spread baseless lies about a journalist whose focus is on investigating the HSS, the RSS, and the Hindu nationalist movement.

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