Retirement Unconnected to RSS Visit Controversy, Claims Former US Ambassador Atul Keshap

Keshap departed diplomatic service amidst demands for his removal over RSS meet

I honor your Constitutional right to speak freely, but you are factually incorrect to claim that you caused my retirement,” wrote former Ambassador Atul Keshap on Twitter in response to my suggestion that my journalism regarding his September 2021 meeting with India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary was related to his retirement from the US Diplomatic Service just a few months later.

Keshap had shared, on both Twitter and Facebook, a recent article attacking me for critical journalism of various appointed and elected officials in the US who have a track record of associating with the RSS in India and/or its various offshoots and international affiliates. Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute, published the article with Washington Examiner on 2 May 2022. Accusing me of “religious bigotry” for criticizing association with the Hindu nationalist RSS paramilitary, he described my journalism as “anti-Indian smears.”

Keshap, one of the seven people named in Rubin’s article, shared it on 3 May 2022. On Facebook, he wrote, “Rubin mentions prominent Indian Americans (and me) in this article about smear campaigns targeting us.” Screenshotting his post and sharing it on Twitter, while tagging Keshap, I stated, “Former US Ambassador Atul Keshap posts, on Facebook, the latest attack on me. His reason? Well, he’s mentioned in it. Ambassador Atul Keshap likely will remember me, as I’m the reason he’s no longer in the US Diplomatic Service after I ran a campaign against him for meeting with the RSS.”

“That claim might sustain your business model, but I gave more than half my life in federal service and decided 28 years of duty was enough,” responded Keshap.

Keshap’s 8 September 2021 meeting with the RSS, which he himself publicized through official US.government channels as a “great discussion” with the chief of the paramilitary, prompted at least a month of sustained backlash. In a webinar organized days after the incident, six Indian-American groups unanimously condemned it. Beginning 15 September, he faced protests in three different states demanding his resignation and alleging that he “whitewashes [the] fascist RSS.”

On 22 September, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Asia Advocacy Director John Sifton, in a US Congressional briefing, compared Keshap meeting the RSS to if the US ambassador to Germany in 1933 had attended a Nazi rally at Nuremberg — which did not, of course, happen. On 25 September, a coalition letter signed by 10 Indian-American groups demanded his resignation. On 30 September, US Congressman David Trone warned, “By engaging with RSS officials and discussing their ideology, the United States could lend legitimacy to this controversial group and further jeopardize the communities that the RSS has targeted.”

Keshap left the diplomatic service within, at most, four months after his RSS meeting. In early January 2022, he joined the private sector as President of the US-India Business Council.

“Ambassador Atul Keshap responds and denies that my sustained campaign demanding his removal from the diplomatic service for his RSS meeting had anything to do with his quiet exit just a few months later,” I noted on 4 May 2022. “But let the thinker gauge.”

Issuing a series of questions to the former ambassador, I publicly asked:

Ambassador, I have but claimed that your retirement came within months of a campaign demanding you be removed for meeting the RSS chief. I leave it to the thinker to draw from the timeline what they will. Either way, sad your last act was legitimizing a fascist paramilitary.

While we’re talking, Ambassador, please tell me why you met the RSS chief. Are you unaware of the allegations surrounding the RSS? Are you unaware of its Hindutva ideology? Are you unaware the very chief you met is accused of personally sanctioning anti-Muslim attacks?

And, moreover, Ambassador, why did you share a screed written by a right-wing pro-Iraq war cheerleader to attack me? Michael Rubin refuses to name the RSS-BJP’s US affiliates, like Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS; RSS’s international wing) and [Overseas Friends of the BJP; BJP’s international wing]. Do you think it’s okay for US politicians to associate with Hindu nationalist groups?

Like Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi keynoting an HSS event to celebrate the RSS’s founding while standing in front of a garlanded picture of [longest-serving and most influential RSS Chief MS] Golwalkar. Ambassador, what’s your impression of actions which endorse Golwalkar? Should we just shrug them off?

But, back to your own RSS meet, Ambassador. HRW’s John Sifton compared it to if a US ambassador to Germany in 1933 had attended a Nazi rally at Nuremberg. What’s Atul Keshap’s take? How is a Human Rights Watch leader off-base about this?

In conclusion, Ambassador, thanks for recognizing my US Constitutional right to question government officials. As you’re no doubt aware, my line of questioning here would probably get me arrested in BJP-ruled India today. Even Tweeting critically of RSS could lead to arrest.

In fact, even elected officials in India aren’t protected from retaliatory action for something as simple as Tweeting critically about the prime minister. Look at MLA Jignesh Mevani, arrested for Tweeting negatively about Modi. How do you feel about such incidents?

Final question, Ambassador: did the US State Department and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken directly sanction your RSS meeting? Did they suggest it or was it your own idea? Did you clear it with your superiors before meeting?

Ambassador Keshap replied: “For official acts of the [US Government], seek an official response from the USG, as per standing policy and procedure.”

In response, I wrote:

Ambassador Atul Keshap, who no longer works for the US government and departed his position within months of a campaign calling for his removal for his photo-op with the RSS, refuses to answer any of an extensive list of questions either about his meeting OR his personal views about RSS.

Certainly, as a private citizen no longer working for the US government, Ambassador Atul Keshap could freely discuss his views on RSS — if he wanted to. Many former US diplomats to India have discussed not only their personal views but even details of their official acts.

One is former US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. He wrote, for instance: “The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Association), or RSS, had been founded in 1925 on the principle that India could achieve national unity only on the basis of Hindu supremacy.” Strobe Talbott continued: “The position put the RSS in opposition to Gandhi, the founding father and guiding spirit of modern India…. When Gandhi died five months after independence at the hands of a militant affiliated with a Hindu extremist organization, officials of the Congress Party… accused the RSS of complicity in the assassination, and the Congress-led government banned the organization.”

Strobe Talbott added: “The RSS formed a political wing that subsequently became the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP.” Talbott also added: “The BJP included — and not just on its fringes — sectarian zealots who were implicated in incidents of communal violence.”

Talbott further added: “The party [the BJP] had evolved from the political wing of the RSS, the organization that rejected root-and-branch Mohandas Gandhi’s concept of nationhood based on diversity as a virtue of Indian society and inclusiveness as a necessity of Indian politics.” Talbott also added that there is an “RSS-backed and often RSS-instigated practice of tearing down mosques and burning churches.”

If former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott (who, by the way, like Ambassador Atul Keshap, served under a Democratic administration) could be so transparently critical of the RSS paramilitary, why can’t Ambassador Keshap talk about it? In fact, why did he do a photo-op with them?

Perhaps Ambassador Keshap has not bothered to read what preceding diplomats have written about their experiences in India? Ambassador Atul Keshap, what’s your perspective on what Strobe Talbott had to say? It’s not disclosing a USG official act for you to offer your personal opinion.

Keshap has, to date, remained silent in response to all such questions.

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Pieter Friedrich

Friedrich is a freelance journalist and analyst of South Asian affairs. Learn more about him at www.PieterFriedrich.com.