Imam Malik Mujahid (IMM): US Ambassador Atul Keshap is a temporary ambassador to India. He is Indian–American. He has met the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — RSS, that is — its chief, Bhagwat. That’s a serious issue, but it seems to have not created any noise in America. It’s like American ambassador in Germany meeting Hitler before he came into power. But in this case, RSS is the power in India. They are behind a whole lot of lynching and oppression of minorities, but American ambassador just goes and meet with them without creating much news in America, although India is talking about it.
He is real power because the Prime Minister and the President of India are members of RSS; have been involved in killing Muslims and other minorities before. RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, is provided the highest level of security in India. What’s going on here? To discuss all of this with us is someone who keeps an eye. He’s a human rights activist. Pieter Friedrich, welcome to Muslim Network TV.
Pieter Friedrich (PF): Hi, Malik, thank you for having me.
IMM: Tell us what’s going on in India nowadays.
PF: Well, there’s almost too much to tell. The situation in India — especially since the Modi regime came into power and got back into power for the past seven years, but particularly for the past two to three years — has significantly deteriorated.
You might be able to say that there’s no longer any pretense of even recognizing or protecting human rights. Civil liberties have been virtually stripped away at this point — if not in law, certainly in practice. Activists, academics, social workers around the country — from the majority population, many of them — have been framed and arrested in false conspiracy cases.
Muslims are being lynched across the country for things such as being accused — falsely or otherwise — of transporting or possessing beef, or even, in the latest spate of cases, simply for working while being Muslim. Alternative media outlets around the country have been repeatedly raided by various bureaucratic departments in order to harass and intimidate them. And we’ve just seen, and we’re continuing to see, rather faster than normal (particularly over these past couple of years), this progression under the Modi regime towards a Hindu Rashtra (or Hindu nation) where various steps, various major key points of the platform to create a Hindu Rashtra have emerged over the past couple of years with the annexation of Kashmir, the verdict on the Babri Masjid destruction of 1992, the approval of the courts to proceed with building a temple over the ruins of that mosque which was destroyed — that masjid which was destroyed — by a RSS-led mob, of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the related National Register of Citizens (which essentially premises Indian citizenship on religious basis), of anti-conversion laws, of so-called “Love Jihad” laws (which are designed to prevent interfaith marriages, particularly marriages of Hindus and Muslims), and so on and so forth.
It’s a very sorry situation.
IMM: So, this RSS chief and American ambassador meeting — do you think American ambassador was not aware of who he’s meeting?
PF: Well, that’s absolutely impossible. Certainly Ambassador Atul Keshap, who met with RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat on September 8th, must have known who he was meeting. Certainly any diplomat of that level would be fully briefed and informed about the people with whom he or her are meeting before the meeting. On top of that, Keshap is a career, lifelong diplomat in the US State Department. He’s also of Indian origin. He certainly, as anybody of Indian origin who follows Indian politics remotely, today (which, as the acting ambassador to India, at the time, he certainly would be expected to be following Indian politics), anyone in that position would absolutely know what the RSS is.
IMM: So, let’s talk little bit what RSS is. Acting ambassador probably knows pretty well, must have lot of memos about it…
PF: I would say certainly knows, not probably.
IMM: So, for our audience who may not have any idea what RSS is, could you please define and explain a little bit?
PF: Yes. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (or RSS) is the parent organization of a family of organizations called the Sangh Parivar. It’s the mother organization. It is a paramilitary with about 6 million members and multiple subsidiaries which have millions of their own members. It’s the fountainhead of Hindutva (or Hindu nationalism) — this religious nationalist political ideology which treats non-Hindus in India as foreigners and which seeks to turn India into a theocratic Hindu nation. It was founded in 1925, around the same time that the European fascist movements in Europe were developing.
And it has direct connections — both ideologically as well as in actual practice at the time — to those European fascist movement led by people like Mussolini and Hitler. Its founders at the time (in the 1930s, 1940s, as the Nazis were sweeping across Europe with the assistance of the fascists in Italy), the founders of the RSS pointed to the Nazis — pointed to those fascists in Europe — and identified their ideology as one that they wanted to mimic and imitate and spread in India. They also even actually visited Europe and met with Mussolini, toured his fascist groups there, and then returned to India, and pointed to the RSS, and said that they wanted the RSS to be exactly like those fascist groups that they saw under Mussolini in Italy.
Furthermore, they notoriously called out the “purging” of the Jews conducted by Nazi Germany (the Holocaust or the actions leading up to the full Holocaust), they pointed that out as what they saw as a “good lesson” to “learn and profit by” and to imitate. Now, who did they want to imitate it with? In the case of the Nazis, the Nazis were targeting primarily Jewish people. In the case of the RSS, they primarily target Muslims and Christians. They view Muslims and Christians as members of “foreign races,” as an “internal threat,” or, in so many words, as “traitors.”
And, over the years since the RSS was founded in 1925, it has carried forth that ideology, put it into practice with over a dozen pogroms against Muslims and Christians, terrorist bombings, lynchings, assassinations, etc. And, today, where we see the RSS is we see the RSS in power. It is the power behind the throne — the throne being Modi and his BJP regime. The BJP is essentially the political wing of the RSS. It was founded by the RSS.
The vast majority of cabinet ministers in Modi’s cabinet are members of the RSS. Of course, Modi himself (the Prime Minister), the President (as you’ve mentioned), the Home Minister of the country, Amit Shah. All of the most powerful people in the country are RSS members, and the BJP openly and unashamedly — repeatedly throughout the seven years of the Modi regime — holds these summits, these meetings with the RSS to consult on policy, to consult on its agenda going forward, and to essentially, one might argue, take orders from the RSS.
IMM: So the American ambassador, when he decided to meet the RSS chief, don’t you think some might consider it’s a legitimate issue because he is the real power?
PF: Well, you know, that’s a good point. Now, yes, the RSS is the power behind the throne. And as, in this past week, I’ve spoken with representatives from a number of different Indian-American diaspora organizations who have all denounced this visit, most of them called for the resignation or removal of Ambassador Keshap. However, some of them have acknowledged and pointed out that they do not fault the US for meeting with the RSS. As you mentioned, as I’ve said, it is the power behind the throne, and it makes sense in some kind of way.
However, the nature of the meeting is particularly troublesome.
This was a public meeting. It was essentially a photo-op. It was reported on by the Ambassador as a “good discussion” with the RSS chief about the values of diversity, inclusivity, pluralism and democracy, all of which are values and principles which the RSS stands — in ideology and in practice — diametrically opposed to. So, it makes sense, with the nature of geopolitics today, with the nature of the US-India relationship, with the nature of the world, that the US would want to have some kind of communication and contact with the RSS; just as with the Taliban, or (if it was possible) even with ISIS, I would say, or with North Korea, or with any other country — any other terrorist group even — even in the world. However, the way in which this was done, where it came across as a photo-op, it was public, it platformed and promoted this fascist (and many call it “terrorist”) organization, and appeared to legitimize, normalize, and whitewash them — that’s what’s deeply concerning.
I would argue, particularly as an American but also as somebody who’s an expert on this topic (and also in listening to the concerns and the opinions of Indian-American diaspora representatives), that what should have been done and what I even would hope would be happening is that the US should be in touch with the RSS — behind the scenes. This public meeting essentially glorified the RSS instead of simply doing what I would hope my country would be doing, which is staying in touch with them, keeping an open back channel.
IMM: You know, the USCIRF (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is sort of a congressionally-established body), they have been recommending that India should be declared a Country of Particular Concern and there should be sanctions on India. And, of course, this has been ignored by the Trump administration — now Biden administration. But, during the Trump administration, no American ambassador, although he was a political appointee, is known to have met RSS chief, which, as you say, public meeting is sort of an endorsement or acceptance and enrichment altogether. Do you think Biden administration is willing to ignore each and everything in competition with China?
PF: Well, that’s an interesting question. And, as you mentioned, under the Trump administration — you know, the Trump administration was bad enough, certainly vis-a-vis the relationship with the Modi regime. Trump was notoriously intimate friends with Modi. Trump platformed and promoted Modi at the “Howdy, Modi” event in Houston, Texas in 2019. He participated in an event in India — in Gujarat — where Modi was platforming and promoting Trump. They had this nefariously symbiotic relationship, but the Biden administration took things a step further and they platformed and promoted the RSS itself.
And so under the Biden administration, you know, it’s very concerning.
I would say we have to be careful about being lazy, and complacent, and thinking that simply because Trump is out of office and Biden is in that we will somehow see a magically altered relationship between the US and India under the Modi regime. The same people are in the bureaucracies. The same people are behind the scenes in the civil service. I have a feeling that many of them are directing US foreign policy.
Now, you bring up China, and, you know, it’s important to remember that India is not the only country in the world, certainly, which has a troubling human rights situation, which has stripped away civil liberties. China is a perfect example of that. It is one of the most authoritarian, tyrannical countries in the world. One of the major differences, however, is that in the case of China, there is no pretense of it being a democracy. We know that China doesn’t have, on paper, any protection for human rights and civil liberties for its citizens. We don’t expect it to. So the way in which we develop our relationship and engage with China is with our eyes wide open and full awareness of that.
Similar situation with Russia. We know Russia is an authoritarian nation which is a de facto dictatorship. The whole world knows that.
However, in the case of India, most people — particularly in my country, the United States — seem to have their blinders on and seem to be very distracted by the fact that India is, in name, a democracy. In practice, a democracy. However, it is at this point, a failed democracy which has developed into an authoritarian nation. It’s on the path to a situation for its citizens which would be comparable to that in China. It’s certainly, I would say, it’s already on level with Russia, if not surpassed that. And the problem with India is that people are so distracted by the fact that India is a democracy that they overlook what’s actually happening on the streets in reality and in practice.
IMM: And as you talk of these streets, I mean, it’s an everyday thing which nobody seems to care. Just this morning, I started hearing about Harsh Mander, a human rights activist who, because of Modi’s massacre, left the Indian Administrative Services and had become a human right activist. His offices, his home, everything is raided and nobody seems to care. But how does, on the street, RSS operate? Because when Trump was visiting, in Delhi, a dude named Kapil Mishra, who is a little politician in the city, is video-graphed giving ultimatum to police officer who is standing next to him: “If you’re not going to take care of the protesters, we will take care of them.” And he did! 53 people died! But USCIRF and everybody ask for these sanctions on India, but people like Kapil Mishra survive. So how do they operate? How do we know that Kapil Mishra is a member of RSS? Is RSS guiding? Or they have become a movement in which different actors act on their own?
PF: Well, certainly, as you mentioned, Kapil Mishra, member of the BJP (I believe he’s a state-level politician in Delhi), he was there. He was delivering this fiery, radical, inflammatory speech, essentially calling for violence on the streets against protesters who were protesting CAA and NRC. And that turned into a pogrom in Delhi in February 2020. And, in that pogrom we saw a repeat — we saw mirrored — the same pattern that we saw in 2002 Gujarat Pogrom under Modi when he was the Chief Minister of that state.
We saw the police linking — joining hands — with the mob. And, in the case of Delhi, police were even accused in many cases of going door-to-door, smashing down doors and pulling out victims from inside the houses, handing them over to the mob to be beaten or killed. In the case of Gujarat 2002, we saw police similarly participating. And we have to remember that the RSS has been in existence since 1925, and it’s been for decades now — the people who have been reporting on, documenting the activities of the RSS have been warning us that the RSS has had a decades-long project to infiltrate the ranks of all levels of society, particularly bureaucracies, civil service, the police. That began in Gujarat. The RSS infiltrated the police and stacked the ranks of the police with RSS members.
Now, as far as how the RSS operates on the streets. In 2002, they were accused, the mob was accused of being in possession of such things as lists of voters which helped them to identify minority-owned — or Muslim-owned — homes and businesses and specifically go after them and target them. How did they get ahold of these? They got ahold of them through complicity of the government — the BJP-ruled government. The RSS works hand-in-hand with the BJP and they have a symbiotic relationship where they assist each other.
In the case of Kapil Mishra. Now, I don’t believe, from all of my research, he himself is not actually a member of the RSS, but we have to look back at this pattern. Before Kapil Mishra, in January 2020, there was Cabinet Minister Anurag Thakur. He was also on the streets. He was also speaking to a mob of people. He was calling for people to “shoot the traitors” — in his words. There was this pattern where these BJP members from various levels of government were on the streets, they were urging people to engage in violence, and to go and basically conduct a pogrom. This pogrom, those implicated in the actual violence, are RSS members or members of RSS-affiliated groups.
IMM: So tell me, Pieter, I mean, comparing with China and India, do you think RSS is essentially acting as Communist Party in China would?
PF: Well, I suppose it depends on how you mean that, but the RSS and the BJP appear to be well along the path towards establishing India as a one-party state, which certainly is the case under the CCP. The RSS-BJP regime is repeatedly targeting its critics. It’s going after anybody who offers any kind of opposition, any noted or famous activists or academics — people such as Harsh Mander — who stand up and call out the BJP-RSS and its radical, Hindu nationalist agenda. It is, as far as the situation goes in relation to the protection of human rights, the protection of civil liberties, the right to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom to publish, freedom to dissent, freedom to demand redress for grievances from the government, freedom of religion, freedom to be free from unreasonable search and seizure (all these basic civil liberties that we value in the free nations of the world), it is on track to strip those away completely. It’s already pretty much gotten to that point. So yes, I would compare the situation under the RSS-BJP as on the same path towards what we see under the CCP.
IMM: Well, thank you so much, Pieter, for your time. Totally appreciate your thoughts.
PF: Thank you very much, Malik.
Friedrich is a freelance journalist and analyst of South Asian affairs. Learn more about him at www.PieterFriedrich.com