Atul Keshap with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat
U.S. acting ambassador Atul Keshap with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in New Delhi on Wednesday. Twitter/@USAmbIndia

“My constituents have raised concerns about our country fostering a relationship with the RSS and its leaders given the group’s painful history of violence and destruction,” wrote US Congressman David Trone (Democrat-Maryland) to immediate-past Acting Ambassador to India Atul Keshap on 30 September.

Trone’s letter follows weeks of swirling controversy provoked by Keshap’s 8 September meeting with the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an Indian paramilitary which is the mother organization of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and has been repeatedly implicated in acts of mass violence against Indian minorities, particularly Christians and Muslims. “As you know, the RSS has promoted principles of Hindu nationalism, an ideology which threatens the Muslim community and other communities in India,” wrote Trone. The congressman’s letter is historic as it appears to mark the first time that a federal elected official in America has specifically named and criticized the RSS.

The RSS, which originated as a contemporary of the fascist movements in Italy and Germany, adopted a xenophobic worldview that teaches that only Hindus have a birthright to full citizenship in India. The paramilitary’s founders as well as its earliest and most influential leaders variously visited Mussolini in Fascist Italy, pointed to the exclusionary and expansionist ideologies of the European fascist movements as a justification for their views, and praised Nazi Germany’s “purging” of the Jews as a good example of the supposed failures of multiculturalism. They described Muslims and Christians as “internal threats” or even “traitors” and demanded that they be stripped of citizenship.

The RSS has put this xenophobic ideology into practice in pogroms against Christians in Odisha in 2008, against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and also against Muslims throughout central northern India in 1992-93, as well as through terrorist bombings, assassinations, lynchings, and many other violent methods; this is not to mention its use of legislation — at times when the BJP holds either state or national power — to harass, corral, and disenfranchise non-Hindus.

“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,” warned Trone. “As a former member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I know how important it is that we conduct diplomacy with individuals and organizations across the globe. However, radical, nationalist groups pose a threat to the values of peace and tolerance that our country stands for and the secular principles the Indian government was founded upon.”

Keshap was appointed Charge d’Affaires, ad interim, at the US Embassy in New Delhi in June 2021, a position he held until 8 September. His meeting with the RSS chief was, quite literally, his final, official act as America’s Acting Ambassador to India. He has been replaced (as scheduled and unrelated to his RSS meet) by Charge D’Affaires Patricia Lacina; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has been appointed by President Biden to serve as Ambassador to India, but his nomination remains pending until confirmed by the Senate.

Trone’s letter to Keshap was preceded by a 25 September joint statement by 10 Indian-American organizations which demanded that Keshap resign or be removed from any position in the diplomatic service. The letter warned: “The nature of Keshap’s meeting with the RSS came across as a photo-op, it was public, and it platformed and promoted a violent, fascist (and many call it ‘terrorist’) organization which serves as the greatest enemy to religious freedom that Indian citizens face today.”

The joint statement followed remarks (made in a 22 September congressional briefing) by Human Rights Watch’s Asia Advocacy Director, John Sifton, who warned that Keshap’s meeting “sent a terrible message,” called it “disturbing,” and compared it to if the US Ambassador to Germany in 1933 had attended Nazi Party rallies at Nuremberg (which they did not do). Elsewhere, Keshap was protested in Sacramento, CA outside the offices of Congressman Ami Bera (who Chairs the Subcommittee on Asia, which influences US foreign policy towards India), six Indian-American groups denounced his visit in a webinar about the issue, and an online petition (which remains active) garnered over 3,000 signatures in support of the diplomat’s resignation or removal.

Trone’s letter to Keshap was first released by Sana Qutubuddin, a leading Indian-American Muslimah activist who is the founder of No Separate Justice. Qutubuddin, who had reached out to Trone’s office, thanked him for sharing his concerns “about the corrosive impact of normalizing relations with the RSS” and praised his “solidarity and leadership on the matter.”

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Pieter Friedrich is a freelance journalist specializing in analysis of South Asian affairs. He is the author of Sikh Caucus: Siege in Delhi, Surrender in Washington and Saffron Fascists: India’s Hindu Nationalist Rulers as well as co-author of Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Subcontinent. Discover more by him at PieterFriedrich.net.


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