Human Rights Watch: US Ambassador’s RSS Meet “Troubling” & “Disturbing”

Original article here

Ambassador Atul Keshap’s meet with RSS’s Mohan Bhagwat “sent a terrible message,” says HRW’s Asia Advocacy Director

“Meeting with the head of a paramilitary, ideologically-driven organization that promotes extraordinarily racist and, some might say, even autocratic ideas, is highly troubling,” declared Human Rights Watch’s Asia Advocacy Director John Sifton in regards to US Ambassador Atul Keshap’s 8 September 2021 meeting in India with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Chief Mohan Bhagwat.

Sifton was speaking at a 22 September US Congressional briefing organized to urge President Joe Biden to focus his upcoming meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on concerns about human rights violations in India. “We should focus on things like, for instance, the US Chargé d’Affaires, Atul Keshap — acting ambassador — meeting with the head of the RSS,” said Sifton. Comparing Keshap’s meeting with the RSS to the US Ambassador to Germany in 1933 attending a Nazi rally at Nuremberg, he noted that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and “its ideological backbone, the RSS” are “essentially taking over” India and “making it a one-party state.”

“Meet with the leaders of the government,” he said. “You have to do that. That’s what diplomacy is. But that entire meeting sent a terrible message…. When there is a ideological organization that is either taking over a country and basically undermining its pluralism and democracy — or has done so already — and/or has used hateful, racist, or authoritarian rhetoric, it must be avoided because simply meeting is endorsing the idea that they have some kind of legitimacy in the Indian political world, in the Indian political system. That’s why it was so problematic.”

Keshap’s meeting has sparked increasing controversy, especially throughout segments of the Indian-American diaspora.

In a 12 September webinar, six Indian-American organizations denounced the meeting as “despicable” and a “very dangerous move” that “legitimized” a “fascist” — and even “terrorist” — organization and “disqualified” Keshap from any further diplomatic posting. On 15 September, a group rallied outside the Sacramento, CA office of Congressman Ami Bera (who chairs the House Subcommittee on Asia, which influences US foreign policy towards India) to protest Keshap as a “fascist enabler” whose RSS visit “stained [his] hands with the blood of Indian minorities.” An online petition calling for Keshap’s resignation or removal has garnered nearly 1800 signatures since it was launched on 18 September.

“The RSS is an armed, uniformed, all-male Hindu nationalist paramilitary which is implicated — including in reports from many US government entities — in acts of extreme violence against Indian religious minorities and others,” explains the petition. “Current RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat, with whom Keshap met and staged a photo-op, is himself accused by RSS members who committed anti-Muslim bombings of directly sanctioning their actions…. Since the RSS was founded, it has repeatedly put its xenophobic and genocidal ideology into practice with over a dozen large-scale pogroms against Muslims and Christians, terrorist bombings, lynchings, assassinations, etc.”

Sifton’s remarks — the latest development in the Keshap controversy — came on the eve of a three-day US trip by Modi, who is expected to meet with President Biden, Vice-President Harris, and others in Washington, DC as well as to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Calling Keshap’s meeting “so disturbing,” Sifton explained, “I bring it up because that’s what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about turning a page in the US government. Both Congress and the administration (and subsequent administrations) really making it clear, and sending a strong message, that they don’t like what’s going on, and that they don’t see a future and a partnership with a country that’s led not by democratic leaders but by, essentially, a party as opposed to democratically-elected leaders.”

Sifton’s full remarks on Keshap were as follows:

“I would focus, instead, on the far more problematic issue of the United States government — and other governments — essentially giving a pass to the fact that a political party, and its ideological backbone, the RSS, is essentially taking over a country and making it a one-party state.

“I think we should focus on things like, for instance, the US Chargé d’Affaires, Atul Keshap — acting ambassador — meeting with the head of the RSS. What was the purpose of that meeting? What was discussed? That was extraordinarily troubling that he would meet with somebody who plays a role in that organization — unless he was warning them, unless he was laying down an ultimatum, which it doesn’t sound like he was. It was an extraordinarily troubling meeting, and speaks to the fact that the US government is not in the right posture in dealing with the leadership of India such as it is. Instead of acknowledging what’s going on here, they’re essentially acting as thought it’s business as usual.

“Meeting with the head of a paramilitary, ideologically-driven organization that promotes extraordinarily racist and, some might say, even autocratic ideas, is highly troubling. Meet with the leaders of the government. You have to do that. That’s what diplomacy is. But that entire meeting sent a terrible message.

“I bring it up because that’s what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about turning a page in the US government, both Congress and the administration (and subsequent administrations) really making it clear, and sending a strong message, that they don’t like what’s going on, and that they don’t see a future and a partnership with a country that’s led not by democratic leaders but by, essentially, a party as opposed to democratically-elected leaders….

“Again, that brings me back to why it was so disturbing that a US official met with the head of RSS, and I want to be clear about what was disturbing. Obviously, US diplomats are entitled to meet with private actors. They meet with heads of political parties in countries, heads of opposition, journalists, musicians, you know, there’s cultural…. That’s ok.

“But when there is a ideological organization that is either taking over a country and basically undermining its pluralism and democracy — or has done so already — and/or has used hateful, racist, or authoritarian rhetoric, it must be avoided because simply meeting is endorsing the idea that they have some kind of legitimacy in the Indian political world, in the Indian political system. That’s why it was so problematic.

“It doesn’t matter if the US can say diplomats are entitled to meet with all parties or that we use the occasion to impress strong principles. If that’s so, the benefits were outweighed by the costs. The costs were far, far higher.

“Just to be clear, the United States does not meet with party heads in one-party states. The United States does not attend the Vietnam Communist Party’s General Assembly Jubilee, just as the US Ambassador to Germany in 1933 did not attend Nazi rallies in Nuremberg. You don’t do that. You attend, you meet with other people, you do not meet with one-party state party leaders. Meet with the government. Don’t meet with party leaders who have overturned democracy, and certainly don’t meet with them when they are spouting such hateful and dangerous rhetoric.”

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