By Pieter Friedrich
Presumably ignorant of the group’s connections to India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary, mayors and vice-mayors of eight cities in California’s San Francisco Bay Area attended a 22 November 2020 event organized by the American branch of RSS’s international wing, Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh USA (HSS-USA).
Founded in 1925, RSS is implicated in approximately a dozen major anti-minority pogroms and countless smaller scale incidents of targeted violence — including the February 2020 Delhi Pogrom. Its earliest ideologues and leaders met Mussolini and compared RSS to his Italian fascist organizations, applauded Nazi Germany’s “race pride” for “purging the country of the Semitic races,” and compared Indian Muslims to German Jews. The uniformed paramilitary hosts up to 600,000 members in daily drills and boasts an estimated six million total members.
The California event, hosted online under the auspices of celebrating Diwali, featured HSS-North America President Ved Nanda. HSS is described variously as an “offshoot,” “affiliate,” or “overseas counterpart” of RSS — or simply as “RSS-supported” — and, emulating RSS, it almost invariably displays photos of the paramilitary’s founders at its gatherings. As one senior HSS executive stated in 2016: “Our soul is connected with the RSS. We take inspiration from it. The RSS is our role model. We seek its guidance on crucial issues.”
Such guidance may occur during the quinquennial global summit of HSS in India at which HSS members wear RSS uniform and hear from RSS leadership or during frequent tours abroad by RSS executives of HSS branches. In 2012, for instance, Suresh Joshi — now RSS’s second-in-command — spent three weeks touring half-a-dozen major US cities to give “renewed motivation and clarity” about RSS’s “philosophy” to HSS chapters. Among those who hosted him were Nanda as well as HSS-USA Vice-President Ramesh Bhutada, who lives in Houston.
Notably, congressional candidate Sri Preston Kulkarni suffered a major (and unexpected) political defeat in the November 2020 elections due in large part to his close ties to Bhutada.
Bhutada himself has close ties to the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP), the international wing of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP, which is itself the political wing of RSS. In August 2020, OFBJP-USA was compelled to register itself as a “foreign agent” and admit that it sometimes “acts under the direction” of BJP executives in India. Just like the RSS feeds the BJP with workers — once being described by a US Ambassador to India as the party’s “muscle power” — the HSS and OFBJP often share an interlaced membership. Chandru Bhambhra, for instance, is not only a former president of OFBJP-USA but also the HSS-Bay Area chapter’s former coordinator. His presence (or absence) at the 22 November event was not reported.
Regardless, the presence of so many local city leaders at an HSS event puts them in the position of cooperating with groups that definitely have foreign interests, may quite probably be subject to foreign influence, and are indisputably linked to a violent, supremacist foreign movement. As the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has explained, RSS advocates an ideology of “Hindutva,” which “holds non-Hindus as foreign to India.” As former South Asian Studies Senior Lecturer Amrit Wilson recently noted, “Hindutva is not Hinduism, it is fascism.”
Indeed, RSS is a paramilitary, not a representative of Hinduism, and while it’s delightful and necessary to see politicians embracing multiculturalism and pluralism by participating in, for instance, a Diwali event (whether or not they themselves are Hindu), doing so under the auspices of RSS’s international wing is little different from joining a Christmas celebration hosted by the Ku Klux Klan or an Eid celebration hosted by Hezbollah.
The event’s participants included Dublin Mayor-Elect Melissa, Fremont Mayor Lily Mei, Foster City Vice-Mayor Sanjay Gehani, Hayward Mayor Barbara Halliday, Livermore Mayor-Elect Bob Woerner, Newark Mayor Alan Nagy, Pleasanton Mayor-Elect Karla Brown, and San Ramon Mayor-Elect Dave Hudson.
Their participation can, in most cases, likely be explained as understandable American ignorance of the fundamental sociopolitical situation of India — as well as both the existence, significance, and sociopathy of RSS. However, the underlying purpose of HSS hosting such events under its banner is to normalize not only itself but its parent organization. Thus, by participating in such events, US elected officials become unwitting participants in an agenda to whitewash RSS itself.