Why Did a US Envoy Meet With the Head of a Fascist Militia in India? by Basav Sen

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

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the U.S. recently, attending the UN General Assembly session and meeting with President Biden. In spite of his government’s reign of terror against religious and ethnic minorities and dissidents in India, his U.S. hosts remained strangely silent.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Modi has committed egregious human rights violations against wide swaths of the Indian population. In just the two years since getting reelected in 2019, the government has changed naturalization laws to discriminate against Muslims and charged critics of this new law with sedition.

It has escalated the conflict in Kashmir, used pellet guns against peaceful protesters (which can cause serious eye injuries leading to blindness), and detained thousands (including children) without trial under cover of a complete news, landline phone, mobile phone, and internet shutdown that lasted seven months.

It has ignored the epidemic of horrific sexual violence in which Dalit women and girls (belonging to the lowest Hindu castes) are often targeted by upper-caste perpetrators.

Over the last year, the Indian farmers’ movement has made history as the largest protest movement ever. The government of India has responded by unleashing violence against the protesters, cracking down on journalistscovering the protests, and targeting the Indian youth climate movement for its solidarity with the farmers.

Far from expressing any disapproval of these horrors, Biden joined Modi in a commitment to “advance the partnership between the world’s largest democracies.” The fact that India is well on its way to full-fledged authoritarianism didn’t factor into Biden’s remarks in the least.

The meaningless platitudes in the official statement could be mere diplomatic niceties between nation states. But there may be more sinister factors at play here.

The Ambassador and the Brownshirt

Until September 8, the U.S. Charge d’Affaires in India was Atul Keshap. Shortly before his return to the U.S., he met with the head of the oldest existing fascist militia in the world, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

This meeting wasn’t remotely justifiable as a part of Keshap’s duties. The RSS is neither a part of the Indian government nor a formal political party. It’s an extremist organization with a sordid history of instigating sectarian violence, a fact acknowledged by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The violent acts attributable to members of the RSS include the assassination of Gandhi.

Yet the ruling BJP openly admits its close ideological ties with the RSS.

None of this could possibly be unknown to Keshap. Why then did he meet with the head of the RSS? Was it poor judgment, or evidence of his own Hindu fascist leanings? Or did it result from a cynical political calculation at high levels of the U.S. foreign policy establishment that the RSS was the de facto ruling faction in India, so the U.S. may as well start dealing with them?

We’ll never know the answer unless there’s an investigation into Keshap’s motives. And if there’s no investigation, suspicion of approval of this ill-advised meeting by higher levels of the U.S. government will only deepen.

Corporate Interests Over Human Rights

India has the third highest GDP in the world (taking purchasing power into account). It’s also the world’s second most populous country, with about one-sixth of the world’s population.

For multinational businesses, this makes India a lucrative export market and an attractive target for foreign direct investment (FDI). This isn’t hypothetical — India has the ninth highest level of FDI in the world. The U.S. is India’s second largest trading partner, and the second highest source of FDI.

Here’s a question for Biden: By befriending the Modi government and ignoring its abuses, has your administration knowingly elevated the economic interests of U.S. corporations over the human rights of hundreds of millions of Indians

Islamophobia and Sinophobia

The institutionalized Islamophobic policies of the Indian government are well-documented. Unfortunately, the U.S. is guilty of much the same.

Domestic surveillance programs in the U.S. targeting Muslims using “terrorism” as a pretext haven’t vanished under Biden; they have remained in place under four successive administrations since the enactment of sweeping new government surveillance powers in 2001. No one should be fooled by the mere absence of the overt Islamophobic rhetoric of the Trump era.

The convergence of security and counter-terrorism policies between the two countries is reflected in the commitment to a “shared fight against global terrorism.” This is a reaffirmation of pre-existing collaboration on “counterterrorism.”

It should be disturbing to anyone who cares about human rights that the country that invented the “war on terror,” which has entailed bombing several Muslim majority countries and spying on Muslims at home, is cooperating on “counterterrorism” with a country under an openly Islamophobic government.

Another arena of security cooperation between the two countries is the newly formed “Quad,” a grouping that also includes Japan and Australia. It’s evidently intended to counter China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region. This represents yet another example of the Biden administration’s ongoing saber-rattling on China.

India has its own regional power rivalry with China, and clearly the U.S. sees value in enlisting India into its anti-China alliance.

This isn’t to say that the common enemies identified by the U.S. and India are angels. China and the Taliban, to take another example, have their own well-documented histories of human rights violations. But rhetoric about “strengthening democratic values and institutions” from the U.S. and India ring hollow in the face of India’s slide into fascism. And the U.S. isn’t a paragon of democracy either.

Another question for Biden : Do you seriously believe your own rhetoric from your joint statement with Modi, or are you merely making an expedient alliance with an authoritarian government for your geopolitical ends?

The Petrostate and the Coal Republic

There’s growing evidence that climate change can’t be tackled effectively without phasing out fossil fuel production. But the U.S. is the world’s largest oil and gas producer, and India is the world’s second largest coal producer. Any joint India-U.S. statement about “galvanizing global efforts to scale up climate action” have to be seen in this light.

While the Biden administration doesn’t engage in Trump’s crude denialism, it has continued offshore oil and gas leasing and refused to block harmful fossil fuel projects such as the Line 3 oil pipeline. The construction of Line 3 has faced determined resistance from Indigenous peoples defending their land, water, and culture. Governments from the local to the federal have responded with a violent crackdown.

The Modi government in India has waged its own repression against Adivasi (Indigenous) peoples resisting extractivism.

It has auctioned land for expanded coal mining, disproportionately in  majority Adivasi areas. It has promoted increased coal production as “self-reliance,” which I have noted elsewhere is “a possible prelude to characterizing opposition from the Adivasis and other impacted communities as acts of sedition.” That’s because Modi’s government has already (repeatedly) labeled dissidents and critical journalists as seditious.

Another question for Biden: Do the “shared values and principles” cited in your joint statement with Modi include digging up fossil fuels while paying lip service to climate action, and unleashing repression against Indigenous peoples who get in the way?

A Fundamental Continuity

In several areas, including relations with India, the difference between Trump and Biden is more stylistic than substantive. Unlike Trump, Biden doesn’t join Modi at Nuremberg-style rallies in Houston and Ahmedabad. But U.S. complicity in India’s human rights abuses continues, without Trump’s bluster.

For those in the U.S., there’s not much we can do directly to confront the RSS and its political front in India. But the least we can do is hold the U.S. government’s feet to the fire for aligning with one of the most dangerous authoritarian regimes in the world.

Basav Sen directs the Climate Justice Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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