Australia’s High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell met this week with the leader of the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary group which has been implicated in large religious riots and other acts of extremist violence.

The former NSW Premier met with Mohan Bhagwat – the RSS Sarsanghchalak, or Chief – at the group’s Nagpur headquarters, to discuss its response to the coronavirus pandemic in India.

However, the paramilitary’s bloody history of extremism has caused outrage.

The Hindu-nationalist paramilitary, which has explicitly drawn inspiration from both the Nazis and the Blackshirts, has been implicated in countless deadly riots against Muslims and other non-Hindus, and has even been associated with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

“I met with Sarsanghchalak Dr Mohan Bhagwat who shared the relief measures the [RSS] has adopted across India during these challenging times,” O’Farrell said in a tweet on Sunday.

It’s an unusual choice for Australia’s top diplomat in India to meet with the leader of an extremist, nationalist paramilitary, and one which could have serious ramifications.

Dr Meera Ashar, Director of ANU’s South Asia Research Institute in Canberra, told PEDESTRIAN.TV that the meeting “displays a lack of textured awareness of the Indian social and political landscape.”

“The RSS, from its moment of inception, has voiced admiration for Hitler and others. The role of the RSS in anti-Muslim pogroms is well documented,” Ashar said.

“This [meeting] is something that needs to be remedied immediately if Australia is to have a successful political and economic partnership with India in the long run.”

In addition to countless acts of violence against Muslims, Christians and others in India, a mob affiliated with the RSS was also responsible for burning Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons to death in 1999.

A spokesperson from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told P.TV that O’Farrell has been meeting with many different groups during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Australia’s High Commissioner to India, as do all our Ambassadors and High Commissioners, meets with a wide variety of social and political groups as part of his role,” a spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Recently, Australia’s High Commissioner to India has met representatives from a range of religious groups, including Muslim and Sikh leaders, to discuss the role they have played in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

However, the RSS is far more than just a benign religious group like DFAT implied.

“The RSS ideology is one of Hindutva, a modified, politicised and, one might even say, distorted version of Hinduism,” Ashar said.

“The RSS deploys Hindutva for political mobilisation and gain and has less in common with religious groups and more in common with extremist political groups.

“After all one of the main thinkers of the RSS movement, V. D. Savarkar, was rather uninterested in religion itself.”

RSS paramilitary volunteers at a parade in Jahangirabad in 2015. (Getty Images / Hindustan Times)

Now, people in both Australia and India are calling O’Farrell out for meeting with a religious extremist leader in the first place, regardless of the purpose.

In India, secular Facebook page The Humanism Project published an open letter to Scott Morrison calling for the government to disavow the RSS.

“It was a matter of great anguish and disappointment for us, and for many Indians who believe in the above shared values, to see the Australian Envoy to India providing legitimacy to RSS, an organisation that never made any secret of its love for Adolf Hitler,” the letter read.

“Mr O’Farrell’s attempt through his tweet to portray the RSS as some kind of benign group of do-gooders does not deflect from the fact that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is an organisation dedicated to the idea that India was and should be a Hindu nation, and that Hinduism’s followers are entitled to reign over India’s religious minorities.”

Former Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon called the meeting “shameful” while former Greens candidate Alex Bhathal added that it was “quite shocking”.

On top of that, activists and journalists in India and abroad also spoke out about the meeting from across the political spectrum.

The incident has drawn comparisons to when German Ambassador Walter Lindner met with Bhagwat in 2019, which continues to spark outcry in both Germany and India to this day.

Now there’s even a petition calling for O’Farrell to resign.

The RSS paramilitary claims to have used its connections to India’s ruling party and mobilised its 6 million-odd volunteers in a grassroots response to the coronavirus pandemic, why is why O’Farrell met with Bhagwat on the first place.

“This does not negate its role as a chauvinist Hindu-right organisation,” Ashar said.

Image: Twitter / @AusHCIndia