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.
The @RSSorg has been actively supporting the community during #COVID19. I met with Sarsanghchalak Dr Mohan Bhagwat who shared the relief measures the organisation has adopted across ???????? during these challenging times. pic.twitter.com/2LhniF2ven— Barry O’Farrell AO (@AusHCIndia) November 15, 2020
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.”
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”.
This is deeply shameful. Australia’s High Commmissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell visited headquarters of RSS, parent body to BJP. RSS publicly admire Hitler and promote a pure race ideology, extreme Hindu nationalism, for India. #ExposeModiCrimes #ExposeModiLies https://t.co/iyNva3JgWG— Lee Rhiannon (@leerhiannon) November 16, 2020
This is quite shocking @MehreenFaruqi @ScottMorrisonMP https://t.co/cLdTxx5rpr— Alex Bhathal (@alexbhathal) November 17, 2020
On top of that, activists and journalists in India and abroad also spoke out about the meeting from across the political spectrum.
The international community should do their own research and introspection towards what RSS really is instead of conflating it with Union of India. Many are doing their bit during COVID, no need to eulogize a Hindu supremacist organization whose ideologies killed Gandhi.
— Sanjukta Basu (@sanjukta) November 16, 2020
I've written to @AusHCIndia protesting about the Australian Govt giving legitimacy to the fascist org RSS thru the High Commissioner's visit on 15 Nov.— Saket Gokhale (@SaketGokhale) November 16, 2020
It's sad that Australia has forgotten that RSS-led Bajrang Dal killed Pastor Graham Staines & his 2 children in 1999.
(1/2) https://t.co/tN9QnpiWgX pic.twitter.com/Y6paZhh93o
How to buy legitimacy – RSS style.— Lavanya Ballal | ಲಾವಣ್ಯ ಬಲ್ಲಾಳ್ (@LavanyaBallal) November 17, 2020
Very disappointing @AusHCIndia @ScottMorrisonMP. How could you
Eulogise a Hindu supremacist organization whose ideologies killed Gandhi? https://t.co/QL21PAS8Rc
Here's Australia's top diplomat praising Hindutva fascist paramilitary organization RSS, which has a stated aim to do to Indian Muslims what the Nazis did to the European Jews. https://t.co/KUbfPHCzxM— CJ Werleman (@cjwerleman) November 16, 2020
Barry O'Farrell of @AusHCIndia visits HQ of Nazi-inspired #RSS paramilitary. RSS has a goal of exterminating non-Hindus from India & has acted on that goal w/many anti-minority pogroms. @dfat, is this the kind of tone-deaf foreign policy you encourage? #BarryMustResign! pic.twitter.com/xwCeITUB2M— Pieter Friedrich (@FriedrichPieter) November 15, 2020
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.