The West's dangerous dalliance with Hindu extremists needs to come out from the shadows
At first glance, such a meeting may not seem unusual. France has been a vital source of military hardware for India for decades. And Uttar Pradesh - India's largest state - has plans to build a defense industrial corridor. But the state's chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, is no conventional politician.
Adityanath is a Hindu priest and the founder of a vigilante group, the Hindu Yuva Vahini. A potential successor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Adityanath represents the dark, authoritarian future of India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the potential for India to even move toward quasi-clerical rule.
Ironically, as France takes on a more muscular form of secularism at home, it seeks partnership with a fanatical Hindu cleric-politician who has not only railed against secularism, but also actively seeks to undermine it. Adityanath, for example, regularly holds official public forums - or "janata darbars" - at the Hindu temple where he is the head priest.
Adityanath's reputation as a firebrand preceded his rise to power and is precisely why the BJP chose him to run Uttar Pradesh. He was once jailed for inciting anti-Muslim riots and has openly called for "religious war"." And at a 2007 rally, a follower of his called for the rape of the corpses of Muslim women.
|Western governments have been muted in their criticism of the Modi government as human rights abuses soar|
The French envoy's meeting with Adityanath does not come out of a vacuum. It reflects growing engagement - and, to some extent, collaboration - between the western policymaking community and Hindu nationalist extremists, including leaders of the shadowy Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, the parent organisation of the BJP.
Founded in 1925, the RSS is the ideological, paramilitary fountainhead of a network of Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) organisations known as the Sangh Parivar. The thrice-banned group aims to transform India into a "Hindu rashtra" - an official Hindu confessional state where Christians and Muslims are at best second-class citizens.
Top BJP leaders don't always see eye-to-eye with the RSS, especially on economic issues. But the BJP remains the political front of the RSS. The BJP's ranks, including its top leaders like Modi, are filled with former RSS pracharaks - full-time workers who, after being indoctrinated with the group's ideology, serve the RSS and its many affiliates.
Some have argued that the RSS's influence has been weakened by Modi's charismatic strongman appeal. But, in reality, we are witnessing the "RSSification" of India under Modi.
Over 70 percent of the cabinet ministers in Modi's current government come from the RSS and its affiliates - up from 62 percent in the 2014 cabinet. And, armed with a parliamentary majority for the first time, Modi's BJP has systematically implemented the RSS's longstanding radical agenda, including the passage of an anti-Muslim citizenship law and the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque destroyed by BJP and RSS extremists. BJP-led state governments are now enacting legislation intended to ban or restrict conversions from Hinduism and marriages between Hindu women and Muslim men.
The BJP is also advancing the RSS's war on history. Across India, cities and landmarks with Muslim or Islamic names are being renamed and given names that are "Hindu". The BJP is also packing India's premier liberal arts university, Jawaharlal Nehru University, with RSS ideologues - part of a drive to institutionalise a revisionist, Hindu nationalist history of India.
Recognising the growing power of the RSS, western diplomats have stepped up outreach to the group. In November 2020, Australia's high commissioner to India met with Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, following meetings in 2019 between German and American diplomats and top RSS officials. The US consul general in Mumbai even visited the memorial of RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar, who described Muslims as "snakes".
Diplomatic engagement, of course, is not solely reserved for friends. Outreach to unsavoury actors is often aimed at moderating them or incentivising constructive behaviour. But, tellingly, western governments have been muted in their criticism of the Modi government as human rights abuses soar and India's secular, democratic edifice crumbles.
|India's Christians and Muslims are simply acceptable collateral damage in containing China|
And this is because the West sees India - even an authoritarian, Hindu majoritarian India - as an indispensable partner in the new cold war with China. India's Christians and Muslims are simply acceptable collateral damage in containing China.
Modi, who is 70 years old, remains ever-popular. But he will not rule India forever. With the political opposition in tatters, India's future appears to be in the hands of BJP and RSS. And so in courting the RSS and radicals like Adityanath, France, Germany, and the United States are currying favour with forces that are not only influential today, but may dominate India in the post-Modi era.
Collaboration with the RSS extends even into the non-governmental space. Think tanks in London and Washington partner with RSS-affiliated counterparts like the India Foundation. Yet, in their analyses, they rarely even mention the RSS - as if the group does not even exist.
This perhaps allows them to pretend that the BJP is just an Indian centre-right political party and not the political face of an ideologically driven extremist group with a history of violence.
Following the lead of their governments, major western companies are also dangerously enabling BJP and RSS extremism. The Wall Street Journal revealed last summer that to gain access to India's enormous consumer market, Facebook has turned a blind eye to violent anti-Muslim incitement by BJP officials. Facebook's WhatsApp is used by Hindu nationalist vigilante groups to mobilise deadly attacks on Muslims purportedly involved in the cattle industry.
|Major western companies are also dangerously enabling BJP and RSS extremism|
The rot goes beyond Facebook. Twitter's suspension of the account of a New York-based Indian journalist and Modi critic is just the latest indication that its content moderation system is under New Delhi's sway. BJP-aligned news outlets, including the ANI news service, use Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo News to disseminate disinformation on an industrial scale, as made clear in a new report by the EU DisinfoLab.
The pursuit of India's middle class also led Walmart to co-sponsor the RSS-organised "Howdy Modi" rally held in Houston, Texas in 2019. The RSS's economic wing advocates economic protectionism and has opposed foreign direct investment by Walmart and other companies in India's retail sector, arguing that they will hurt small retailers.
Power politics and the pursuit of profits are driving the West's legitimisation and enabling of the RSS and other Hindu extremist groups in India. But this engagement must come out from the shadows and be held to public scrutiny.
That scrutiny can begin in the US Congress, which should summon representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo and provide them with an opportunity to present a course of action to prevent their respective platforms from being used by the BJP, RSS, and other Hindu extremists to spread hate and disinformation and incite violence.
Congress has held numerous hearings on jihadist and white nationalist online radicalisation, as well as Russian disinformation campaigns. Now is the time for the spotlight to be put on India.
Arif Rafiq is a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, a political risk advisory company.
Follow him on Twitter: @arifcrafiq
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