A new report purports to shine a light on how a Hindu nationalist movement has become entrenched in influential circles in the Indian diaspora in Canada and how politicians at all levels have been drawn into its sphere.
The report, commissioned by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the World Sikh Organization, focuses on the operations of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a paramilitary volunteer organization. The RSS is based in India, but has a flourishing global network.
Supporters of the RSS adhere to an ideology known as Hindutva, which espouses the idea of India as a Hindu-first nation. The report points out that the founders of the RSS admired Nazi Germany’s attempts to “keep up the purity of race and culture.”
“It is a vision that is supremacist at its root and relegates the minorities of India into second-class citizens,” says Steven Zhou, a spokesperson for the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
“The RSS is one of the most powerful, non-governmental groups in the world, and its influence extends into Canada,” Zhou said.
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Other than a few media reports of the harassment of academics who are critical of Hindutva, little is known about how the RSS works in Canada.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and concerns about Chinese political interference drive Canada to deepen its relationship with India, the organizations behind the report say Canadian officials need to be aware of the depth of RSS influence on the Indian diaspora in this country. India is also the chair of the G20 this year.
LINKS TO PARAMILITARY GROUP ACCUSED OF HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES
The 60-page report puts forth its explanation of the origin of the RSS, and its influence on India’s government. Drawing from 145 academic and journalistic sources, the report purports to trace the RSS connections to prominent Indo-Canadian charities and lobby groups. Zhou says the report took nearly two years to complete.
“The people who believe in this or are connected to this network are Canadians. They are pushing a set of interests around this idea of Hindunationalism which is remaking India into a country for, and run by Hindus first and foremost,” Zhou said.
In India, the RSS is more than just a religious or cultural group. Academics who study South Asian politics also consider the RSS a paramilitary organization and its members now hold the highest office in the land.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the governing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are part of the political wing of the RSS.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Hindu-nationalist government is continuing its systematic discrimination and stigmatization of minorities such as Muslims, Sikhs and Dalits – a group of people belonging to the lowest strata of the Hindu caste system. HRW says the party’s supporters are committing more violent attacks on targeted groups.
“The type of human rights violations and extremism that is associated with the RSS is very much an ideology that’s not at the fringe. It is the state ideology at this current juncture,” says Jaskaran Sandhu, spokesperson for the World Sikh Organization. Sandhu says Canada can’t ignore India’s human rights abuses as it pursues greater economic ties with its fellow democracy.
Meanwhile the NCCM says it has raised concerns about the RSS network with elected officials at all levels of government. It is calling on the federal government to ban 13 Indian politicians from entering Canada who have called for violence against Muslims.
CHARITIES AND LOBBYISTS
The report alleges that RSS supporters in Canada form civil society organizations to promote the Hindutva ideology and use ethnic media to amplify their nationalist views.
According to the report there are 17 RSS chapters operating in Canada under the name of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) as registered tax exempt charities. On its website, the chapters promote yoga classes and cultural events. In Ontario, some of the addresses of the chapters correlate with public schools. Co-author Sandhu, says sanghs have been asked to put on educational events for students.
Sandhu says the outreach they conduct “try to erase the Sikh identity” in subtle ways such as producing educational materials that present Sikh scriptures as Hindu.
Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) Canada, the charitable arm of the RSS in Canada, has addressed the claims in the report in a statement posted on its website.
HSS Canada says it is an independent, “wholly Canadian charity that serves Hindu Canadians and Canada based on the values of Hindu Dharma.”
“HSS Canada runs programs and community service projects to benefit all without discrimination of any kind,” reads the statement.
It calls the report commissioned by the NCCM and WSO an “attack on Hindu organizations in Canada” that “utilizes discredited propaganda materials.”
INVITATIONS TO INDIAN POLITICIANS
The report’s researchers also point to RSS influence on several Indo-Canadian lobby groups including the Canada India Foundation
Researchers behind the report also allege the RSS has influence on several Indo-Canadian lobby groups, including the Canada India Foundation, which describes itself as a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan organization that aims to “foster bilateral relations between Canada and India.”
The CIF website also prominently displays black tie gala photos of its executives posing with Ontario Premier Doug Ford and two federal cabinet ministers, Mary Ng and Helena Jaczek.
Between 2020 and 2022, the foundation invited two BJP parliamentarians to speak at a webinar to encourage investment in India. The report reveals that one speaker, Anurag Thakur, India’s minister for finance and corporations at the time, was previously criticized by human rights advocates for inciting angry Hindu mobs to attack Muslims in January 2020. He was invited to speak to CIF after making the inflammatory comments.
The other Indian politician invited by the CIF to speak to the diaspora was Pratap Chandra Sarangi, a junior minister in Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet responsible for animal husbandry and small and medium enterprises. Sarangi was previously the leader of a hardline right-wing group. Members of his group were convicted of killing an Australian Christian missionary two decades earlier.
In an emailed response, the CIF said that the two Indian ministers were invited to speak because of their government positions and the role they can play in furthering the bilateral relationship between the two countries.
“We have no point of view to offer on their political antecedents as alleged… Neither is it our job to differentiate our guests according to their past histories. We were talking to them as the Official Representatives of the Government of India, with whom Canada has a very long and cherished relationship,” the statement said.
The CIF says since its inception in 2007, it has worked with public figures and thought leaders from Canada and India from “various political dispensations.”
“We scrupulously avoid turning these events into political discourses. Instead they largely focus on relevant topics like bilateral trade, immigration, industry forums, holistic medicine and philanthropic activities.”
CONTROVERSIAL FLAG RAISED ON PARLIAMENT HILL
To mark the start of Hindu Heritage Month last November, Liberal MP Chandra Arya, hoisted a saffron flag in front of the Peace Tower. Critics say the flag is associated with the RSS and is offensive to Canadians with ties to the minority groups targeted in India.
In a letter to the prime minister, 17 civil society groups including Hindus for Human Rights condemned the raising of what they called a hate symbol that represented ongoing violence towards minorities in India.
The letter stated that the flag was not a celebration of Hindu culture, but promoted an ideology which “advocates for Hindu majoritarianism and Hindu supremacy, much like White supremacy here in North America.”
CTV News asked Arya if he supported Hindutva or the RSS.
The Ottawa-area MP responded in an email that he raised a flag with a religious sacred symbol, similar to other flags flown from Hindu temples.
“The Aum flag raised on Parliament Hill represents the Hindu faith and does not represent or indicate support for any political organization or ideology. This auspicious symbol belongs to all Hindus and no country or organization can claim ownership or exclusivity to it.”
Arya also said that he has been targeted by anti-Hindu and anti-India groups since hoisting the flag.
Sandhu, who sits on the board of the World Sikh Organization, says the terms “anti-Hindu” or “Hindu-phobic” are being used to dismiss any criticism of Hindutva and India’s Hindu nationalist government.
“They’re trying to silence critics of India. It’s bizarre positioning because many people have issues with how India is operating and how it treats its minorities.”
With the release of the report, Zhou said he hopes other politicians will make careful considerations when it comes to the RSS.
“Our report is the first stab at this issue. We want our elected officials to read it and understand why it poses a challenge to our social fabric,” said Zhou.
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