If China or Russia conducted an assassination on the territory of a U.S. treaty ally, one would expect calls in Washington for serious consequences. And if a representative of either government appeared at a public forum in the United States, he or she would face rigorous questioning.
Yet India is receiving no such treatment in Washington in the wake of revelations last month by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that his government had proof “agents of India” murdered a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil.
Instead, India — an important partner that is not and will never be a U.S. ally — is being treated with kid gloves even as it seeks to actively shape the elite discourse in the West and widen cracks between Western allies using tactics that include disinformation.
An increasingly authoritarian, Hindu majoritarian India with an active overseas killing and disinformation campaign needs far greater scrutiny in the West.
Jaishankar Does Washington
On Friday, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar spoke before the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington. Unlike most figures in India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Jaishankar is an articulate, worldly man.
Jaishankar holds a doctorate from India’s top liberal arts university. His four-decade career in the country’s foreign service culminated with postings as ambassador in Beijing and Washington and then as foreign secretary. He is multilingual and married to a Japanese woman.
In these and other ways, Jaishankar is the opposite of the typical BJP legislator. BJP members are more often than not local ruffians who entered the party through its extremist parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — a cadre organization built along the lines of the Nazi Party.
Through incitement to violence, actual violence, and criminal activity, it’s these folks who win elections for the BJP. Jaishankar is needed for the BJP to win the world.
Watch Jaishankar in action and you’ll see why he’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most powerful diplomatic weapon. He deftly alternates between deploying gravitas and pugnacity to command the respect of the powerful and disarm critics. But, increasingly these days, he is less pressed to labor. In the West, the game is being fixed in India’s favor.
The Hudson Institute is friendly territory for Jaishankar. For many reasons, one could say he has a home-field advantage there, given the tilt of its work on South Asia and funding. The BJP’s Rajeev Chandrasekhar, for example, was a Hudson Institute donor and trustee from 2018 through 2020 while serving in the Indian parliament.
Washington, more broadly, is friendly ground for Jaishankar. His son, Dhruva, runs the DC office of a state-aligned Indian think tank, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
The ORF is funded by Mukesh Ambani, an Indian oligarch whose wealth has surged during the Modi era. It partners with India’s foreign ministry to organize one of the world’s largest policy forums: the Raisina Dialogue. Senior officials and experts from across the world, including the United States, are flown in. The event and ORF fellowships are key tools in cultivating India-friendly voices overseas.
Walter Russell Mead, the moderator of the Hudson event, is emerging as an influencer friendly not only to India, but also to the BJP and RSS. He took unusual care to protect Jaishankar from difficult questions, limiting audience interaction to pre-screened submissions by email. Unsurprisingly, the first question concerned the Canada killing.
Mead took 35 seconds to ask the question. Jaishankar’s response lasted only two seconds. He simply said, “Sure, I think I answered that.” A compliant Mead replied, “You’ve answered it. Ok. We move on.”
Jaishankar and Mead had broached the assassination just moments earlier, but not in any way that was meaningful or even tasteful. After the two men made a few jokes at Canada’s expense, Mead then addressed the killing in a roundabout fashion, asking Jaishankar how Trudeau’s accusation has impacted U.S.-India relations.
Jaishankar responded not by denying an Indian hand in the killing, but only by saying that Trudeau’s allegation “is not consistent with our policy.” (The semantics give New Delhi the opportunity in the future to blame the killing on rogue operatives.)
Jaishankar then proceeded for the next few minutes to go through a litany of complaints about Canada, claiming that his diplomats feel unsafe there. During this exchange, neither he nor Mead mentioned the Indian-born Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the Canadian Sikh leader whose body was riddled with 36 bullets by agents of India.
Mead was also unchallenging on the issue of human rights in India, letting out a Freudian slip when he asked Jaishankar: “How would you try to shape the conversation…or how would you respond to some of the concerns people have here?”
Jaishankar’s reply was callous. He dismissed claims of human rights violations in India as the complaints of powerful, overprivileged minorities at home and in the West, using the dog whistle “vote banks” to describe them.
India’s ‘Discourse Power’ in the West
Like the Hudson event, the U.S.-India relationship is increasingly being scripted on New Delhi’s terms. India’s growing influence brings to mind the term “discourse power” — a common translation of the Mandarin term “huàyǔ quán” used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to refer to, among other things, its ability to shape the global conversation on China.
In Washington, India has been far more effective than China in commanding “discourse power.”
The BJP is radically transforming India, dismantling its secular edifice and replacing it with an expressly Hindu regime that pummels Christians and Muslims into submission through incessant hate, organized violence, and state coercion.
But Washington think tanks — including ones that host India-focused programs — rarely discuss the BJP’s human rights record let alone its Hindutva ideology and the networks behind it. Some experts shy away from these topics so much that they euphemistically refer to the BJP’s campaign to render Christians and Muslims second-class citizens as its “social agenda.”
Since its founding in 1925, the RSS’s aim has been clear: to make India a Hindu nation-state. To maintain full rights of citizenship, Christians and Muslims would have to outwardly embrace Hindu identity and rituals in violation of their religious beliefs.
In the 1930s, RSS leaders watched Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews with admiration, seeking to mete out the same cruelty to Muslims.
Since then, the RSS has grown into a vast network of groups, including a youth militant wing, an association of revisionist historians, and affiliates in the West.
In India today, the RSS is a state within a state. Over 70 percent of the BJP’s cabinet members, including Modi, come from the RSS. The group’s hold over policymaking is so powerful that it has taken on global giants like Monsanto and Walmart.
Yet the shadowy, powerful RSS largely goes unmentioned in Washington — even by U.S. experts who speak at RSS-affiliated think tanks. The reason? Doing so in an open setting would force discussion of the RSS’s radical aims and its influence over the BJP agenda. Ignoring the RSS allows India observers here to pretend that the BJP is merely a center-right party and not the political face of a violent, extremist movement.
But there are now signs the RSS is beginning to come in from the cold. And it is engaging — and in some cases, cultivating — Western voices like Mead, a scholar who has been associated with prestigious think tanks for over two decades.
The RSS’s Coming Out Party
Mead — the author of highly acclaimed books on U.S. grand strategy and the U.S.-Israel relationship — is now paying closer attention to South Asia. This year, he’s visited India twice and met with leaders and ideologues affiliated with RSS and other Hindu nationalist networks that dominate India today.
During a trip to India in March, Mead was joined by billionaire Harlan Crow, a major donor to the Hudson Institute and other conservative groups. (Crow is in the news these days for his generous patronage of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.)
Crow, Mead, and others in their group met with leading Hindu nationalist figures, including Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the extremist RSS.
Earlier this year, Republican megadonor Harlan Crow met with Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the Hindu nationalist extremist organization, the RSS. pic.twitter.com/bsViAwH9Ns— Arif Rafiq (@ArifCRafiq) October 3, 2023
Upon returning to the U.S., Mead argued in the Wall Street Journal that the West “need[s] to engage much more deeply” with the RSS, which he described not only as “a complex and powerful movement,” but also as “the most powerful civil-society organization in the world.”
There is nothing civil about the RSS. The thrice-banned organization has a long history of violence. Its leaders continue to make open calls for murder and its pracharaks (workers) — whom Mead later compared to the Jesuits — have taken part in the massacre of Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs for decades.
There’s a reoccurring pattern in Mead’s apologetics on violent Hindu nationalist groups. He makes oblique references to their inescapable history of hate and violence, which he then neutralizes with counterfactuals — generally BJP or RSS talking points — that falsely suggest these individuals or groups are changing for the better.
For example, Mead writes that his conversation with Yogi Adityanath — the fanatic Hindu priest and vigilante group founder who rules India’s largest state — “was about bringing investment and development to his state.” That may indeed be the face that Adityanath shows outsiders. But a simple Google search would reveal the face he is showing his own people.
Prior to becoming chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath was jailed for inciting anti-Muslim riots, called for a “religious war” with Muslims, and said Muslim women should be abducted to avenge Hindu women marrying Muslim men. As chief minister, he’s promoted the “love jihad” conspiracy theory that falsely claims that Muslim men woo Hindu women to trick them into converting to Islam. These days, he’s known as “Bulldozer Baba,” because of his government’s destruction of Muslim homes.
Adityanath has indeed promoted his state as an investment hub. But that has come alongside his campaign to marginalize Muslims — not in its place.
We’ve seen this exact type of rebranding campaign before. What Adityanath is doing is straight out of the Modi playbook.
How to Sanitize a Killer
In 2002, as chief minister of the Gujarat state, Modi presided over anti-Muslim pogroms that saw over a thousand people dead. Muslim men, women, children, and even the unborn were slaughtered in the most cruel and barbaric ways by workers of the BJP, RSS, and other Hindu nationalist groups as state police looked on. The magazine India Today condemned Modi as the “Hero of Hatred.” A British government investigation found Modi “directly responsible” for the mass killings.
Condemned across India and abroad, Modi led the BJP to victory in Gujarat in December 2002. In fact, the party has seen continuous BJP rule since then. Simply put, the hate and violence worked. Modi seized upon existing anti-Muslim hatred and used the pogroms to mainstream Hindu chauvinism. Today, the state’s largest city remains segregated, with Muslims confined to ghettoes.
Aided by the star power of crony businessmen Ambani and Gautam Adani, Modi used the biennial Vibrant Gujarat business forum to market himself as a pro-business reformer. He never apologized for the violence. In fact, Modi compared Muslims killed in the pogroms to a puppy getting run over by a car. He later rewarded leaders of violent mobs with government positions.
As Modi refashioned himself as a statesman, he left it up to his right-hand man, Amit Shah, to do the dirty work. And as prospects for Modi becoming prime minister grew, important voices in Washington, including former ambassador to India Robert Blackwill returned from trips to Gujarat to report that Modi was a changed man.
In reality, it is India that would change. More than a decade earlier, Modi’s supporters declared Gujarat the “Laboratory of Hindutva.” And with Modi’s ascent to the throne, the Gujarat model was applied nationwide.
Mead’s attempts to sanitize the image of Adityanath — a potential future prime minister — are alarming because he represents a more pernicious brand of Hindu nationalism that fuses priestly power with state and mob brutality.
Yet Mead writes that he left India “more hopeful.” Hindu nationalists, he claims, are motivated “less [by] antagonism against Islam than fear for the future of India.” He suggests that the RSS is pushing for a Hindu identity because this is only what can unite a diverse India.
This is absolutely not true. Anti-Muslim demonization remains at the heart of the BJP’s politics. Turn on an Indian news channel and there’s a good chance you’ll find a segment whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria. Each week, ordinary acts of Muslims are criminalized by the press and the police as part of some alleged conspiracy. All it takes is attaching the word “jihad” as a suffix to an ordinary act. When Muslims buy property in a predominantly Hindu locality, it’s called “property jihad.” And when a Muslim man falls in love with a Hindu woman, it’s condemned as “love jihad.”
Hatred of Muslims is what drives the BJP and RSS. It is their fundamental obsession. And so is the pursuit of power. Inciting hatred and violence toward Muslims has real political value. It’s how the BJP wins elections. Hindus are divided on the basis of caste and language. The notion of a pan-Hindu identity and a single Hindu religion are modern inventions. Caste remains the fundamental social identifier in India, determining who Indians marry and for whom they vote.
To get Hindus to vote across caste lines for a single candidate or party requires a uniting force. In India, that unifying force is the invented Muslim “enemy.” Ahead of elections, the BJP regularly incites Hindu-Muslim clashes to consolidate and reinforce the Hindu vote. Sadly, it works.
Modi has been so successful in consolidating the Hindu vote that he’s neutralized the Muslim vote. Muslim political influence in India is now at its nadir. Today, Muslims are roughly 15 percent of the population but only 5 percent of parliamentarians. As of mid-2022, there was not a single Muslim among the BJP legislators in any elected assembly across India.
Muslims have been rendered politically irrelevant at the national level. Bigoted slurs are now openly directed at them in parliament. And rarely does a week go by without a Muslim being beaten or killed for allegedly transporting beef. Their physical security is in danger.
Mead may have left India “more hopeful,” but few of the Muslims who remain in the country likely share his sentiment.
Time to Turn the Tables
Through its discourse power, New Delhi is setting not just the narrative about it in Washington, but also the terms of the bilateral relationship. This imbalance not only endangers minorities in India, it also gives New Delhi the space to engage in further actions that violate the sovereignty of Western liberal democracies, challenge their interests, and threaten the lives of their citizens.
Like China and Russia, India opposes Western primacy and is exploiting cracks in the Western alliance. Today, state-aligned commentators in India gloat that their country is more important than Canada to the United States.
Similarly, as Jaishankar mocks and bullies Canada, he’s become more effusive in his characterization of the U.S.-India partnership. Clearly, he’s trying to create a wedge between Ottawa and Washington.
State-aligned actors are also directing disinformation toward the West. Ludicrous claims by a former Indian diplomat that cocaine was discovered on Trudeau’s plane made their way into the tabloid Toronto Sun. Canada’s defense minister called the allegation “categorically false” and “disinformation.” A BJP official accused Trudeau of having a gay affair with the slain Nijjar. Indian news outlets have also tried to muddy the waters by claiming that the Sikh leader or his counterparts are U.S. or Canadian intelligence assets.
Hindu nationalist disinformation and hate speech are also fueling Hindu-Muslim conflict in multireligious immigrant communities in the West, including in Leicester, England, and Edison, New Jersey. Newer migrants bring with them Modi’s Hindutva ideology and its aggressive hate toward Muslims.
India is playing by its own rules both at home and abroad. It’s able to do so not because of its inherent strength, but due to the space the West has conceded to it.
Western liberal democracies must push back against an increasingly assertive, illiberal India. They can start by monitoring and responding to Indian state-directed and state-aligned disinformation and hate speech.
The effects of Hindu nationalist information warfare will be most profound in India. But what happens in India, won’t stay in India.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine. He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.