High Commissioner to India Barry O'Farrell and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Image: AAP, AP)

Barry O’Farrell, the former NSW premier who resigned over a bottle of Grange, is enjoying that most plum of post-political postings as high commissioner to India. He’s also been chumming it up with one of the country’s most notorious far-right Hindu nationalist organisations.

This week, O’Farrell met with Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a sprawling far-right Hindu nationalist volunteer paramilitary organisation with a membership in the millions. And he was full of praise for the RSS’s community relief measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is the RSS?

In recent decades, the RSS has gone from occupying the loony fringe to becoming a dominant force in contemporary Indian politics. It pitches itself as a seemingly innocent social group where members go to pray, do exercise and dress in absurd khaki shorts.

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But there’s more to it than that. Founded nearly a century ago, the RSS’ goal is to turn India into a Hindu nation. And that’s led to plenty of tension in a country which is officially secular and contains a large population of religious minorities.

Early RSS leaders were open admirers of European fascism. In the 1940s the group was briefly banned in India after one of its members Nathuram Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi (the organisation insists he had left).

Since then, the RSS has had its fingerprints on some of India’s most horrific moments of violence. In 1992, the RSS helped lead the demolition of a controversial mosque which led to pogroms that killed thousands. It was involved in similar anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2001, and in Delhi at the start of this year.

And in 1999, Australian missionary Graham Staines was burned alive along with his sons by a mob led by a man affiliated with the organisation.

So why was O’Farrell doing meeting with the RSS? A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson told Crikey the high commissioner “meets with a wide variety of social and political groupings as part of his role”.

“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,” the spokesperson said.

Barry’s Modi connection

O’Farrell’s meeting with Bhagwat is a sign of how the RSS has become a part of the Indian mainstream. Its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party, holds a big majority. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who cut his teeth in the RSS, has a lifelong affiliation with the organisation.

O’Farrell, meanwhile, has been close to Modi for a while. They first crossed paths when O’Farrell visited Gujarat, where Modi was chief minister, in 2013 and promptly announced a sister-state agreement. At the time, Modi was still banned from entering the United States because of his government’s involvement with the 2001 pogroms in Gujarat.

Before Modi was elected prime minister, O’Farrell praised his “pro-business philosophy”. He’s recently gone further, describing India’s prime minister as “almost superhuman”. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also courted Modi, if his social media posts are anything to go by.

Meanwhile, Modi has run India according to the ideological whims of the RSS. The country has become increasingly authoritarian, and anti-Muslim violence has surged.

Australia and India often make a big show of shared values — commitment to democracy, pluralism and the like. But in Modi’s India, that is starting to change.

Should Australia’s high commissioner be meeting with the RSS? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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