California city pressured to renounce Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh praise

Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the US wing of RSS | Photo: Clarion India

Roseville, California faces sustained pushback for platforming RSS’s international wing.

Pieter Friedrich |

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UNITED STATES — When Roseville, a quiet suburb of California’s capital city of Sacramento, platformed and praised the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) in late 2021, they were not only unaware that HSS is the international wing of India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary but also the embarrassment that their act would cause the city. 

On 17 November 2021, the Roseville City Council presented a proclamation to the Greater Sacramento branch of HSS which praised them for celebrating the festival of Diwali by renewing “their commitment to upholding values of truth, non-harming, and restraint through their thoughts, words, and actions.” The irony of applying such words to the HSS must have escaped city officials.

Yet as I noted when I attended city council in December 2021, the proclamation was presented “no doubt in innocent ignorance of the group’s ties to its parent organization, the violent RSS.” 

Explaining that the RSS has a track-record dating back to at least 1947 of “constantly and violently putting into practice its belief that Christians and Muslims, especially, are ‘foreign elements’ and ‘traitors’ to the nation who must be cleansed from the land,” I warned: “That the City of Roseville, albeit unwittingly, chose Diwali — the Hindu Festival of Lights which celebrates tolerance, compassion, and the victory of good over evil — as the occasion to honor the international wing of the most xenophobic and genocidal organization in India serves, unintentionally but tragically, as an insult not only to the countless victims of the RSS but also as an insult to the vast diversity and traditional pluralism of the Hindu religion itself.”

The city responded with silence.

My protest did not go unnoticed by the local HSS, however. They responded with outrage, returning to Roseville City Council on 19 January 2022 to defend themselves. “A politically-motivated individual made hateful and extremely inflammatory allegations on HSS,” complained a representative of the outfit. “The words used in relation to Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh like ‘fascism’ and ‘paramilitary’ are baseless, venomous allegations.” 

As per the HSS-RSS’s typical modus operandi, the HSS representative attempted to muddy the waters and move the goalpost. My remarks had — accurately — described the RSS, not the HSS, as a paramilitary with a fascist agenda. The HSS, I clearly explained, is the RSS’s international wing.

Reacting to the emotions expressed rather than relying on facts, Roseville Mayor Krista Bernasconi apologized to the HSS “for any hurt” my remarks “may have caused” and affirmed that the city continues to “stand by” the proclamation it presented the outfit.

So I returned to educate the city further. “It has now been over three months since the City of Roseville platformed and praised the HSS, which is the international wing of India’s deeply controversial RSS paramilitary,” I said on 16 February 2022. “That’s certainly enough time for this council to have sought and found answers to the only questions which matter: what is the HSS, what is the RSS, and are or are they not connected to each other?”

Noting that even the most basic research, such as a short internet search, quickly and easily reveals the HSS’s links to the RSS, I pointed out that multiple photos from HSS-Sacramento’s events — dating as far back as 2013 — reveal that, “just like the HSS in most of the rest of the world,” they routinely display garlanded pictures of the RSS’s earliest leaders. Most notably, that includes a picture of RSS’s longest-serving and most influential chief, MS Golwalkar, who notoriously “praised the Nazi treatment of the Jews as a model for the RSS to follow in India.”

The city council, however, appeared completely unfazed.

Yet their silence did little to benefit the city’s regional reputation. In response to their inaction, I had already begun visiting neighboring local governmental bodies.

“It’s easier to avoid a mistake than it is to apologize for one,” I told the neighboring City of Rocklin on 8 February. “Some very simple research could have helped Roseville avoid controversy. Considering that (and the strong possibility that the HSS may approach other cities in Placer County in their search for legitimization through governmental recognition), I am here, out of courtesy, to offer the fine City of Rocklin some precautionary background.”

Following, I extensively detailed for Rocklin how Indian media outlets, Indian-American journalists, academics, and even the HSS itself acknowledge the HSS’s foundational links to the RSS.

On 14 February, I expanded on HSS’s background when speaking to the City of Auburn, which serves as the county seat of Placer County, a mostly rural county which includes Roseville. “The HSS is the international wing of the RSS,” I said. “There is no denying that the two groups are connected. So what is the RSS?”

Answering that question, I cited multiple international as well as Indian scholars who all agree that the RSS is a paramilitary, is militant, is fascistic, and advocates for an “ethno-nationalist Hindu state” in India. I further cited major international human rights groups and an entity of the US State Department which all accuse the RSS of inciting as well as being directly involved in anti-minority violence.

From there, I wrapped things up on 22 February at the Placer County Board of Supervisors, where I examined why the HSS desires legitimization from local governments. 

“While the RSS’s cadres are doing the dirty work in India, the HSS in our country is doing its damndest to ensure that no one in America pays any attention whatsoever to the monster behind the curtain,” I warned. As I discussed how HSS stages rallies in America to support the RSS’s agenda in India, how its leadership backs US politicians who will also help serve that agenda, and how they were even crucial to getting their preferred candidates elected in India, I concluded: “Getting legitimized by local governments in America helps whitewash the HSS so that they can more effectively deny the reality that the RSS’s hands are blood-stained.”

And yet, the City of Roseville still maintained its silence in the face of the growing controversy over its platforming and praising of the HSS. So, returning once more on 16 March, I admonished the council: “The city, despite repeatedly being presented with incontrovertible evidence that the HSS is the international wing of India’s violent, Hindu nationalist RSS paramilitary, has steadfastly and stubbornly refused to admit that it made a mistake.”

HSS leadership played a pivotal role in electing Modi (an RSS member) as Prime Minister of India, despite the fact that he was, at the time, banned from the US due to his reputation as “the Butcher of Gujarat,” I explained. “The City of Roseville can no longer plead innocent ignorance about the true nature of the HSS,” I said. “Yes, it is the international wing of a violent paramilitary; and yes, it is also an outfit whose leadership engage in Indian political activities to back a politician whose hands are soaked with innocent blood.”

After speaking at Roseville City Council three times in four months, and advising three other local governmental bodies not to make the same mistake that Roseville did, one wonders just how much longer the city will maintain its silence.

“Roseville’s platforming and praising of the HSS has done nothing but indirectly enable and empower the RSS’s ongoing and expanding agenda of bloodshed in India,” I told the council. “It’s time the city admits that it made a mistake.”

No doubt the city fears the potential political fallout from backtracking on its endorsement of HSS. Would such fallout, however, be greater than the embarrassment the city now faces for not only embracing the international wing of a violent paramilitary outfit but continuing to stand by its decision? It’s impossible to say for sure, but one thing is certain: as long as Roseville, especially now it is fully aware of the true nature of the HSS-RSS, maintains its silence, it will continue to court controversy over the issue.


Pieter Friedrich is a freelance journalist specializing in analysis of South Asian affairs. He tweets at @FriedrichPieter