Canada shouldn’t allow a movement out of India that “disseminates hate” and victimizes religious minority groups to entrench itself in this country, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the World Sikh Organization of Canada.
The report, called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Network in Canada, documents the roots of the RSS movement in India and its extensive global reach, promoting far right views in various ways.
“It’s one of the most influential organizations in the world,” said Steven Zhou, a spokesperson for the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
The council and the World Sikh Organization of Canada are trying to draw attention to what academics, including some in Canada, say they have witnessed for years — an increasing influence and threat from a movement closely linked to the government in New Delhi that they say promotes discrimination against minority religious groups at home and abroad.
“[The RSS] poses a major challenge to Canadian commitments to human rights, to tolerance and multiculturalism,” said Zhou.
According to the report, the RSS is at the core of a network of groups “seeking to remake India into a country run by and for Hindus first at the expense of the country’s dizzying slew of minority groups.”
“It’s … vital to keep in mind that the ideal nationalism projected by the RSS network victimizes not just ethno-religious minorities like Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, but also members of India’s lower caste Hindus.”
“It has domestic and international organs that seize political power, perpetuate its supremacist ideologies and actively participate in communal violence,” the report said.
In a statement posted on its website, the Canadian branch of RSS, HSS Canada, responded to the report, saying that it is “defamatory in nature and poorly researched.”
“These attacks are intended to provoke anti-Hindu sentiments and further give rise to growing Hinduphobia in Canada,” the statement said.
HSS Canada says its mission is to “preserve, protect and promote [Hinduism] through a variety of events and programs across Canada … without discrimination of any kind.”
The RSS website quotes its founder, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, saying it is “the duty of every Hindu to do his best to consolidate the Hindu society” and that its mission is to strive for “national reconstruction.”
Researchers say the ideology espoused by RSS is commonly known as Hindutva.
The Indian state has not always supported the RSS and Hindutva, banning it three times since its inception in 1925 as a paramilitary volunteer organization.
In an interview with CBC News in April 2022, Franco-Indian journalist Ingrid Therwath said the RSS network was founded on the principles of Italian facism, is ideologically similar to Nazism and was exported abroad by some in the Indian diaspora, said Therwath.
Therwath, who has been researching Hindu extremism for more than 20 years, said the first Canadian branch of the RSS’s international organization was established in Toronto in the 1970s.
Zhou, a former researcher with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network who has chronicled far right movements within diaspora groups, told CBC in a previous interview Hindutva is a superficial politicization of Hinduism and has led to discrimination and sectarian violence against minority groups in India like Muslims and Christians.
Human Rights Watch has also attributed religious and ethnic violence to groups that espouse the Hindutva ideology.
In December 2021, in the northern Indian city of Haridwar, Hindu religious leaders openly called for a genocide against Muslims at an event organized by right-wing and Hindutva-following leaders.
Violence against other minority groups like Sikhs and Dalits has increased in India in recent years, say academics. Dalits are members of a caste who do not belong to the social order, according to the caste system.
“There’s been an increase in different kinds of hate crimes,” said Shivaji Mukherjee, an assistant professor specializing in South Asian political violence at the University of Toronto-Mississauga. He said those crimes are increasing at a time when the current government — with extensive links to the RSS — is enjoying an overwhelming majority.
“Now that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come to power, it’s easier for these groups to increase violence, to fulfil their political and social agendas.”
‘This is not a fringe ideology’
While the RSS has existed for decades, Mukherjee said it has been emboldened to take violent action based on its ideology in recent years by the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP with a majority in 2014.
According to multiple media outlets, the RSS has an estimated membership of more than five million worldwide, including Modi and the majority of ministers in his government.
“This is not a fringe ideology. This is the state ideology, ” said Jaskaran Sandhu, a board member with the World Sikh Organization of Canada.
Academics have documented and noticed an increased attempt to challenge and silence criticism by supporters of the BJP and the RSS and Hindutva movement since the party came into power.
In December 2021, Sanjay Ruparelia, an associate professor of politics and Jarislowsky Democracy Chair at Toronto Metropolitan University, organized a talk by prominent Indian politics researcher Christophe Jaffrelot hosted by the Toronto Public Library.
Ruparelia said he received hundreds of emails from individuals urging organizers to call it off and for the library to ban the event because it was “anti-Hindu.” Academics say this kind of action can be attributed to those who support the views of the RSS.
“It’s an attempt to silence them, to undermine their legitimacy,” Ruparelia said, pointing out anyone engaging in debate about the Indian government or its views is automatically labelled by these supporters as “anti-Hindu” or “Hinduphobic.”
Ruparelia said he knows of many academics who have been harassed and intimidated online by these people based on articles they’re writing and events they’re organizing.
“It’s trying to shut down debate. It’s trying to curtail freedom of expression.”
RSS operations in Canada
The report on RSS highlights how the movement is operating in Canada, including through political lobbying and through seemingly benign cultural organizations that have charitable status.
In India, the report says, the RSS operates an India-based NGO called Seva Bharati, which operates health-care units, disaster relief efforts and education in the country’s underserved areas.
Overseas, Sewa International provides these services and fundraises for these services around the world, according to the report.
It also says RSS operates overseas through an organization called Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) that perpetuates Hindutva ideologies in the Indian diaspora, including in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. The report says HSS has held events on Hinduism in some Ontario public schools.
Through the report, the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the World Sikh Organization of Canada are urging the federal government to “carefully study and track the growth of a movement that disseminates hate here in Canada.”
The report also calls for action from the Canadian government.
“Canadian leaders cannot allow individuals and [organizations] that push a Hindutva vision of India — a supremacist vision that discriminates against minorities and has led to mass bloodshed — [to] entrench themselves in this country, perpetuate their supremacist ideologies and radicalize relations between large faith-based communities,” the report’s authors wrote.
However, critics say Ottawa has stayed largely silent and complacent as it attempts to foster an economic relationship with India as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy, launched in November 2022 to enhance trade and engagement in that region.
“They’re valuing trade deals and strategic relationships … rather than actually upholding values that are important to Canadians,” said Sandhu, with the World Sikh Organization of Canada.
Several academics use Nepean MP Chandra Arya raising what appears to be the RSS flag on Parliament Hill during Hindu Heritage Month last November as an example of why they’re concerned.
The event prompted professors from several Quebec universities to pen a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explaining why the flag was problematic. A separate letter was sent by community and cultural groups like Hindus for Human Rights and the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.
In an emailed statement to CBC News on Wednesday, Arya said the 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 or individual can claim ownership or exclusivity to it,” he said.
As India is projected by the United Nations to be the most populous country in the world this year, and the fastest growing economy in the next two decades, the world needs to pay attention to its human rights record, said Ruparelia.
“What happens in India has a great impact in the world,” he said. “[That’s why] the erosion of democracy that we’ve seen in India is deeply concerning.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada told CBC News “promoting human rights has always been at the core of our foreign policy” especially as India is set to host the G20 in September.
“Canada will continue to engage with India on issues related to security, democracy, pluralism and human rights.”