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RSS Public Diplomacy2
By Itty Abraham & Samip Mallick
Friends: please find below some reactions to the talk by the RSS spokesman at
JHU-SAIS last week.  
The location of the event itself had to be changed to accommodate the large
number of people who expressed interest in attending.  Despite that, the room
was still filled to capacity, with attendees forced to watch standing in the
The talk was introduced by Sunil Khilnani, Director of South Asian studies at
SAIS, who while distancing himself from RSS views, justified holding the talk as
his responsibility to provide students with differing points of view.
The good news: Ram Madhav is loud, callow, and poorly informed from an academic
point of view.  He seemed to think that if he scored debating points (the kind
that make people laugh) he would ‘win’ the discussion.  His presentation was
typically mendacious and strung together a series of pseudo-statistics, built
around the theme of Geography and Demography.  In other words, the rate of
reproduction of South Asia’s Muslims and their threat to democratic and peace
loving Hindu India.  According to him, for example, Bangaldeshi intellectuals
now talk of Lebensraum (approx., ‘living space’ – Hitler’s line when annexing
Czech Sudetenland) in justifying illegal migration to India.  In my estimation,
and of those I spoke to afterwards, he came across as intellectually
unimpressive (but clever enough not to fall into any obvious traps), unaware of
the poor impact he was having, (note some egregious comments in response to a
question about women), and overall, did not put his case across well.  Its more
difficult to judge how he was seen by the “undecided” category, especially the
average SAIS/ American student.  But, based on their questions they seemed to
think this was just another talk – a contentious one perhaps – but not much
And that’s the bad news.  Based on this experience, if Madhav is allowed to
speak in front of US audiences without immediate and informed response to his
comments, those who are just curious may well go away thinking that the RSS is a
slightly nutty but basically benign organization.  In other words, the liberal
response, let all viewpoints be heard, works in the short run and doesn’t in the
long run.  In the short run, he did a poor job and we can go away thinking it
wasn’t that dangerous.  In fact, we’re just lucky that this time the RSS sent
around a kid; the next time, not only will they be able to cite the experience
of speaking to SAIS and Penn audiences to garner more speaking engagements, but
they will send around someone who presents their case far better.  
Indian journalists based in DC asked a number of good questions, especially the
correspondent from the Deccan Herald (about Hinduism) and Times of India (about
the absence of democracy and women in the RSS), but on the whole Madhav did more
damage to himself through his answers than was promoted by the questions. 
Further, he comes armed with a Hanuman’s army of well prepared volunteers, young
and old, men and women.  In the hour-long closed meeting RM had with SAIS
organizers before the lecture, he was accompanied by about 7 senior RSS members
from the larger DC area.  In all at least 30-35 RSS members and supporters came
to the meeting and proceeded to show their colors at once.  Their confidence was
unnerving to those who had not seen them in action before, and intimidated a few
into silence.  Before the talk began, they confronted 3 young activists handing
out fliers outside the building, proceeded to tear up their material, and
threatened them with arrest, deportation and more.  Having prevented opposing
views from being handed out, they then started handing out their own material in
the seminar room, pushing it on any one who looked a little curious.  One of us
(SM) had the misfortune of sitting next to a RSS cadre who recognized him as one
of the people passing out flyers outside the venue.  He spent a long time asking
personal questions: name, occupation, father’s name (!), etc., all with the
purpose, presumably, of making him paranoid.  Another RSS man made sure to
visibly write down the names of all questioners.  Still others found their names
being copied from the sign-in sheet.
 Anyone who asked a long question received hisses and shouts of “ask a question”
or “no speeches”, loud and angry comments greeted hostile questions, and one of
the RSS gang had a video camera running through the entire meeting.  If
possible, prevent the circulation of RSS materials and videotaping inside the
building/meeting room at Penn.  
I mention this in order to warn those of you who go to the Penn event, both to
be prepared for intimidation, and to be prepared to ask tough and difficult
questions.  Please cite numbers and statistics in your questions, to counter the
impression that Madhav gives of being factual in his comments.  For instance, he
cleverly used an SDPI (Islamabad) report which is very critical of Pakistani
school curricula to say, “see, even Pakistanis agree…”  There was a good
question about judicial reports naming the RSS as instigators in scores of
riots, but no follow up.  No one asked a direct question about Gujarat, about
the reasons behind the long ban on the RSS, its secretiveness, sources of
funding, and there should have also been questions about what the RSS is doing
in the US
In the end, however, they are cowards.  They move in packs and expect that
shouting and yelling will make most people back down.  If you don’t, they back
off, muttering and threatening all kinds of dire things, including calling the
cops, INS and who knows who else.  
Also, the chair of the meeting is crucial.  If the chair shows any weakness they
will both shout and intimidate, and play on the norms of good-meeting-behavior
to try and take it over completely.  Not suprisingly, these RSS thugs also come
prepared with soft ball questions aimed at generating a canned response, and act
in concert at the meeting.  Ideally, you want someone as chair who will not be
provoked or intimdated, and who is prepared to throw them out at the first sign
of disturbance.  
This event has generated a lot of controversy around the country and back in
India.  Notwithstanding my sympathy for the position that argues for allowing a
plurality voices, even unpleasant ones, to be heard, being liberal about the RSS
doesn’t fly.  The logic of the liberal argument rests on all sides buying into
its (explicit and implicit) norms and rules.  These illiberal thugs don’t, and
will take advantage of academic gentility to silence opponents in ways that are
politically effective unless countered at once.  I find the argument in the Penn
petition, that there are academic experts on the RSS who could be asked to speak
about the organization, adequate amd compelling.  I don’t believe we have any
need to give a public forum to these thugs and criminals in order to uphold the
values of free speech and open debate, and, I believe, there are real dangers in
doing so.