The New Jersey city of Newark was caught in an embarrassing situation in March 2023. Just two months previously, the city signed a “sister cities” agreement with the United States of Kailasa, but when the truth finally emerged after the 12 January 2023 signing, the embarrassment was two-fold: not only is Kailasa a fake nation governing no territory, but its founder and self-appointed “prime minister,” Nithyananda, is a rape-accused swami absconding from India.
It’s unclear what first red-flagged the situation for Newark. Perhaps it was the late February 2023 appearance of a colorfully clad Kailasa representative at a United Nations meeting, where she somehow managed to slip in to protest the persecution of the “supreme pontiff of Hinduism.” When that incident made international headlines, maybe Newark officials recognized her as the same person who had accepted their “sister city” agreement: a turbaned woman wearing a saffron sari, one arm bared to reveal a garish tattoo of Nithyananda’s face.
According to Nithyananda, Kailasa is the world’s only “sovereign Hindu nation.” Despite the overtly Hindu nationalist ethos of the fake nation, however, Kailasa has managed to secure at least 30 or more recognitions by American cities over the past few years, not to mention acknowledgements by a member of US Congress, the capital of Sierra Leone, and even the Prime Minister of Canada. Yet, within the US, where it has apparently been the most active, Kailasa’s pseudo-diplomatic rampage exposes a far deeper problem: other much wealthier, older, and far more genuinely powerful Hindu nationalist organizations throughout the country have similarly duped naive American politicians over many years.
The Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh’s American branch (HSS-USA) tops the list.
It’s easy to point and laugh at what happened in Newark. To date, however, most media outlets seem to overlook the underlying gravity of the situation. Around the US, politicians stand willing and ready to award recognition to practically any organization which approaches them requesting it, no vetting apparently ever required, and, upon gaining it, even the most illegitimate of organizations can begin to establish a veneer of legitimacy.
“The plan, in a basic sense, relies on the fact that most cities and government entities are pretty liberal in handing out proclamations, and Kailasa happily promotes its victories on social media,” reported New York Magazine. Such proclamations, whether to Kailasa or anyone else, are typically solicited by the celebrated organization. As the spokesperson for one duped American city noted, “More often than not, requests are accommodated.” Noting that they usually give up to two dozen such proclamations a month, the spokespersonexplained that, when Kailasa approached them with a stack of previous recognitions, it made them look legitimate.
In other words, until the point at which its con job faced widespread exposure, the pile of proclamations Kailasa had amassed was worth far more than the paper it was printed on. In a sense, these recognitions represented a small-scale version of a fledgling nation finally receiving diplomatic recognition from a major world power – or the UN itself.
Such, once again, is the case with the HSS-USA.
Unlike Kailasa, however, the HSS-USA is not “fake,” but rather a real — though deeply problematic — organization. It is the American wing of India’s nearly 100-year-old paramilitary, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the parent organization of the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The RSS-BJP combined are ideologically devoted to an ethnocentric, Hindu nationalist vision for India — one, however, which the RSS’s corollary in the US does not lead with when soliciting support from local governments.
The HSS-USA — like Kailasa — has benefited greatly from the ignorance and naïveté of American politicians who are all too willing to sign off on official proclamations. Recognition, though generally considered meaningless by the city which grants them, carry deep significance for the recipient organization. As these otherwise worthless proclamations stack up at an astonishing rate, HSS’s credibility in the eyes of American elected officials expands exponentially.
For years, HSS-USA has approached American city and county councils, in particular, to solicit proclamations recognizing a wide variety of things: an annual (in January) “yogathon” by the HSS (which is separate from the UN-recognized International Day of Yoga in June), Raksha Bandhan (an otherwise benign Hindu festival in which sisters tie a “protection bracelet” around their brothers’ wrists — but which, when celebrated by HSS-USA, typically involves doing the same with local police and fire departments), “Hindu Heritage Month” recognitions (which invariably include promotion, within the text, of HSS-USA specifically), and more.
This tactic, however, is now getting noticed.
“Although the HSS has received proclamations for various reasons, the vast majority are for its Yogathon events,” reported by The Nation in April 2023. “For the last four consecutive annual Yogathons, the HSS has received 439 proclamations.” Invariably, “the group itself drafted the text of the proclamation.’
As the outlet reported, it “reached out to more than 80 congresspersons, state representatives, and mayors, speaking with 15, and found that in most cases, proclamations are awarded to the HSS without a background check.”
Not a single one of the elected officials contacted by the outlet was aware of the HSS’s links to the RSS. In other words, cities and counties around the US are frequently passing proclamations platforming and praising the HSS with apparently total ignorance of the credentials of the group. Apparently, no one in any of these cases ever bothers even taking five seconds to Google the HSS!
Further exposing the system, some cities have even passed proclamations for both the HSS and Kailasa, even recognizing the latter after being informed about the former’s ties to the RSS.
On 17 November 2021, Roseville presented the HSS with a “Hindu Heritage Month” proclamation. On 15 December 2021, I attended the city council meeting to warn officials that the HSS is “serving as an international support base and propaganda mouthpiece for the RSS’s fascist agenda.” Exactly a week later, Nithyananda’s Facebook account published an official “City of Roseville Certificate of Recognition” acknowledging the “Sovereign of the Sovereign State of Kailasa.” The certificate highlighted Nithyananda’s “global humanitarian contributions to Hinduism.” Twice in two months, the same city was duped into platforming and praising dubious groups simply, it seems, due to a failure to do even basic research.
A few miles from Roseville, Folsom is a more recent example of a city falling for the HSS scam. On 28 February 2023, the city passed a proclamation recognizing HSS’s “Health for Humanity Yogathon.” The proclamation specifically called out HSS as a “nonprofit organization with over 235 branches in 164 cities” and praised the group for its “community service.” Its verbiage – both about HSS and the yogathon – was practically identical to that used for previous such proclamations in neighboring cities.
Contacted for comment, a Folsom spokesperson was coy.
“No,” they could not discuss the research conducted on HSS before granting the proclamation. It was given, they said, “to highlight the significance of yoga as an ancient Hindu practice.” They were (but only because my questions brought their attention to coverage in The Nation) aware that three neighboring cities had recently rescinded identical resolutions, but could not comment on it.
This is not to single out Folsom or Roseville – or, indeed, even Newark – but rather to expose a chink in the armor that should surround and protect secular democracy in America. In the apparent interest of maintaining an equal opportunity open door policy to all citizens, and upholding a pluralistic ethos that welcomes and celebrates all that is good in humanity, these cities have neglected to filter out bad actors who can and do use these local governmental platforms to their own less than honorable ends.
In contrast to Roseville and Folsom, three of their neighboring cities did, in fact, become the first few in the nation to retract their proclamations after learning about the HSS’s antecedents.
Manteca, CA – an hour south of Folsom and Roseville – led the way in August 2022. Lathrop and Elk Grove immediately followed suit.
The retraction process at Manteca, in particular, vividly illustrated just how much the HSS apparently values these proclamations.
It was a swift process. After HSS critics (including myself) raised the issue at a regular city council meeting, the city convened a special meeting just two weeks later to consider retraction. When HSS supporters got wind of it, approximately 75 of them mobilized to attend in protest. As Manteca ran a hybrid meeting permitting public comments both in person and via Zoom, perhaps another 40 called in to oppose retraction.
The city’s solution to the whole matter, once evident, provoked outrage from these HSS sympathizers.
After briefly considering amending the proclamation to remove references to the HSS, the city decided to instead fully retract it since it not only praised the HSS but was also given to them. In return, the city proposed to pass — from itself — a proclamation recognizing the International Day of Yoga (which is in June) rather than the Health for Humanity Yogathon (a distinctly HSS event in January).
Yet the HSS supporters appeared aghast. Several of them became visibly disturbed, started standing up, and even cried out in protest. “No,” they seemed to say, “we don’t want you recognizing yoga unless it includes mention of the HSS.”
Their reaction, combined with the massive number speaking against retraction (an estimated 4-1 against versus for, judging by the list of nearly 60 speakers recorded in official minutes of the meeting), indicated the immense importance – to the HSS – of these city proclamations.
Just like Kailasa, the HSS routinely “happily promotes its victories on social media.” Just as reported about that fake nation, the large and growing stack of prior proclamations that the HSS can present when approaching new cities does much to “make the group seem legitimate.”
Yet, just as with Kailasa, if American cities relied on a bit of basic research on Google rather than the face value claims of the HSS, they would swiftly discover a truth which would almost certainly compel them to close off the group’s official access to these local halls of political power.
That truth is that, just as Gandhi was being assassinated by an RSS member in India in January 1948, a group of RSS members emigrating from the country founded the HSS to be, in the words of its founder, a “Sangh expansion overseas.” Rather than the “Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh” (National Volunteer Corps), they called it the “Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh” (Hindu Volunteer Corps) because it was based outside India.
Today, the HSS — which exists in perhaps 100 or more countries — is especially entrenched in English-speaking nations like Australia, Canada, the UK, and, of course, the US. Just as at most RSS meetings, the HSS’s meetings typically feature, on stage, garlanded photos of the first two chiefs of the RSS. Every five years, the RSS hosts India-based training camps for HSS members from around the world. Not only does the HSS regularly host tours of its chapters by senior RSS leaders, but many of its teaching sessions are also reportedly conducted by visiting RSS members. Moreover, the HSS’s Global Coordinator is a full-time RSS worker.
Data collated from a wide variety of sources — including RSS-approved researchers, Indian diaspora media reports (usually put out by HSS sympathizers), and HSS social media — confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that the HSS is linked to the RSS. Aside from the legal distinction between the two entities, in practice, the HSS and the RSS appear to be one and the same thing.
The HSS is, in short, the international wing of the RSS.
In that context, the most important lesson the Kailasa con job can teach us is that the naïveté and negligence of American elected officials can have real world consequences. These officials seem to assume that every organization soliciting their support is acting in good faith, as though no one requesting a governmental stamp of approval needs to be verified as legitimate before they get it.
With Kailasa, the outcome is, thankfully, nothing more than embarrassment — as well as mild amusement for those of us observing from the sidelines. Yet it’s a far graver situation when local governments are similarly hoodwinked into platforming and praising the HSS. While Kailasa is a fake nation holding no real political power, the HSS is the international wing of the world’s oldest, largest, and fastest-growing fascist movement: the RSS.
Through the BJP, the RSS has ruled India since 2014. Thus, although the HSS is probably betting on the likelihood that local American governments won’t realize it is the international wing of the RSS, every time these governments award the HSS a proclamation (or some other kind of recognition), they’re aiding and abetting — albeit inadvertently — the RSS-BJP’s ongoing and escalating implementation of an authoritarian, anti-minority agenda in India.
Ultimately, the Kailasa con job reveals how easily real harm can occur when these local governments so readily grant acclamation without double-checking whom they are acclaiming. “With little or no background checks, the HSS’s political outreach continues to yield results,” reported The Nation. Not only has HSS stockpiled hundreds of proclamations, but it has also — like Kailasa — been embraced even by members of US Congress. Beyond that, various state legislatures and governors have even applauded it in formal greetings, platformings, and resolutions. In fact, HSS’s infiltration into the US political arena has been so unnoticed and unopposed that an HSS-USA director was even appointed to a Department of Homeland Security role in 2022.
Yet, as the few cities which have now rescinded proclamations to the HSS demonstrate, enlightenment about its true nature as the international wing of the RSS can — and should — make it persona non grata for those enlightened.
Ultimately, as the truth spreads, many officials in the US at city, county, state, and federal levels will have to grapple not with the embarrassment endured by Newark but with a far deeper level of shame. Had they bothered to check, they could have avoided empowering the RSS’s international wing. The amends they must make when they learn the reality of what they have done ought to extend far beyond simply quietly backtracking. That’s the least they owe to the marginalized people of India who are being crushed beneath the boots of the RSS-BJP.
Pieter Friedrich is a freelance journalist specializing in analysis of South Asian affairs. He is the author of Sikh Caucus: Siege in Delhi, Surrender in Washington and Saffron Fascists: India’s Hindu Nationalist Rulers as well as co-author of Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Subcontinent. Discover more by him at PieterFriedrich.net.