Terming the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh a “mass movement” in India, German Ambassador Walter Lindner said his visit to the RSS headquarters in Nagpur was part of his attempt to understand the “Indian mosaic”.
Speaking to The Hindu about the criticism he has faced over the visit, including one online petition that is calling for his resignation or recall, Mr. Lindner said he had visited Nagpur to review progress in the city’s Metro project which Germany has helped finance, and decided to also meet with RSS Sarsanghchalak (chief) Mohan Bhagwat. “I went to educate myself about the organisation,” said Mr. Lindner. “I had read very negative and very positive articles about it, everything from its social engagement to accusations of fascism, and I wanted to make my own impression. So I asked Mr. Bhagwat many questions.”
Mr. Lindner’s visit was considered unusual as very few foreign diplomats have made interactions with the RSS public, although a group of ambassadors had met Mr. Bhagwat in Delhi some years ago. In a tweet about his meeting, Mr. Lindner had written that the RSS, “Founded [in] 1925, it is [the] world’s largest voluntary organization — though not uncontroversially perceived throughout its history.”
Explaining the comment, Mr. Lindner said that as a German, he was conscious of the organisation’s history during the 1930-40s, including the inspiration some of its leaders had drawn from Germany’s Nazi movement and had discussed that with Mr. Bhagwat.
“I asked many questions on radicalism, and there are no simple answers to these questions,” the Ambassador said. “The [RSS] is one part of the mosaic that makes up India. You can’t deny that this is a mass movement and whether one likes it or not, it is out there,” he asserted.
The Ambassador’s visit to the RSS headquarters came in for criticism on social media, and led to an online petition filed by an American scholar on South Asia Pieter Friedrich, with more than 1,000 signatories who are demanding that the Ambassador “resign or be recalled.”
The Ambassador’s visit to Nagpur is part of a India-wide tour to various cities to discuss bilateral ties ahead of the biannual India-Germany summit expected in October or November this year, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel will travel to Delhi. At the top of the bilateral agenda is trade, and reviving the India-European Union (EU) talks on a Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA), which has made very little progress since 2013, despite several attempts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ms. Merkel to give it a fillip.
“India and Germany believe in rules-based free trade, and we have an interest in making the agreement work. I think the new leadership at the European Union will help kickstart the process of the BTIA,” said Mr. Lindner, referring to the recent election of former German Defence Minister Ursula Von der Leyen as European Commission President. She and former IMF chief Christine Lagarde head of the European Central Bank, who will take over later this year. “India and EU need to identify the stumbling blocks in the talks and build a timeline for their resolution,” he added.
Germany is India’s most important trading partner in the EU and its sixth most important trading partner worldwide. As a result of the impasse on BTIA talks, India-Germany trade has been pegged around $20 billion despite the potential for more, say officials, with about 1,700 German companies active in India, about 200 Indian companies active in Germany and more than 600 Indo-German joint ventures in operation.
Known for his prolific presence on Twitter, Mr. Lindner, who presented his credentials in May, has been most famous thus far for his championing a cherry-red Hindustan Ambassador car over the more sophisticated German marques like BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and Audi. Fondly referred to as “Auntie Amby” by Mr. Lindner, the diplomat sees the car as part of what he called soft “empathetic” diplomacy.