New Delhi, Sept. 12: RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat today distanced his organisation from an army of online trolls that at times launches coordinated and vicious social media attacks against critics of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who follows some of them on digital platforms.
Trolling amounted to a "below-the-belt" attack, Bhagwat said, in response to a question at a breakfast chat with foreign ambassadors and diplomats of over 50 countries, organised by the India Foundation, a think tank run by BJP general secretary Ram Madhav.
Veteran Indian and foreign diplomats who have served in New Delhi said they could not recall any occasion when so many foreign envoys had gathered together to hear someone not from the government.
The ambassadors who attended the meeting spanned continents and ideological persuasions - from the US to Venezuela, and included most Indian neighbours.
The RSS - the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh - is the BJP's ideological parent, and three diplomats who attended the meeting today told this newspaper that turning down an invitation like the one today was not an option with the current BJP regime.
Two of the three also conceded they were curious about what Bhagwat would say to them, and one called the meeting a "welcome" opportunity to understand the thinking of the leader of an organisation that wields "unprecedented influence in India's governance".
For the BJP, the interaction offered an opportunity to "correct perceptions" of the organisation outside the country, where it is largely seen as sectarian and communal, leaders associated with the RSS said.
The meeting followed a rash of criticism for the Modi government internationally over perceptions of shrinking space for dissent in India, after the murder of senior journalist Gauri Lankesh, a known critic of the RSS and the BJP.
The police have made no arrests so far in the murder, but a group of online trolls - many followed on Twitter by Modi - either celebrated or justified the murder in the days immediately after she was killed.
"We do not support such activity," Bhagwat told the diplomats in response to a question in the context of the vitriol trolls spewed against Lankesh after her murder, according to diplomats who were present in the meeting. "That is striking below the belt and we don't believe in that."
The US embassy had in a rare statement condemned Lankesh's murder and linked it to freedom of speech. America's top diplomat for South Asia, Alice Wells, also referred to Lankesh's murder last week in a hearing before a subcommittee of the US House of Representatives.
Today, Bhagwat repeated several common claims of the RSS and the BJP. The RSS, he told the diplomats, was a social organisation that runs 1.7 lakh projects in the fields of education, health and rural development. He asked the diplomats to visit some of these projects.
"Bhagwatji's interaction with foreign envoys was a conscious attempt to reach out to correct the perception of the RSS," a Sangh leader said.
In response to a question on whether the RSS controlled the Modi government, Bhagwat said: "The Sangh does not run the BJP, and the BJP doesn't run the Sangh."
"As swayamsevaks, we consult and exchange notes but are independent."
But Bhagwat's claims of independence were belied by the public projection of his meeting with the diplomats.
The chief organiser, Madhav, is on loan to the BJP from the RSS. Sitting next to Madhav and introducing him to the diplomats was Jayant Sinha, junior civil aviation minister. A. Surya Prakash, chairman of the Prasar Bharati, India's public broadcaster, was live tweeting from the meeting.
Instead, today's meeting appeared to reinforce attempts at foregrounding the RSS as a key player of the current dispensation.
In the past, the chief of the RSS used to abstain, as much as possible, from appearing on public platforms.
However, since the Modi government has come to power, Bhagwat has often been seen appearing in or addressing public events and propagating the Sangh's views on key issues.