Walter Lindner is the kind of ambassador foreign ministries would be desperate to appoint to an emerging power like India. He professes deep affection for the land and its people. As a young man he backpacked in India, wearing his hair long. He had gone on the Beatles trail, reaching the ashram of Mahesh Yogi, got photographed along a wall saying Jay Gurudev, and was among the Western youth numbed by the ennui of the material world and looked for meaning in life. His hair remains long today, tied in a neat ponytail.

As an ambassador, he drives around in an Ambassador, once the status symbol of netas and babus, the relic of the permit-and-licence-raj, until Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh unshackled the Indian economy in 1991 and swankier cars were seen on Indian roads (even if they drove slowly on potholed roads). Lindner calls his sedan “auntie Amby”. It isn’t colourless, like the sarkari white of those old times; it is a dashing red.

Lindner is a talented musician too, and he can play several instruments. In a recent interview with an Indian journalist, he demonstrated his skills with the piano and flute. Jazz is one of his passions. While presenting his credentials to Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, he spoke in Hindi, the most widely spoken language in India. He wants to understand India better – its DNA (as he put it in an interview), its soul.

Spiritual calm

He likes to walk around a spice market, and somehow in the mad traffic around him, he sees discipline which prevents accidents. He sees a spiritual calmness amidst chaos. John Kenneth Galbraith, who was the US ambassador to India during the Kennedy administration, called India a functioning anarchy. Lindner is too polite to use words like “anarchy”. With a straight face, he says that Indians function as Germans do, which would be news to the habitual rule-breaking society that India is.

And then he goes to Nagpur, to the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The RSS is a legitimate organisation in India today, but it has been banned three times since Independence in 1947. Those days belong to its past. It is at the moment at its peak – Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are members, as are senior ministers, parliamentarians and officials. The RSS exercises considerable influence over how the Indian establishment thinks, acts, and governs today, and it is encouraging the implementation of its vision of India, the effect of which would write over an earlier vision which made India a syncretic, inclusive republic.

In so doing, the RSS would like to redefine how Indianness is defined, which would make India a majoritarian state, mirroring the neighbour it claims to despise, Pakistan. The Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz put it right, when she chided India – you turned out to be just like us.

German ambassador Walter Lindner at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur.

To be sure, Lindner is right when he told a journalist that knowing what the RSS thinks is part of understanding the Indian mosaic, and diplomats should be well-informed. But what’s equally important is to be clear about what you think about RSS. In his tweet describing his visit, Lindner wrote: “Visit to Headquarters of RSS in Nagpur and long meeting with its Sarsanghchalak Dr Mohan Bhagwat. Founded 1925, it is world’s largest voluntary organization – though not uncontroversialy perceived throughout Its history…”

It might make you think as if he was visiting the Salvation Army. Diplomats should be cautious no doubt, but it isn’t as if Lindner is shy about expressing his views. He has criticised Iran’s support of the Hezbollah and has been candid about the British vote to leave the European Union. Lindner is unconventional and doesn’t like fuddy-duddy diplomatic niceties; he finds cocktail parties boring. But he is coy about saying what he discussed with Bhagwat.

There is much Indians and Germans can talk about their cultures. There can be a conversation on the Indologist Max Müller’s translations of the Upanishadas, or his understanding of the Brahmo Samaj and the reforms in Hinduism. But there is also a less pleasant link . One of Bhagwat’s predecessors, MS Golwalkar, admired a former, “not uncontroversial” German leader, Adolf Hitler in his book, praising him for injecting national pride in Germany, devastated after World War I.

There is also another Hindu nationalist, Balkrishna Moonje (who was associated with RSS’s founder, KB Hedgewar), who was impressed by what the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had achieved during his visit to Europe in 1931. In contrast, five years later, in 1936, Jawaharlal Nehru passed through Rome and Mussolini wanted to meet him; Nehru declined. It would be good to know if any of that came up in their conversations.

Grappling with the past

To understand contemporary Germany, it is true that one should understand what Holocaust-denying neo-Nazis, or politicians of Alternative fur Deutschland, the far-right party in Germany, are saying. But presumably Lindner would provide the statutory warning about what they represent. He would also, I suppose, suggest the Indian visitor go to the Jewish Museum, or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

It would also be important to know if he told the RSS about how Germany came to terms with its past. Of how the nation of Kant, Goethe, Beethoven, Schiller, and Schopenhauer turned into what Daniel Goldhagen chillingly describes as Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Did he tell Bhagwat what happened to musicians – jazz musicians included – who performed in Germany in the 1930s? Did he speak of the “wages of guilt” Germans lived with, as Ian Buruma explains in his pathbreaking interrogation of German guilt and Japanese shame after World War II? And how former chancellor Willy Brandt fell to his knees in 1970 at the Warsaw ghetto?

The RSS is not alone in admiring Hitler in India. Mein Kampf is a best seller in the country, and politicians including former Shiv Sena head Bal Thackeray and former Indian president Giani Zail Singh of the Congress have in the past made admiring remarks about Hitler. Tone-deaf Indian brands have used Nazi insignia, until there is an uproar in the west.

Subhas Chandra Bose met Adolf Hitler in May, 1942.

India’s lack of historical memory of the Nazi era is clouded by the role of Subhas Chandra Bose, the nationalist leader who in 1943 took over the Indian National Army, which was formed of surrendered Indian troops of the British Army that was defeated by the Japanese. He allied it with the Axis powers, met Hitler and wanted to liberate India from British rule using force, in marked contrast to Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience movement. Bose was unsuccessful, but remains a hero in India.

Indians who mistook Gandhi’s moral strength as cowardice see the muscular Bose as an alternative; while the RSS itself sat out the freedom struggle, Hindu nationalists are eagerly appropriating Bose and other nationalists who were not part of the Congress to create an alternate reality of India. The RSS is the mother organisation of those views, and, no doubt Lindner is aware of that. Which is why it is surprising he went to meet its leadership, and more surprising, that he hasn’t revealed what they talked about.

Lessons of history

What can India learn from that German experience of being obsessed with purity and exterminating groups? How did the German nation re-emerge from that past? There is much that Germany can teach India about dealing with the past – of what happens when people of a particular group are singled out, boycotted economically, chased after, lynched, identified with names and numbers, considered foreigners, and what the consequences are of such actions.

As the diplomat of a nation that has transformed itself from such a horrendous past and which has now become the leader of the free world, (given truculent American abdication and hilarious British irrelevance), Lindner has a special responsibility to speak out unequivocally about what lies ahead on the road on which India is headed. Trade and business ties matter; so does conscience.

It is entirely the ambassador’s prerogative to do what he wishes. It is the writer’s responsibility to ask him what it means, given the burden of history. And it is for Indians and Germans to draw their own conclusions.