Aseema Sinha on the Persecution of Muslims in India

Dr. Aseema Sinha is the Wagener Chair of South Asian Politics and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College in California, USA. She previously taught at University of Wisconsin-Madison and was a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC. Her research interests relate to political economy of India, India-China comparisons, International Organizations, and the rise of India as an emerging power. She teaches courses on South Asia, Social Movements, Globalization and Developing Countries, and on Comparative Politics. She also teaches in the Philosophy, Politics, Economics (PPE) major at CMC. She has authored a book, The Regional Roots of Developmental Politics in India: A Divided Leviathan(Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2005), which received the Joseph Elder Book Prize in the Indian Social Sciences. She is also an author of journal articles on trade policy, federalism, subnational comparisons in India, India and China, business collective action in India, and public expenditure across Indian states. Her articles have appeared in the British Journal of Political Science, World Development, Polity, Comparative Political Studies, Comparative Politics, Business and Politics, Journal of Democracy, Studies in Indian Politics, and India Review. Her latest book titled, Globalizing India: How Global Rules and Markets are Shaping India's Rise to Power was published by Cambridge University Press (2016). She has recently published, “A Theory of Reform Consolidation in India: From Crisis-Induced Reforms to Strategic Internationalization,” India Review, 18 (1): 54-87, “India’s Porous State: Blurred Boundaries and the Evolving Business-State Relationship in India,” In Christophe Jaffrelot, Atul Kohli, and Kanta Murali eds., Business and Politics in India and Aseema Sinha, and Andrew Wyatt, “The Spectral Presence of Business in India’s 2019 Election,” Studies in Indian Politics, Special Issue on Indian 2019 Elections, Volume 7, Issue 2: 247-261.
Umer Lakhani '25 interviewed Dr. Aseema Sinha on on October 7, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Aseema Sinha.

Many people have criticized the BJP, and especially Prime Minister Modi, alleging that life for Muslims has worsened during their tenure. How much responsibility do you think the state needs to take for the marginalization of Muslims in India? And what other factors are contributing to the rise of anti Muslim sentiment? 

The sources of anti-Muslim actions and attitudes are both party-driven and society-based, yet the state does have significant responsibility to check such efforts. So, for example, if a society expresses some sentiments that are biased against a community, then, a state that works for everyone must check or hold such people accountable. This is especially so because the current government and the party in power has claimed to be working for everyone. 

A recent research project I did with a co-author looks at the phenomena of anti-Muslim sentiment at the societal level. We focused on a concept of impunity, which is that if people express certain ideas or beliefs, and if the state does nothing or the state encourages Hindu-centric actions and laws, then it is not fulfilling its agenda and it is reinforcing the prejudiced views. The state is supposed to be an instrument for protecting the Constitution of India, and for ensuring that every individual feels that they are a part of society. So, it has, in my judgment, a special responsibility to ensure that such sentiments don't get further support. The notion of impunity suggests that if that role, responsibility and the duty is not taken care of, then the anti-Muslim sentiments would get further reinforced as societal sentiments would be free from the consequences of their actions, a classic definition of impunity. 

The government recently announced the banning of the Popular Front of India for five years, which is an organization that self-identifies as a nonprofit body that seeks to advance the rights and interests of marginalized groups in India, like Muslims for example. This follows the mass arrests of PFI members, and the government has accused them of links to, and the sponsoring of, terrorism. How much credence do you think should be given to these allegations?

I think that in all open and liberal societies, banning NGOs and civil society organizations reflects insecurity. The government does claim that these PFI members have some links with terrorist groups in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. I think that is one of the claims, but if it is so, then the government should launch a court case and publicize the evidence. Without such evidence, it just reveals that the government is using the claims of the supposed links as an excuse. 

The banning of this organization also has to be seen in the context of the state agencies going after journalists and other NGOs, and especially people who are more critical of the government. Evidence has to be provided of the supposed links to terrorism. If evidence is not provided, then this action is an attempt to target NGOs that are critical of the government in the hope that nobody would ask for that evidence.

India has actually been a consolidated democracy since 1947. Tolerating a diversity of views and differences of opinions are hallmarks of a democratic society. So, in some ways, the banning of organizations makes it appear as if the government is not willing to tolerate diverse views. It really does raise questions about the pluralistic intentions of this government.

How would you account for the stripping of autonomy from the region of Jammu and Kashmir? Is this simply a consequence of anti Muslim sentiment?

The  abolition of Article 370 was really popular amongst the middle class Hindus. There is no doubt that when it was done, it was extensively popular. I think here, a more political science analysis might become relevant. Political parties reflect existing sentiment, but also try to mobilize it to create a social block who supports them. And the larger context is that the BJP as a political party has been trying to create a social coalition that overrides caste and regional differences. In order to do that, they need to appeal across caste lines with a Hindu ideology to create a Hindu social block. 

So, the decision to abolish Article 370 was part of the mandate of the government when it stood for elections in 2014, and it is popular, but it also is an attempt to shape the social coalition to mobilize more people to actually create a broad Hindu support base. Once that decision was taken, and once it appeared that it is popular, then they could go on to take rights away from middle-class people; they can actually be more restrictive in terms of, for example, tax policy, because they have created this belief that “We were strong on Kashmir.” So you have to understand how parties strategically use the sentiment to mobilize and create a broader support for them. There are a number of parties, and a number of groups in every state. Every province has a different coalition of caste and religious forces. The BJP is trying to supersede those barriers.  They want people belonging to different backgrounds or regions to think of themselves a Hindu first, rather than belonging to a caste or province. 

I want to pick up on something interesting you said there about the BJP’s strategic maneuvering. Do you think that the BJP themselves are responsible for stoking inter-religious tensions? Or did those tensions exist anyway, and they are just capitalizing for their own gain?

They do both. There are existing sentiments in Indian society, and the BJP tries to capitalize on them and further them. On the other hand, the leaders among the BJP do have a strong ideological belief in Hindu primacy and anti-Muslim beliefs, but they are also a political party that wants to win elections. So they try to use every method possible to do that.

It is a fact that from 2014 onwards, the BJP has moved away from its focus on development to a more exclusive Hindu nationalist focus. Scholars and observers have noted that the development plank was not as successful, and so they moved towards focusing on Hindu nationalism and prioritizing that. In my judgment, they always wanted to achieve Hindu nationalist goals. It was not that they wanted development first or development initially, and then suddenly they were sidetracked. They always wanted to use their electoral power at the center to reshape society.

There is no doubt that Indian society has changed dramatically in the last few decades. We don't have a way of assessing whether the anti-Muslim sentiments were strong before the BJP’s coming to power. There is some evidence that around 2004, when the BJP was defeated at the national level, that at least the middle class had already turned anti-Muslim. It is difficult to tease out whether the sentiment was growing, and the BJP just responded to it, or whether they are trying to deliberately initiate it. 

Has India faced any external repercussions for the tensions and the violence that rising Hindu nationalism has caused?

Recently India did face a little bit of pushback. On May 27 this year, a BJP spokesperson made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed on a television program, which did create a serious foreign policy crisis. At that time, India's vice president was visiting Qatar, and the Qatari establishment refused to hold a joint news conference with him, clearly indicating that they were not happy with those remarks. Immediately the Indian  foreign ministry issued a statement that the spokesperson only represented fringe elements of Indian politics, but the uproar began to spread across the Middle East, extending to Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Iran and then beyond to South East Asia. These countries are very important for India because India has tried to build a larger coalition against Pakistan by building better relations with many Middle East nations. India aims toto establish an independent relationship with these countries, for both economic and political reasons. India gets a lot of oil from them, and also a lot of remittances. A lot of the Indian diaspora lives in the Middle East and works there. 

So, across Kuwait, Iran and many Middle Eastern countries, the ambassadors of India were summoned by each of these countries. The government, then, suspended the two people involved in the scandal. Soon after, the issue spread to Malaysia. Malaysia actually had been very critical of the BJP government’s anti-Muslim actions before this incident. But then Malaysia and Indonesia, I believe, called the Indian High Commissioner, and spoke with them. Now, the BJP has issued new guidelines to their spokespersons to make sure that they do not talk about the core tenants of any religion. The issue has died right now. But this was the only case when there were these external consequences. Beyond that, I think Pakistan, obviously in different contexts, challenges India's actions, especially of this government. But mostly, India ignores such actions. These actions, across the Muslim world, they could not ignore, because it was affecting their core economic and political goals. 

So as you said, obviously, this was an isolated incident. And to that end, why do you think the majority of the global community has remained quiet and not considered actions like economic sanctions, or actions like the Qatari government did? 

That's a good question. In order to understand that, we have to understand how the international system and global realignments are shifting, and that has happened since the 2000s. Certainly starting during the George W. Bush period, India and the United States have come closer. I think there emerged, at least in the George W. Bush administration, this idea that India and the US could join together to challenge China. When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, that accelerated the US-China competition. So India has become central to Western alliances, in countering, or certainly countering at appearance level, China's growing power. And so, one reason why India has not faced much backlash from external powers is partly because India has become more strategically important to Western alliances. 

How do you think that the trend of anti-Muslim attitudes can be reversed, if at all? Is there any way for Muslims in India, broadly speaking, to regain a social standing of respect and regain certain rights that they may have lost? 

The situation is very grim for Muslims. I shudder to think what most people are going through. In Kashmir, even basic rights and opportunities have been taken away; they didn't even have access to the internet. There's no doubt that Muslims at an everyday level face discrimination. People don't even rent houses to them if they find out that the tenants are Muslim.

The only way it can be addressed is by democratic mobilization by Muslims and Muslim organizations, and they have to continue to use democratic techniques, because as soon as you use any other kind of technique or method, then that can be used to paint anyone with the wrong brush. Muslims and Muslim organizations and parties have to find democratic methods of mobilization.

If there is a change in the party in power, there may be a  change in terms of policy. Yet, opposition parties are so far unable to launch a serious opposition front for 2024, when India has general elections again. 

Do you think that if the BJP were to be removed from power (democratically, of course), would that be a positive sign for Muslims? Or does the problem run deeper than that?

The problem is deeper. But I think other political parties will not aggressively try to mobilize Hindus against Muslims. For example, the Aam Aadmi Party which rules Delhi, has to stay quiet on the issue of Muslims, because otherwise they will lose the Hindu votes in Delhi, but it at least explicitly doesn't undertake anti-Muslim or pro-Hindu policies. 

So, the problem is deeper. But some political parties are more careful. They don't use anti-Muslim sentiments to mobilize anti-Muslim mobs, because their whole political project doesn't rest on that mobilization. But there is no doubt the problem is deeper; our research shows that.

Umer Lakhani CMC '25Student Journalist

Steve Evans from Citizen of the World, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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