India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman Told Americans That Indian Muslims Aren’t Being Persecuted. She Lied
- Her central claim that Muslims can’t possibly be facing persecution in India due to a growing population is a nonsensical correlation.
An event hosted by the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) is not a place where one would expect to get a dose of Hindu far-right propaganda.
Renowned and well-awarded, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank is focused on presenting ideas and providing public discourse on the global economy. But the PIIE’s April 10 event, “India’s finance minister on the resilience and growth of the Indian economy,” opened up a conversation that went beyond economics and veered into the topic of human rights violations in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The event began innocuously enough. PIIE president Adam S. Posen opened the event with praises for Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Sitting on stage in front of a PIIE logo-emblazoned backdrop, addressing a crowd of business formal-clad listeners, Sitharaman and Posen chatted about India’s role as an emerging market, resilient value chains, and the need for the World Trade Organization to level its playing field for all countries.
Then came the question on Muslim persecution.
“There is widespread reporting in Western press… about Muslim minorities being subjected to violence,” Posen said.
He wasn’t asking her to deny or comment or refute those reports, he clarified. This question was solely related to the way such perceptions affected investments coming into India, and yet it opened up a telling — and frankly unnerving — a window into Sitharaman and the BJP’s view on Muslims.
“I would say, come have a look at what’s happening in India, rather than listen to perceptions being built by people who have not even visited on the ground and who produce reports,” Sitharaman replied.
“[This is] not to even imply that I accept the perception that you’re referring to — India has the second largest Muslim population in the world, and the population is only growing in numbers,” she continued. “If there is a perception, or if there’s in reality, their lives are made difficult with the support of the state, which is what is implied in most of these write-ups… [would] the Muslim population be growing [more] than what it was in 1947?” she asked.
This segment of her remarks took up barely five minutes, but it’s a glaring dog whistle that Americans shouldn’t be ignored, especially not as the U.S.-India partnership grows ever deeper.
First, the idea that Muslims can’t possibly be facing persecution in India due to a growing population is a nonsensical correlation — rather like saying Indians as a whole couldn’t have been oppressed by British colonizers simply because the population didn’t dwindle away.
Several Indian publications have already debunked the myth that the Muslim population is growing disproportionately to Hindus. But this is far more insidious than a misquoted statistic. Sitharaman’s statement echoes the popular Hindu supremacist propaganda claim that Muslims are “overpopulating” India, and thus pose a threat of “overtaking” Hindus.
On its front, it’s a laughable claim — Hindus make up nearly 80% of Indians, while Muslims are a meager 14%, living mainly in ghettos and scraping by in poverty. Yet this rhetoric is frequently used by BJP leaders and Hindu supremacists to fuel Islamophobia and anti-Muslim violence, urging Hindus to protect their people, reclaim their land, and turn India from a secular democracy into a Hindu nation.
So goes the vow commonly chanted during Hindu far-right oath-taking events across the country: “We will fight for this, die for this, and if required, kill for this.”
And this trend is what is found in the reports Sithraman speaks so condescendingly about. India’s epidemic of anti-Muslim has been documented extensively by almost every major news outlet in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time magazine, the Economist, The Guardian, BBC, CNN, NBC, and NPR. Reports have been released by the U.S. State Department and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, highlighting the dangerous conditions for minorities.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Genocide Watch, Freedom House, and Reporters Without Borders, the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Early Warning Project, and the Pew Research Center have all warned that democracy in India is waning to further the persecution of 200 million Muslims — including through massacres, mob lynchings, physical assaults, mosque demolitions and vandalism, riots, and sexual violence.
Under Modi’s rule, it is common to publicly humiliate Muslims by filming them as they are beaten and forced to chant Hindu religious slogans. Muslim men are regularly abducted, beaten to death, stabbed, and burned alive over baseless accusations of consuming or transporting beef or committing petty crimes. In the past three months alone, Muslim men have been stabbed and left to die in a drainage channel after being accused of petty theft; abducted, beaten, and burned alive for trading cattle; lynched in front of family members on suspicion of carrying beef; and beaten to death by mobs of cow vigilantes. Just days before the PIIE event, six Indian states were smoldering from Hindu extremist processions attacking Muslim-majority areas during the “celebration” of Ram Navami, a Hindu festival.
Hate speech has long since left the fringes. It is now normalized, circulated on WhatsApp, liked on Facebook and Youtube, and cheered on in public. In 2021, prominent Hindu militant leaders and monks made calls for a genocide of Indian Muslims similar to the Rohingya genocide, prompting Hindu extremist leaders and BJP politicians alike to make similar calls for violence.
BJP leader Pragya Singh Thakur, who is awaiting trial for terrorism charges, has called for Muslims to be beheaded. BJP leader T. Raja Singh has referred to Muslims as “insects” and “cockroaches” and threatened to cut off Muslim men’s genitals. Hindu supremacist leaders across the nation have called for India to abolish its democracy and become a Hindu ethno-state, where Muslims are forced to live as second-class citizens or else be wiped out.
Hate speech is so common in the media that the Editors Guild of India has compared some mainstream news outlets to Radio Rwanda.
Then there’s the persecution at the hands of the state, which, despite Sitharaman’s attempt to paint it as mere perception, is a well-documented reality.
Discriminatory anti-Muslim laws have been implemented at both the state and national levels. The anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) sparked nationwide protests for fast-tracking citizenship for all religious groups except Muslims. Combined with plans to establish a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), these policies put 200 million Indian Muslims at risk of mass statelessness. The NRC established in Assam state has already led to nearly one million Muslims being excluded from the Register and listed as “foreigners” despite being born and raised in India. Many of these individuals have been forced into detention camps rife with inhumane conditions.
Another draconian law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), allows the government to charge civilian activists, journalists, and protesters as terrorists, leaving them languishing in prison with no chance at bail. Many BJP-ruled states have enacted anti-conversion laws as a way to criminalize conversion to Islam and Christianity, allowing Hindu militant groups to police even casual relationships between Hindu women and Muslim men. In Karnataka state, a High Court order bars Muslim women from wearing the hijab to school, forcing thousands of students out of the education system.
There’s the ongoing collective punishment against the Muslim community, facilitated by the government and gleefully lauded by Hindu extremists. Several BJP-ruled states regularly deploy bulldozers to demolish Muslim-owned homes, businesses, and places of worship in what Amnesty International has called a “violation of international human rights law.” In several cases, entire Muslim neighborhoods have been arbitrarily declared to be “illegally constructed,” with the owners receiving no notice before demolition is scheduled.
The surge of “bulldozer injustice” has been so prevalent that three former Supreme Court judges, three former High Court judges, and six prominent lawyers slammed Uttar Pradesh’s BJP-led government in an open letter for “an unacceptable subversion” and “mockery” of the rule of law, labeling the illegal demolitions a form of “collective punishment” against the Muslim community.
In a secular democracy, the last resort would be to turn to the courts for help, but India’s justice system has become notorious for offering protection to extremists over victims. One Indian state, Karnataka, has dropped the prosecution of 182 criminal cases relating to anti-Muslim hate speech, cow vigilantism, and hate crimes between 2019 and 2023. Muslim activists, journalists, and civilians are arbitrarily and indefinitely detained for criticizing Modi, fact-checking propaganda, or attempting to defend their homes.
Most disturbingly, those convicted of violent Hindu militant activity years ago are beginning to be released from prisons, their life sentences overturned, and their re-entry into society celebrated with sweets and flower garlands. Last year, the Supreme Court facilitated the release of 11 Hindu supremacist men who were convicted of gang-raping a pregnant Muslim woman and murdering 16 of her family members during the 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat violence. Just days ago, a court in Gujarat state acquitted 67 Hindu extremists and militant leaders who were convicted of burning 11 Muslims to death in 2002. Of those released was one Babu Bajrangi, a notorious Hindu militant leader who was caught on film boasting about how he enjoyed killing Muslims, including by slitting pregnant women open.
Why does any of this matter to an American audience? Sitharaman herself revealed the answer during the PIIE event: she, along with the rest of Modi’s government, beckons American investors into India while attempting to shove Indian minorities out of the frame.
But discerning investors and global citizens alike should see clearly what the BJP government’s Hindu nationalist propaganda for what it is. None of this is a negative perception.
It’s the world simply pointing out what is already obvious.
Safa Ahmed is an independent Indian-American journalist based in Raleigh, North Carolina.