When Levinson fellow Astha Rajvanshi began her fellowship in India in early 2020, she says, the country was experiencing an unprecedented level of dissent against the government, ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist BJP Party since 2014. A new law had prompted protests “by specifically excluding Muslims from neighboring countries from accessing pathways to citizenship” in the country with the world’s second-largest Muslim population.
The authorities responded by cracking down, with the police “entering university campuses to arrest students and using batons and tear gas to target protestors, while the sentiment among the judiciary and parliament was that Muslim protestors were prone to violence, disloyal and even conspiratorial.”
Astha reported on her fellowship examining the rights of women and other minorities, and observing the onset of the Covid pandemic, at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs on November 18. She also joined an expert panel including George Washington Professor Rollie Lal and UC Santa Barbara Professor Amit Ahuja.
Georgetown Professor and Atlantic Council Fellow Irfan Nooruddin moderated. He reminded the audience that the BJP has a big popular mandate in the world’s largest democracy, reflecting widespread views among a society that’s far more conservative than many of its 20th-century leaders and elites.
Lal said that women are central to helping enforce conservative social values today. While Hindu nationalism has attempted to elevate the role of women in some ways, it has also reinforced gender norms and advanced anti-feminism.
The event was co-organized by ICWA with the Elliot School, Atlantic Council South Asia Center and the Onero Institute.
Astha Rajvanshi spent two years as an Institute of Current World Affairs Levinson fellow traveling across India examining the lives of women and marginalized communities. A graduate of Columbia University’s Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting, she previously worked for The New York Times Magazine. Since wrapping up her fellowship earlier this year, Astha has written freelance from Mumbai, and won New York University’s Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award and a Tiny Foundation Fellowship for Investigative Journalism. She recently started a news writing job with TIME magazine in London.
Irfan Nooruddin is the Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Indian Politics in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He works with Lokniti: Programme for Comparative Democracy in New Delhi, India; Samhita Social Ventures in Bombay; and with the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. He studies problems of economic development and globalization, democracy and democratization, and civil conflict and has written several books, including Elections in Hard Times (2016, with T.E. Flores) and The Everyday Crusade (2022, with E.L. McDaniel and A.F. Shortle) published by Cambridge University Press.
Amit Ahuja is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, spending the 2022-23 academic year in Washington, DC as a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His first book book, Mobilizing the Marginalized: Ethnic Parties without Ethnic Movements, published by Oxford University Press, was the winner of the 2020 New India Foundation Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay Book Prize.
Rollie Lal is an Associate Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, where she teaches graduate courses on transnational security, foreign policy and international political economy. She is also co-chair of the Global Affairs and Religion Network (GARNET). She is the author of several books, including Terrorist Criminal Enterprises, Understanding China and India, and Central Asia and Its Asian Neighbors.