Nobel laureate Amartya Sen on Thursday said the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre was using matters such as the Ram temple to divert attention from serious problems such as unemployment.

In an interview with News18, Sen said he was also worried about “the cultivation of an atmosphere of intolerance” and a “systematic undermining of institutions, going all the way to the courts”.

The famous economist also criticised the government’s move to grant citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from neighbouring countries through the Citizenship Bill, 2016, while leaving out Muslims. He said the government was aware of the “huge amount of intolerance and ill-treatment” of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

“I think citizenship should have nothing to do with your religion,” he said. “It’s a principle on which the Constitution is based. There were a lot of discussions on that in the Constituent Assembly when India was becoming independent. And therefore, to begin something which privileges non-Muslims over Muslims is, I think, a real violation of the constitutional principle of neutrality over religious differences.”

Talking about Muslim asylum seekers in India’s neighbouring countries, Sen said they also deserve the same kind of sympathy as non-Muslims minorities who get into difficulties. “So I think there is a systematic bias in governmental thinking,” he added.

Sen said the threats received by actor Naseeruddin Shah and politics over cattle slaughter were examples of attempts being made to “excite” the public. “I think what we see is an organised attempt at making the country smaller, meaner, nastier and more divided,” he added.

“There are a lot of people crazy enough to regard gau raksha [cow protection] to be much more important than manav-raksha [protection of human beings],” he said. However, he added: “As a social scientist, I have to resist having a simple explanation for everything.”

Sen said the Ram temple movement was an attempt to “put back a mythical story back to circulation and make it the central piece of Indian history”, and constituted an “extraordinary reconstruction of the past” that historians do not recognise.

The Nobel laureate acknowledged that raising these matters might help the BJP in the General Elections this year. However, he added that it cannot be said if the BJP has raised these matters only for the sake of winning elections, or if politicians such Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath truly believe in them.

“I think if it’s well organised [the election], the number of seats that the BJP gets should be far less than what it did in the parliamentary elections in 2014,” Sen added.

‘Mamata Banerjee not a threat to democracy’

The economist claimed that while West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s record on secularism “is very strong”, the Trinamool Congress leadership is very authoritarian. In the absence of a strong Communist Party of India (Marxist), people are drawn towards the BJP, he added.

However, he rejected the BJP’s claim that Banerjee was a threat to democracy in West Bengal. “Something which has not had a long tradition of being a part of the Bengali culture, to introduce that bearing in mind that it may communally divide, has huge danger,” he said, referring to the BJP’s proposed rath yatra. “I mean, Ram Navami has been used like that. I don’t remember as a child people going around with swords in Calcutta’s streets on Ram Navami.”

Defending his stance that reservation for upper castes is a result of “muddled thinking”, Sen said economic inequality can be resolved only be economic measures, not quotas. Parliament passed a bill granting 10% reservation to poor upper castes earlier this month, and it was signed into law by President Ram Nath Kovind last week.

The economist criticised the Congress, and said it was unclear if public policies will change if a non-BJP government comes to power after the Lok Sabha polls. “The Congress has a long history of running the country without tackling some of the central concerns, namely bad school education and bad basic healthcare,” he said. “They have done relatively little about that in the past.”