U.S. study finds Indians in India think its important to respect all religions

A new study by the respected think-tank Pew Research found that a majority of Indians believe one has to respect all religions.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the foundation-laying ceremony of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, August 5, 2020. India’s Press Information Bureau/Handout via REUTERS

However, the major religious groups in the country see little in common with each other and prefer to live separately.

The study entitled ‘Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation’ released June 29, 2021, shows some of the major tenets of the country’s founding principles of unity in diversity have survived the ravages of partition and contrary to what some, including human rights organizations, have seen as rising violence and intolerance for minorities.

“More than 70 years after India became free from colonial rule, Indians generally feel their country has lived up to one of its post-independence ideals: a society where followers of many religions can live and practice freely,” the report says.

The study is based on interviews of 30,000 respondents in 17 languages, representing adults over 18, during the period from late 2019 to early 2020 before the COVID pandemic hit.

It found that Indians of all religious backgrounds “overwhelmingly say they are very free to practice their faiths.”

To be ‘truly Indian’ “most people” across religions, say it is very important to respect all religions, and that tolerance is a religious as well as civic value.

“Indians are united in the view that respecting other religions is a very important part of what it means to be a member of their own religious community,” it adds.

In Common

A surprising finding was the way a number of beliefs crossed religious lines.

Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi, chief of the “Kinnar Akhada” congregation for transgender devotees, takes a dip during the first “Shahi Snan” (grand bath) at “Kumbh Mela” in Prayagraj, previously known as Allahabad, January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

For example, not only do a majority of Hindus in India (77%) believe in karma, but an identical percentage of Muslims do, too, Pew found.

A third of Christians in India (32%) – together with 81% of Hindus – say they believe in the purifying power of the Ganges River.

In Northern India, 12% of Hindus and 10% of Sikhs, along with 37% of Muslims, identity with Sufism, a mystical tradition most closely associated with Islam.

And the vast majority of Indians of all major religious backgrounds say that respecting elders is very important to their faith.

Not In Common

Regardless of these commonalities, the major religious communities often don’t feel they have much in common with one another, the study found.

Sixty six percent of Hindus see themselves as very different from Muslims and most Muslims (64 percent) feel the same.

However, two-thirds of Jains and around 50 percent of Sikhs say they have a lot in common with Hindus.

Traditions and habits maintain the separation.

For example many respondents in all the groups said it was very important to stop people in their community from marrying into other religious groups. Roughly two-thirds of Hindus in India want to prevent inter-religious marriages of Hindu women (67%) or Hindu men (65%). Even larger shares of Muslims feel similarly: 80 percent against women marrying out, and 76 percent against men doing so.

Not My Neighbor

This separation also includes friends where each group generally stuck to their own religious group to make their circle of friends.

At the same time, fewer Indians go so far as to say that their neighborhoods should consist only of people from their own religious group. About 45 percent of Hindus say they are fine with having neighbors of all other religions – be they Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist or Jain – but 45 percent say they would not be willing to accept followers of at least one of these groups, and 36 percent of Hindus would not want Muslims to be their neighbor.

Students shout slogans during a protest to demand the withdrawal of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, a bill passed by India’s lower house of parliament that aims to give citizenship to non-Muslims from neighbouring countries, in Nagaon district in the northeastern state of Assam, February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Anuwar Hazarika

Among Jains, a majority (61%) say they are unwilling to have neighbors from at least one of these groups, including 54% who would not accept a Muslim neighbor, although nearly all Jains (92%) say they would be willing to accept a Hindu neighbor.

This tolerance for religions and lack of enthusiasm to have friends or neighbors of another religion, do not feel paradoxical to many Indians, the study maintains.

“Indeed, many take both positions, saying it is important to be tolerant of others and expressing a desire to limit personal connections across religious lines,” the report said.

In fact, ironically, “Indians who favor a religiously segregated society also overwhelmingly emphasize religious tolerance as a core value,” the study found.

“In other words, Indians’ concept of religious tolerance does not necessarily involve the mixing of religious communities,” authors conclude, contending that “While people in some countries may aspire to create a “melting pot” of different religious identities, many Indians seem to prefer a country more like a patchwork fabric, with clear lines between groups.”

Hindu nationalism

Authors say one of their findings relating to the relationship between India’s Hindu majority and the smaller religious communities is relevant to the current administration of Prime Minister Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party he leads, both of whom are described as ‘Hindu nationalist’ by political opponents and media inside and outside India.

The survey showed a clear majority of Hindus (64 percent) say being Hindu and being able to speak Hindi (59 percent) are very important to being ‘truly’ Indian. Support for the BJP was higher among those who thought being Hindu was very important to being ‘truly’ Indian (55 percent), and another 42 percent thought it was somewhat important.

Despite India having so many languages, 59 percent think that being able to speak Hindi is to be ‘truly’ Indian.

The survey showed BJP’s appeal is greater among Hindus who closely associate their religious identity and the Hindi language with being “truly Indian”.

Interestingly, the survey was able to find that in the 2019 national elections, 60% of Hindu voters who think it is very important to be Hindu and to speak Hindi to be truly Indian cast their vote for the BJP. Whereas, among those who feel less strongly about these aspects, only a third of them voted for the BJP.

However, while about half of those living in the Hindi-speaking north and central regions believe being Hindu and speaking Hindi are integral to being ‘truly Indian’ only 5 percent in the South think so.

Hindu voters who are religious nationalists (Hinduism+speaking Hindi = truly Indian) display a heightened desire for religious segregation and greater religious observance, the study found.

Among Hindu BJP voters who link national identity with both religion and language, 83% say it is very important to stop Hindu women from marrying into another religion, compared with 61% among other Hindu voters.

This group also tends to be more religiously observant: 95% say religion is very important in their lives, and roughly three-quarters say they pray daily (73%). By comparison, among other Hindu voters, a smaller but nonetheless high majority (80%) say religion is very important in their lives, and about half (53%) pray daily.

Seemingly paradoxically, nearly two-thirds (65%) of Hindus who say that being a Hindu and speaking Hindi are very important to be truly Indian and who voted for the BJP in 2019 – say religious diversity benefits India. Only 47 percent of other Hindu voters thought that diversity benefits India.

This finding suggests that for many Hindus, there is no contradiction between valuing religious diversity (at least in principle) and feeling that Hindus are somehow more authentically Indian than fellow citizens who follow other religions.

Among Indians overall, there is no overwhelming consensus on the benefits of religious diversity.

On balance, the study endorsed the aspirational founding principles of India –  more Indians see diversity as a benefit than view it as a liability for their country – more than half (53%) of Indian adults say India’s religious diversity benefits the country; about a quarter (24%) see diversity as harmful; with similar figures among both Hindus and Muslims.

However, 24% of Indians do not take a clear position either way – they say diversity neither benefits nor harms the country, or they decline to answer the question.

Proud Indian Muslims

A vast majority of India’s Muslims (85 percent) say Indian culture is superior to others.

Authors note Hindus and Muslims “generally have lived peacefully side by side for centuries, but their shared history also is checkered by civil unrest and violence.”

Most recently, while the survey was being conducted, demonstration broke out over the government’s new Citizenship Act, which creates an expedited path to citizenship for immigrants from some neighboring countries, mentioning several religions, but not Muslims.

Despite that, today, “India’s Muslims almost unanimously say they are very proud to be Indian (95 percent).  Relatively few Muslims say their community faces “a lot” of discrimination in India (24 percent).

In fact, the study shows that the share of Muslims who see widespread discrimination against their community is similar to the share of Hindus who say Hindus face widespread religious discrimination in India (21%).

However, its not all roses.

There are significant regional differences on personal experiences with discrimination among Muslims – among Muslims in the North, 40% say they personally have faced religious discrimination in the last 12 months – much higher levels than reported in most other regions, the survey found.

In addition, majority of Muslims across the country (65%), along with an identical share of Hindus (65%), see communal violence as “a very big national problem.”

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