The religious life of Indians, according to a recent survey

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: Indians are committed to religious diversity, but exclusionary and segmented in toleration, and tempted by authoritarianism.



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The just released Pew Research Centre Report, Religion and India: Tolerance and Segregation, based on serious survey data with almost 30,000 respondents, is a one-of-a-kind glimpse into the complex interplay of religion, identity and politics in India. All surveys have significant limitations. But this is the only major, relatively credible survey we have of Indian religious attitudes, and so it is worth reflecting on its findings, with all caveats in mind.

India emerges from the survey as an overwhelmingly religious country, across all religions. But this is also true of every dimension of religion from ritual observance to social identity, belief and practice. In his last book, Religion’s Sudden Decline, the doyen of value surveys, Ronald Inglehart had argued based on survey data that between 2007 and 2019, the world had generally become less religious; 43 out of the 49 countries studied showed a marked decline in religion. The big exception to this story was India, where religiosity increased. This survey confirms the staggeringly high degree of religiosity that seems not to decline with education or class.

The second stark fact is that the ideology of respect for religion is very high, nearly identical across all religious groups. For instance, 80 per cent of Hindus and 79 per cent of Muslims say that respecting other religions is a very important part of their religious identity; and 78 per cent of Muslims and 85 per cent of Hindus think it is important to being truly Indian. Twenty-four per cent of both Hindus and Muslims think religious diversity harms the country. Interestingly, there is little belief in reincarnation. But the numbers of those believing in the doctrine of karma is identical amongst Hindus and Muslims. The religious sensibilities are similar.

But then things get a bit more complicated. Religious sensibilities are similar, but they eschew anything common. Religious groups claim to know less about each other’s practices. As the title of the report indicates, Indian religious identities are segregated. India is committed to an ideology of toleration but practices what I elsewhere called segmented toleration: Each community has its place so long as each stays in its place. The drawing of boundaries is quite sharp. Stopping religious intermarriage for both men and women is a very high priority for almost 70 per cent Hindus and Muslims. While 45 per cent Hindus are fine with having a neighbour from any religion, 45 per cent do not want a member of another religion as a neighbour. Incidentally, 61 per cent of Jains would exclude Muslims, Sikhs and Christians from being their neighbour. The rate of inter-religious conversion is very low, less than one per cent, though Hindus gain as much as they lose. There is regional variation, with Christianity being a small net gainer in south India. Food practices remain the strongest marker of religious observance: Eating beef or eating pork is just about the only thing that two-thirds of your co-religionists believe will disqualify you from that religion.

The segmentation continues in terms of caste. Opposition to caste intermarriage is only slightly less than religious intermarriage, but declines more with college education. It is higher amongst Muslims, 70 per cent of whom oppose inter-caste marriage for men, compared to 63 per cent Hindus. Thirty-five per cent Indians self-identify as Other Backward Castes.

But the puzzle the data might throw up is on discrimination. In aggregate only 20 per cent Indians say caste discrimination exists; even amongst SCs, this number is only 27 per cent, and amongst OBCs 18 per cent. It is highest in the Northeast, and reported discrimination by Dalits is highest in the south at 30 per cent. But the numbers on religious discrimination are even more interesting. Only 24 per cent of Muslims say there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims; but 16 per cent of Muslims say there is discrimination against Hindus. Seventeen per cent of Hindus say there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims, but 20 per cent perceive discrimination against Hindus. So, on this basis, India does not come out as a hugely discriminatory society. But this finding could also be consistent with another interpretation — it might turn on how norms of discrimination are understood. In segmented societies, discrimination is not a category since exclusion is taken as an acceptable norm. The possibility of discrimination requires inhabiting same spaces, competing for same things, sharing social worlds. It is quite possible for an exclusionary society to think it is not discriminating. We have not even progressed from exclusion to discrimination.

Nationalism is very strong in India, across all communities. Eighty per cent of Muslims support all markers of national loyalty, and only on the national anthem is the gap between them and Hindus 11 points. More Muslims than Hindus think that the Partition of India was on balance bad, though this number is the highest for Sikhs, 66 per cent of whom think it was bad. A majority of Muslims are against triple talaq, though two-thirds would prefer their own courts in matters of personal law. About half of all Indians support authoritarian rule, but across communities. But the survey finds very strong evidence for Hindu nationalism. Sixty-four per cent Hindus think being a Hindu/or identification with Hindi is necessary for being a good Indian; this number rises with support for the BJP and is lowest in south India. But even there it is 42 per cent.

What implications this has for politics is an open question, but the potent combination of exclusionary benchmarks of nationalism and authoritarianism are present. In terms of issues that matter most to people, unemployment, corruption crime, and, very importantly, violence against women rank as the top issues of concern, but 65 per cent also name communal violence as a major issue of concern. And concern with communal violence seems to rise if the area has just experienced a riot.

Currently, there is a great appetite for fusing religion and politics — religious observance and nationalism are being increasingly identified. Interestingly, two-thirds of members of all communities think it is fine for politicians to get entangled with religion. Politics can, oddly enough, make a society profess religion more. But we know from comparative evidence that there is a flip side. That when deep disenchantment with politics sets in, it will also rebound on religion.

The overall picture of India in the survey is of a religious country, ideologically committed to religious diversity, but exclusionary and segmented in its toleration, with less support for individual freedom, increasingly committed to Hindutva benchmarks of national identity, and tempted by authoritarianism. Will this trend continue? God and nation will decide.

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 2, 2021 under the title ‘Our religious soul’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.

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