A recent Pew Research Center study on ‘Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation’ has dropped like a 7-tonne Daisy Cutter on western and domestic “secular, liberal” narrative. It challenges the very premise of propaganda against India, especially the one raging since Narendra Modi assumed power seven years ago.
That Pew is the world’s foremost credible survey organisation makes India’s virulent critics even more uncomfortable. It also demolishes many aspects of the negative, divisive narrative against the nation.
The report on the findings sets the context right very early on, talking about India’s staggering scale of diversity and cohabitation of religions.
“Not only do most of the world’s Hindus, Jains and Sikhs live in India, but it also is home to one of the world’s largest Muslim populations and to millions of Christians and Buddhists,” it says.
The Pew survey is based on nearly 30,000 face-to-face interviews of adults conducted in 17 languages between late 2019 and early 2020.
First, it shatters the lie that groups with vested political interest like the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has been repeatedly telling: that India has placed serious curbs on religious freedom. The Pew survey finds that “Indians of all these religious backgrounds overwhelmingly say they are very free to practice their faiths”.
Second, those crying wolf about “intolerant India” would also be disappointed. The study says, “Indians see religious tolerance as a central part of who they are as a nation. Across the major religious groups, most people say it is very important to respect all religions to be ‘truly Indian’. And 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.”
Third, many may have got converted down the ages, but Hinduness has not entirely left them. Exactly the same percentage of Hindus and Muslims (77 percent) believe in karma. There is more surprise. "A third of Christians (32 percent) – together with 81 percent of Hindus – say they believe in the purifying power of the Ganges River, a central belief in Hinduism."
Moreover, 27 percent Muslims and 29 percent Christians — nearly three in 10 people — believe in reincarnation.
Fourth, there is a strong reality check for the Hindu far-Right as well, and bad news for those dreaming of making India an Islamic State-Al Qaeda recruitment ground. “India’s Muslims almost unanimously say they are very proud to be Indian (95 percent), and they express great enthusiasm for Indian culture: 85 percent agree with the statement that ‘Indian people are not perfect, but Indian culture is superior to others," the study says.
Fifth, it re-confirms that Pakistan’s attempts to foment anger and disenchantment towards India among Sikhs is a puerile fantasy. "A near-universal share of Sikhs say they are very proud to be Indian (95 percent), and the vast majority (70 percent) say a person who disrespects India cannot be a Sikh,” the study says.
Sixth, the study also busts the assumption that the Modi government banned instant triple talaq without buy-in from the community. Overall, 56 percent Muslims, and 61 percent women in particular, disapprove of triple talaq.
Seventh, Indian Muslims have more in common with Indian Hindus than with Pakistani or Bangladeshi on some matters. While 98 percent Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims believe in heaven, only 58 percent Indian Muslims do, which is similar to the beliefs of 56 percent Hindus. Again, while 97 percent and 95 percent of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims respectively believe in angels, only 53 percent Indian Muslims do, just like 49 percent Indian Hindus.
Eighth, the Pew survey shows it is not just Hindus who oppose inter-religious marriages, especially with a Muslim man or woman. The feeling is not just mutual, Muslims seem to hate the idea even more widely.
"Roughly two-thirds of Hindus in India want to prevent interreligious marriages of Hindu women (67 percent) or Hindu men (65 percent). Even larger shares of Muslims feel similarly: 80 percent say it is very important to stop Muslim women from marrying outside their religion, and 76 percent say it is very important to stop Muslim men from doing so.”
It shreds the constant demonisation of Hindus and efforts to paint Muslims as this open, liberal community eager to embrace all.
The study aptly captures the Indian ethos. “Indians’ concept of religious tolerance does not necessarily involve the mixing of religious communities. 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," it says.
Ninth, casteism is not an exclusively Hindu problem at all. “Today Indians nearly universally identify with a caste, regardless of whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist or Jain,” the report says.
Among Muslims, 43 percent identify themselves as Other Backward Castes (OBC), 4 percent as Scheduled Castes (SC) and 3 percent as Scheduled Tribes (ST). Even higher number of Christians are still caste-bound, with 78 percent identifying themselves as SC, ST or OBC. Among Sikhs, 47 percent say they are SC.
Tenth, caste discrimination in liberals’ “progressive” south India and Northeast is higher than discrimination even in the much-maligned Hindi heartland.
“A higher share of Dalits in the South and Northeast than elsewhere in the country say they, personally, have faced discrimination in the last 12 months because of their caste: 30 percent of Dalits in the South say this, as do 38 percent in the Northeast,” says the study. In north and central India, it is 22 percent and 13 percent respectively.
If just one survey with a sizeable sample size by a world-renowned organisation demolishes so many myths, one wonders how loose the ground of the anti-nationalism narrative against India must be. India’s detractors should try truth sometimes.