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Tolerant yet segregated: Religions in India are quite the same, finds Pew survey

The Pew Research Centre's survey report finds that the opinion on tolerance among religions is accompanied by a preference for keeping religious communities separate.

Tolerant yet segregated Religions in India are quite the same Pew survey-VPN
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Washington D.C., First Published Jul 1, 2021, 8:39 PM IST
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Indians value both religious tolerance and segregation, a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre has revealed.

The survey conducted among 29,999 Indian adults between late 2019 and early 2020 to take a closer look at religious identity, nationalism and tolerance in the country showed that 84 per cent of the people believed that to be 'truly Indian', it is important to respect other religions. 

About 80% said that respecting other religions is a very important part of one's religion.

Almost 91% said that they and others were free to practice their religions. However, the opinion on tolerance is accompanied by a preference for keeping religious communities separate. 

The results showed that Indians generally say that they do not have much in common with other religious groups. A large majority within the six religions said their close friends come from mainly or entirely their religion (86% among Hindus, 80% among Sikhs and 72% among Jains). 

The report also points to the opinion on interfaith marriage, with roughly two-thirds of Hindus saying that it is very important to stop Hindu women (67%) or men (65%) from marrying outside their religion. 

For Muslims, 80% of respondents favoured stopping women from marrying outside their religion and 76% for men.

The Pew Research Centre conducted the interviews in 17 languages, with adults over 18 and living in 26 states and 3 Union Territories. 

The report also found that for many Hindus, national identity, religion and language are closely connected. 

At least 64% of Hindus said that it was very important to be Hindu to be 'truly' Indian, and among those, 80% say that it is very important to speak Hindi to be 'truly' Indian. Another 51% believe that both criteria are important to be 'truly' Indian. 

Those Hindus who strongly linked Hindu and Indian identities also expressed a desire for religious separation and segregation. It found that 76% of Hindus who say being Hindu is very important to being 'truly' Indian also feel it is very important to stop Hindu women from marrying into another religion.

This, compared to the 52% of Hindus who place less importance on religion's role in Indian identity, hold this view about religious intermarriage. 

Hindus in northern (69%) and central (83%) parts of the country are more likely than those in the south, 42%, to conflate Hindu identity with national identity. 

The northern and central regions cover the country's 'Hindi Belt' where Hindi, one of the many languages, is prevalent; most Hindus in this region also link Indian identity with the ability to speak the language.

The findings indicate that among Hindus, views of national identity go hand-in-hand with politics. The support for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is larger among Hindus who associate their religious identity and the Hindi language with being 'truly' Indian. 

In the 2019 elections, 60% of Hindu voters who believe the two criteria voted for the BJP compared with the 33% Hindu voters who felt less strongly about both aspects of national identity. This is also reflected in the regional support, as the support for the BJP is higher in the north and central parts of the country than in the south. 

The study found that dietary laws are central to Indian's religious identity. Hindus traditionally view cows as sacred, and laws on cow slaughter have been in contention in the country. At least 72% of Hindus said that a person could not be Hindu if the individual eats beef. Another 49% said people who don't believe in God could not be Hindu, 48% said they could not identify as Hindu someone who does not go to the temple or perform prayers. 

Similarly, 77% of Muslims said that a person could not be Muslim if they eat pork. Another 60% said they could not be Muslim if they do not believe in God, while 61% said they could not be Muslim if they do not go to the mosque.

The report observed that Muslims favour having access to their religious courts even though other religions do not. Since 1937, they have had the option of officially recognising Islamic courts that are overseen by religious magistrates and operate under Shariah principles though their decisions are not legally binding. 

The topic is highly debated, and the study found that 74% of Muslims support having access to these courts, but other religions do not -- the lowest being Sikhs at 25% and the highest being 33% for Buddhists and Jains. 

The report also found that Muslims are more likely to say that the 1947 Partition of the country harmed relations between Hindus and Muslims than Hindus. The Pew survey noted that 48% said that Partition was a bad thing for the subcontinent. In contrast, Hindus say the opposite, with 43% stating it was beneficial for communal relations and 37% saying it was harmful. But 66% of Sikhs termed Partition as harmful. 

The study also pointed out the prevalence of the caste system continues to further divide Indian society. Most Indians, regardless of religion, identify with a caste. Lower castes have faced discrimination and major inequalities and continue to do so. Still, the survey found that most people say there is not much caste discrimination in India. 

Indian law prohibits caste-based discrimination (casteism), including untouchability, and there have been affirmative policies in place for many years. But almost 70% of Indians say that most or all of their close friends share the same caste, and 64% say that it is very important to stop women from marrying outside their caste, and 62% say the same for men.

The study also finds that religious conversion is rare in India and is negligible as those religions that gain converts may lose some followers. But religious switching has a minimal impact on the size of religious groups. Across the country, 98% gave the same response when asked to identify their childhood religion and their current religion. 

For Hindus, 0.7% were raised as Hindus but left the religion whereas 0.8 joined the religion. For Christians, 0.4% were former Hindus who converted compared with the 0.1 that were raised Christian but left the religion. 

Almost all Indians, 97%, say that they believe in God, and about 80% of the individuals in most religious groups are certain that God exists. The biggest exception is Buddhists, a third of whom say they do not believe in God as it is not central to the religion's teachings. Indians have varying perceptions of God as most Hindus believe there is one God with multiple manifestations or avatars. In contrast, Muslims and Christians are more likely to say that there is only one God.

However, across all faiths, Indians say that religion is a very important part of their lives, with many praying and partaking in rituals daily. As India is diverse and has been for generations, the country's minority groups engage in similar practices or hold beliefs closely related to Hindu traditions than with their own in other countries. 

For example, 29% of Sikhs, 22% of Christians and 18% of Muslim women say they wear a bindi even though the accessory has Hindu origins. 77% of Muslims and Hindus believe in karma, as do 54% of Christians. Different members of different religions celebrate each others holidays; 7% of Hindus said that they celebrate Eid, and 17% said that they celebrate Christmas.

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