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Indians profess respect for all religions but want to live their own lives among co-religionists, a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre shows. A majority across religions believe that stopping inter-religious marriage should be a high priority, the data shows.

Pew conducted a nationally representative face-to-face survey among 30,000 Indian adults across the country between November 2019 and March 2020, a period that happened to coincide with the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act in Parliament in December 2019, and the mass protests that followed until the pandemic hit. The findings were released on Tuesday evening.

Building Ghettos

The majority of people across all religions say that the freedom to practise all religions freely is important to their own religion, and to their identity as Indians. But most Indians across religions feel that they have little in common with those from other religions - just 23% of Hindus feel that they have a lot in common with Muslims, and just 29% of Muslims feel the same way about Hindus. Most Indians make friends within their own religious groups only - even Sikhs and Jains who are numerically small groups.

The foundations of India’s segregated cities and villages are clear: 45% of Hindus and 36% of Muslims would not be willing to accept a person of a certain other religious group as a neighbour. Among all religious groups, the neighbourly antipathy is highest towards potential Muslim neighbours. This is especially true of Jains, Hindus, and Sikhs. Antipathy towards Dalit or scheduled caste (SC) neighbours is much lower in comparison.


No to Intermarriage

85 years after B. R. Ambedkar wrote that the “real remedy for breaking Caste is intermarriage. Nothing else will serve as the solvent of Caste," most Indians remain firmly opposed to interreligious and inter-caste marriage, saying that stopping it is a high priority for them. 80% of Muslims say it is very important to stop Muslim women from marrying outside their religion, and 67% of Hindus in turn want to prevent Hindu women from marrying outside their religion, the Pew report shows. A marginally lower share feel the same way about men from their communities. Unsurprisingly, fewer than 1% of people say that they are married to someone from a different religion.

Majorities of people across castes and most religious groups also consider stopping inter-caste marriage a high priority (although the opposition is lower than to inter-religious marriage). People opposed to inter-caste marriage are a minority only in the south.


Discrimination Tales

Hindus, Muslims and Christians all believe that the community that faces the most discrimination is their own. The reported experience of discrimination, however, is highest among Muslims. Roughly one in five Muslims said that they had experienced religious discrimination in the year preceding the survey. The share of Hindus who claimed the same was similar. Muslims in the North reported higher discrimination than those in other parts of the country. More religious Muslims were more likely to report discrimination. Despite this, a majority feel that they are free to practise their faith in India and feel a sense of national belonging.

Around 19% of Dalits reported having experienced caste-based discrimination in the year preceding the survey. A higher share of Dalits in the south said that they have personally experienced caste-based discrimination than those in the north.


Hindi, Hindu, Hindutva

Most Indians see ‘civic’ values as important to a national identity - standing for the national anthem, respecting the army and laws. But nearly two-thirds of Hindus say it is very important to be Hindu to be “truly" Indian. Most Hindus especially in north India also link Indian identity with being able to speak Hindi. Hindus who closely associate their religious identity and the ability to speak Hindi with being “truly Indian" are much more likely to vote for the BJP, compared to Hindu voters who feel less strongly about both these aspects of national identity. The centrality of Hindi is, as would be expected, less important to Hindus in the south of the country.

The BJP-leaning group also tends to be more religiously observant and conservative: 95% say religion is very important in their lives, and roughly three-quarters say they pray daily. In comparison, among other Hindu voters, a smaller majority say that religion is very important in their lives, and about half pray daily.


Religious Fundamentals

The data points to how successful “culture wars" have been in redefining what religion truly means to believers. Both Hindus and Muslims were asked about what behaviours would preclude a person from being accepted as part of that religious group. For a majority of Hindus across caste groups, the greatest transgression was eating beef while for Muslims it was eating pork. Not believing in God or praying irregularly mattered much less in comparison. A majority of people from both religions also view celebrating each others’ festivals as incompatible with belonging to that religion.


People in the south are the least likely to say that religion is important in their lives or that they pray every day. They are also the most liberal in accepting friends and neighbours of other castes and religions, as well as of inter-caste and inter-religious marriage.

The coexistence of people of multiple faiths, often in close proximity, is often seen as one of the successes of modern India. The Pew report shows that deep suspicion, even antipathy, underlies this coexistence and it stands in danger of fraying further.

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist.

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