Home / Opinion / Views /  The Pew study’s glazed picture of our religious tolerance

A major Pew Research Center survey of religion across India, based on nearly 30,000 face-to-face interviews of adults conducted in 17 languages between late 2019 and early 2020 (before the covid pandemic), was recently published. The survey’s findings suggest that Indians across all religions are by and large religious and see themselves as tolerant of religious groups other than their own. “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," said the report.

The Pew findings also indicated that for a majority of those surveyed, marriage within their own religion/community/caste was preferred, that their friendships and peer groups were also largely restricted to their own religious and/or caste groups. Another key finding was that a majority—predominantly in North India—linked the idea of being a ‘true Indian’ with being Hindu and speaking Hindi.

These findings, for a number of us, are hardly surprising. One doesn’t have to be a social scientist or a close political observer of India to know the answers to most questions raised in the survey. Any acquaintance with everyday discussions in our own families, with friends and colleagues, or a cursory look at news reports on TV and in newspapers, or a glance at posts on social media would reveal how religion and religious identities are central to the lives of most Indians and their daily discourse.

Data on inter-religious and inter-caste marriages, and on love versus arranged matrimony, has long shown how a majority of Indians prefer to marry within their own castes/religion and prefer their parents to ‘arrange’ their marriages. Along with religion, questions of caste and issues of gender and patriarchy, and of nationalism and identity linked to language (Hindi, particularly, in the north), have all been subjects of academic enquiry and debates, rigorous investigation and research for decades.

Why then is there surprise at the findings? One reason, perhaps, is that the fig leaf many Indians have used to cover their biases and exceptionalist ideas of ‘Indian (read Hindu) tolerance’ is now increasingly difficult to sustain. Surveys like the Pew survey merely add to the already vast archive of rigorous research. The Pew findings bring home clearly how very divided Indian society is and how central religion is to the average Indian: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, etc.

It is from answers to the Pew survey’s questions on marriage and friendships that we gain an inkling of what exactly Indians mean when they say they are ‘tolerant’. Being tolerant comes with a caveat: it is clearly limited to each group living segregated lives and within their agreed Laxman rekhas. Transgressions of these supposedly ‘agreed lines’ can and often do result in violence, and quite often, it is the bodies, agency and life choices of women, minorities and marginal groups such as Muslims, Dalit-Bahujans and Adivasis who bear the brunt of it.

Marriage, especially by choice and outside one’s religious or caste community is viewed with suspicion and generally not considered acceptable. This idea that ‘our’ women cannot marry out of their religion or caste community is something that a majority of those surveyed agreed with, and it comes as no surprise. Decades-old Indian feminist research on marriage and women has shown how almost all religions foster patriarchal set-ups under which women are viewed as property. We only have to open our newspapers or glance at the latest outrage on Twitter to recognize this. Consider, for example, the recent mahapanchayat in Pataudi, Haryana, and the case of Sikh women in Kashmir marrying Muslim men.

There is this notion that Indians, largely upper-caste groups, have internalized of our long having established a broad social contract under which all social groups have lived harmoniously side by side for millennia, and it’s only recently that this contract was broken. This particular idea also helps citizens elide the question of this so-called social contract’s actual terms and what exactly the word ‘tolerant’ means. The idea of this social contract and the ‘tolerance of the average Indian’ vis-a-vis other social groups is useful, as it reifies the notion that any violence which occurs is done by a ‘fringe’ or small deviant group, rather than it being something which is part and parcel of daily Indian life. It also allows a majority of us to look away and distance ourselves—to say, “This is not us."

The economic liberalization of the 1990s resulted in the emergence of different groups that benefited from the ensuing boom. The decades since have seen rapid socio-cultural changes and the rise of a new rural as well as urban middle-class elite. What needs to be examined is how these attitudes have hardened or changed with time and with governments. Surveys like the Pew research study are therefore useful. They provide data and numbers to back claims made by various social science researchers. However, for a broader and deeper understanding of why religion remains such a deeply entrenched idea for Indians, only old-fashioned fieldwork and well-grounded qualitative research studies can provide answers.

Radha Khan is an independent consultant working in the field of gender, governance and social inclusion. She tweets @RadhaKhn.

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