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India was among a handful of countries that saw religious hostilities in the early stages of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020, said a report released on Tuesday by the US think-tank Pew Research Center. Overall, the country had the highest rate of social tensions along religious lines globally in 2020, the report showed. The increase in hostilities in the first pandemic year also reflects, somewhat, in India’s official data. However, the government’s reaction will be watched, considering its regular dismissal of adverse rankings in the recent past. Here’s what the Pew report says:

1. Social hostilities

At 9.4 out of a maximum possible score of 10, India’s Social Hostilities Index (SHI) in 2020 was worse than neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a further increase in its own index value for 2019, the Pew data showed. A higher score is worse. The report covered 198 countries. The SHI measures acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups. The index comprises 13 metrics, including religion-related armed conflict or terrorism and mob or sectarian violence. Questions used to compute the SHI included whether the country saw violence motivated by religious hatred or bias, whether individuals faced harassment or intimidation motivated by religious hatred or bias and whether there was mob violence against those of particular religious groups. Among the most populous countries, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt and Bangladesh fell in the category, “very high" social hostilities involving religion.

2. Government curbs

India fared much better on a second index: the Government Restrictions Index (GRI). This index looks at laws, policies and state actions restricting religious beliefs and practices. China ranked the worst, with a score of 9.3. India’s 34th rank was enough to categorize it among countries with “high" levels of such government restrictions. The GRI comprises 20 measures, including efforts by governments to ban particular faiths, prohibit conversion, limit preaching or give preferential treatment to one or more religious groups. For India, some of these arise from long-standing laws, though the score has risen in the last decade. While there may be correlations between countries with high social hostilities as well as government restrictions on religion, in countries like China, tight government control over religion means there is little space for social hostilities to bubble over, Samirah Majumdar, the report’s lead author, told Mint in an interview.

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3. Pandemic challenge

The report also looked at the impact of the covid19 pandemic on religious persecution in 2020. India was one of just four countries in the world that saw pandemic-related social hostilities against religious groups involving physical violence or vandalism by private individuals or organizations. Argentina, Italy and the US were the others. “In India, there were multiple reports of Muslims being attacked after being accused of spreading the coronavirus," the report said. India was also among the countries in which private individuals or organizations linked the spread of the coronavirus to religious groups, the report said, citing the circulation of Islamophobic hashtags such as “Corona Jihad". But 2020 was not India’s worst year on either index: 2016 was the worst with respect to social hostilities, and 2018 on government restrictions.

4. India vs global indices

If recent record is anything to go by, the report and the rankings could face pushback from the Indian government, which has been quick to dispute unflattering rankings. For the GRI and the SHI, Pew researchers consulted more than a dozen public sources of information, including the US Department of State’s annual reports on religious freedom and annual reports from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, as well as reports and databases from a variety of European and United Nations bodies and several independent, nongovernmental organizations. To supplement these sources, coders electronically searched English-language newspaper websites and English-language global news sites and reports on covid-19 produced by organizations including think tanks and university research centres. The information obtained from these reports is purely factual, and not opinions, Majumdar clarified.

5. Official data

By India’s own official crime statistics, the picture is more mixed. According to police data, religious riots for which cases were filed rose substantially in 2020, and declined again in 2021. But there have been significant variations over time, and the numbers are too low as a share of overall rioting incidents to indicate a definitive trend.

Moreover, the home ministry no longer provides data on “communal incidents", and the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) now only publishes data on religious “riots". Even within available data, there are large gaps (https://factly.in/the-intriguing-case-of-data-on-communal-incidents-in-india/) between the data provided by the NCRB and the home ministry. In some instances, news reporting (https://scroll.in/latest/868704/kasganj-violence-not-a-communal-riot-was-only-a-group-clash-says-uttar-pradesh-dgp) has shown that religious riots have been classified as “clashes between two groups" despite the spark having been clearly religious.

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist. Ramakrishnan Srinivasan contributed data analysis.

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