A major Pew Research Center survey of religion across India, based on nearly 30,000 adult face-to-face interviews conducted in 17 languages between late 2019 and early 2020 (before the covid pandemic), was recently published. The results of the survey suggest that Indians of all religions are on the whole religious and see themselves as tolerant of religious groups other than their own. “Indians see religious tolerance as central to who they are as a nation. In major religious groups, most people say that it is very important to respect all religions in order to be “truly Indian”. And tolerance is both a religious and a civic value: Indians are united in the idea that respect for other religions is a very important part of what it means to be a member of their own religious community, ”the report said.
Pew’s results also indicated that for the majority of respondents, marriage within their own religion / community / caste was preferred, that their friendships and peer groups were also largely limited to their own religious groups and / or of caste. Another key finding was that a majority, mainly in northern India, linked the idea of being a “real Indian” to being a Hindu and speaking Hindi.
These results, for a number of us, are hardly surprising. You don’t have to be a social scientist or political observer close to India to know the answers to most of the questions raised in the survey. Any knowledge of daily chats in our own families, with friends and colleagues, or a quick glance at television and newspaper reports, or a glance at social media posts would reveal just how religion and religious identities are central to the life of most Indians and their daily speech.
Data on interfaith and intercast marriages, and on love versus arranged marriage, have long shown how a majority of Indians prefer to marry within their own caste / religion and prefer their parents to ‘arrange’ their marriages. . Along with religion, issues of caste and issues of gender and patriarchy, and nationalism and identity linked to language (in Hindi, in particular, in the north), have all been the subject of investigation and of scholarly debate, investigation and rigorous research for decades.
Why then is there a surprise at the results? One reason, perhaps, is that the fig leaf that many Indians have used to cover their prejudices and exceptionalist ideas of “Indian tolerance (Hindu reading)” is now increasingly difficult to maintain. Investigations like the Pew Inquiry only add to the already vast archive of rigorous research. Pew’s findings clearly show how very divided Indian society is and how central to religion is to the average Indian: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, etc.
It is from the answers to the questions of the Pew Survey on Marriage and Friendship that we get an idea of what exactly Indians mean when they say they are “tolerant”. With one caveat comes a caveat: it is clearly limited to each group living separate lives and within their agreed Laxman rekhas. Transgressions of these so-called “agreed lines” can and often do lead to violence, and quite often it is the bodies, agency and life choices of women, minorities and marginalized groups such as Muslims, the Dalit-Bahujans and the Adivasis who endure it the most.
Marriage, especially by choice and outside one’s religious community or caste, is viewed with suspicion and generally viewed as unacceptable. This idea that “our” wives cannot marry outside of their religion or caste community is something the majority of respondents agreed with, and it comes as no surprise. Decades-old Indian feminist research on marriage and women has shown how nearly all religions favor patriarchal configurations in which women are viewed as property. Just open our newspapers or take a look at the latest scandal on Twitter to recognize it. 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 our long social contract under which all social groups have lived harmoniously side by side for millennia, and it is only recently that this contract was broken. This particular idea also helps citizens to evade the question of the real terms of this so-called social contract and what exactly the word “tolerant” means. The idea of this social contract and of the “average Indian’s tolerance” to other social groups is useful, because it reifies the idea that any violence that occurs is the act of ” fringe ”or a small deviant group, rather that it is something that is an integral part of the daily life of Indians. It also allows a majority of us to look away and distance ourselves, to say, “It’s not us.”
The economic liberalization of the 1990s led to the emergence of different groups which benefited from the boom that followed. The decades that followed saw rapid socio-cultural changes and the rise of a new rural and urban middle class elite. What needs to be examined is how these attitudes have hardened or changed over time and with governments. So polls like the Pew research study are helpful. They provide data and figures to support the claims of various social scientists. However, for a broader and deeper understanding of why religion remains such a deeply held idea among Indians, only old-fashioned fieldwork and well-founded qualitative 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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