Pew survey reveals Indians
free to practise their religions

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NEW DELHI: A new poll released by Pew Research Center, USA, released on Tuesday has disclosed that most Indians – Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Sikhs and others – say they are free to practise their religion and that they consider respect for other religions is “very important” to their own respective faiths and being truly Indian.

Pew Research Center, is a Washington DC-based nonpartisan think tank, has found that a majority of Indians enjoy religious freedom, value religious tolerance and believe that respect for all religions is central to the idea of India. The study is based on a face-to-face survey of 29,999 Indian adults between late 2019 and early 2020, weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world.

The survey also found that members of most major religions – especially Hindus and Muslims – call themselves “very different” from people of other faiths and disapprove of inter-faith marriages, and “overwhelmingly” make friends within their respective religious communities.

The survey also found that for a majority of Hindus their religious identify is “closely intertwined” with their perception who is “truly” Indian – 64% say it is very important to be Hindu to be “truly” Indian. And most Hindus – 59% – also believe that Indians should be able to speak Hindi.

Pew said the survey was conducted among 30,000 Indians through face-to-face interviews in 17 languages in late 2019 and the beginning of 2020, a period marked by escalation in sectarian tension over the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the revocation of the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority erstwhile state.

“While people in some countries may aspire to create a ‘melting pot’ of different religious identities, many Indians seem to prefer a country more like a patchwork fabric, with clear lines between groups,” the report said.

But, first, what unites Indians. Most of them agree they are free to practise their faith – 91% Hindus, 89% Muslims and Christians, 82% of Sikhs, 93% of Buddhists and 85% of Jains; 85% of Hindus, 78% of Muslims and Christians, 81% of Sikhs, 84% of Buddhists and 83% of Jains said respect for other religions is “very important” to being “truly Indian; and 80%, 79%, 78, 75%, 86% and 73% of the six faiths say respect for other religions is a very important part of their religious identify.

There is more that they agree on – 77% of Hindus believe in karma, as do Muslims; a third of Christians and a majority of Hindus believe in the purifying powers of Ganga; and in northern India the survey found that 12% of Hindus and 10% of Sikhs, and 37% of Muslims identity with Sufism.

Now, what sets them apart, according to the Pew survey. Most Hindus – 66% – believe they are very different from Muslims, and Muslims nearly reciprocated that with 64% of them saying they consider themselves very different from Hindus. Two-third of Jains and half of Sikhs, however, say they have a lot in common with Hindus.

India Gate

Difference in self-perception among Hindus and Muslims manifests in opposition to inter-faith marriage. Roughly, two-thirds of Hindus in India want to prevent inter-religious marriages of Hindu women (67%) or Hindu men (65%), the survey said. It was also found that larger shares of Muslims feel similarly – 80% say it is very important to prevent Muslim women from marrying outside, and 76% say it is very important to stop Muslim men from doing so.

A majority of those polled say their close friends are from the same religious group – 86% of Indians overall, 86% of Hindus, 88% of Muslims, 80% of Sikhs, and 72% of Jain. But Hindus were divided on who they preferred as neighbours – 45% said they were fine with anyone, 45% said they will not be willing to accept members of at least one of the religions as neighbours, mostly, 39% Muslims.

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.