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Most Indians believe in religious tolerance — but also segregation, Pew research suggests

16 July 2021


A man prays in a church in Chennai, India, last month

A man prays in a church in Chennai, India, last month

A STUDY of religion in India has found that, while most Indians believe in tolerance towards people of other faiths, they also support segregation by religion.

The Pew survey, based on 30,000 interviews from around India, suggests that, despite the rising incidence of the persecution of Christians, recorded by charities, most Indians said that they felt free to practise their faith.

Most Indians surveyed said that respecting all religions was an important part of their Indian identity, but they also felt that they had little in common with those from different religious communities.

The study said: “Indians simultaneously express enthusiasm for religious tolerance and a consistent preference for keeping their religious communities in segregated spheres.” Although this might seem to be a contradiction to others, Indians do not feel that it is, the researchers observe.

To a “melting pot” of religions, Indians prefer “a country more like a patchwork fabric with clear lines between groups”, the study says.

One of the areas of life in which segregation is most marked is marriage. A majority of Indians said that it was important to stop people marrying outside their religion. Most Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Muslims said that it was important to prevent men and women marrying “out”, but this was less important to Christians and Buddhists.

Similar views were expressed about the question of marrying across castes: two- thirds believed that it was important to stop this.

Most Indians reported that their friendships were also segregated and did not cross religious groups, and substantial minorities said that they “would prefer to keep people of certain religions outside their residential areas or village”.

There are an estimated 67.4 million Christians in India. While religious conversion is rare, the numbers of Christians has grown, particularly among those of lower caste, which has led nine states to enforce laws against proselytising.

Open Doors, which compiles the World Wide Watch List of countries where Christians are most persecuted, has raised India to number ten. Its own study, Destructive Lies, was published last week and is based on research by the London School of Economics. It found that there was systematic persecution of religious minorities in India, condoned by the authorities, and that this had grown since the Indian nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 (News, 2 July).

The Pew study showed strong ties between support for Mr Modi’s BJP party and those who believed that being Hindu and speaking Hindi were important for being “truly Indian”. Nearly two-thirds of Hindus said that it was important to be Hindu to be Indian.

Among those who said that they were BJP voters, religious nationalism was accompanied by a heightened desire for religious segregation and greater religious observance.

Survey respondents also considered dietary observance to be important to being Hindu: three-quarters of Hindus said that a person cannot be Hindu if they eat beef.

The study revealed no sign that the importance of religion was decreasing with economic advancement, as has been found in Western countries. The vast majority — 97 per cent — of Indians said that they believed in God. Researchers noted that India showed little sign of becoming less religious as its wealth increased; the only exception was found among Christians, where reduced religious observance was noted among those had been to university or college and who lived in cities.

The study also found that there were shared practices among religious communities, and that many of the country’s minority faiths adopted Hindu traditions. Many Sikh, Christian, and Muslim women said that they wore a bindi — a coloured dot on the forehead, worn by married women — which is Hindu in origin.

Muslims were just as likely as Hindus to say that they believe in karma. One quarter of respondents who were Christians also practised yoga.

The study was carried out with face-to-face interviews over a five-month period before Covid broke out in March 2020. Of the 29,999 interviewed, 1011 were Christian. The questionnaire was provided in 17 languages.

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