The US-based Pew Research Centre’s ‘Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation’ report is an unprecedented attempt to gather empirical data on people’s religious attitudes and beliefs and its impact on public life, from across the country. It raises pertinent, essential questions that should be followed up, expanded and further refined, certainly adding ‘Atheists’ as a specific religious grouping, writes Nirupama Sekhri.
The American Pew Research Centre took on a mammoth task – in fact, the “biggest study outside of the US” it has ever attempted - to directly ask Indian citizens across the vast country about their levels of religious tolerance and its impact on social and political life, as well as on their understanding of national identity.
It took 3 years – to develop the questionnaire; translate it into 17 Indian languages; appropriately train its Indian field team; identify participants (meeting local leaders then going house to house); gather, then collate information; and finally, publish the report.
Understandably, the complex, lengthy process suffered set-backs, most significantly, the political turmoil in Kashmir caused after the revocation of Article 370 and the Covid 19 pandemic, due to which the northern-most, Muslim-majority state, as well as Sikkim and Manipur, had to be excluded from the study.
It is useful to remember that Donald Trump was at the helm of US politics at the time when the Report was sanctioned and started. It was a time when questions on racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance were on the rise in the US. Simultaneously, India – the most populous democracy in the world – was grabbing headlines for a rising spate of communal lynchings and a strident religious tenor in its political leadership. Trump and Modi were known for the easy, natural camaraderie they shared.
American media and American courts persistently questioned Trump’s statements, claims, policies and actions; the news from India was (and continues to be) far more contradictory and conflicting: sections of media and human rights activists decrying Modi’s leaning towards authoritarianism and Hindu supremacy, while vocal numbers hailing him as decisive and a saviour.
For a clearer picture, the Pew Study reached out directly to the Indian people to seek their individual, personal beliefs and attitudes, track and study what patterns emerged. Despite the woefully small number of close to 30k participants (relatively speaking) to represent a 1360 million population, the Report’s findings are no doubt of significance to the world at large.
Is the Indian Republic, founded on democratic principles in 1947, still robust enough to remain committed to that political vision? Is it in peril of sliding to tight, opaque, centralised planning (like China); religious majoritarianism (like Pakistan); civil upheavel (like Myanmar)?
The Report’s answers come across as confusing. It claims that Indians are committed to religious diversity and tolerance but chary of applying those ideas in practical terms: expressing distinct discomfort with inter-faith marriages; of living, eating and praying together!
Some of its assumptions too need greater clarity: Is there really a valence in the freedom of religious practice enjoyed by diverse religious groups? In an overwhelmingly Hindu country (80%) with a bloody history of Partition (and ensuing communal riots - 1984 Sikh pogrom; 1992 Babri Masjid; 2002 Gujarat), is the power of minorities to practice religion really the same as of their Hindu counterparts?
And what about atheists? How free are they to express themselves? They are not mentioned in the Report at all; yet, have suffered extreme retribution at the hands of Hindu fundamentalist groups.
In addition, it would’ve been interesting to know how much the respondents agree with violent political, legal and vigilante intervention to protect their right of religious practice. How ‘tolerant’ are they to violent means to 'defend' real or imagined 'offences' to their faith?
Hopefully, these questions will be explored by following studies. All in all, the Pew report offers an excellent Ground Zero finding, and should be built upon to understand and guide political and social discourse in the country.
(The author is an atheist and communications advisor)