India communal harmony
Members of different religions taking out a peace march from Vijay Chowk to India Gate in New Delhi, India (File) Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

It is almost impossible to assess accurately the core beliefs of 1.3 billion humans, with around 950 million adults among them, and draw conclusions from it.

But, surprisingly those who study and report India objectively will agree that data of a leading survey ‘Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation’ by Pew Research Centre largely matches with the socio-religious-cultural realities of the Indian society.

Whether these trends are good or bad is another matter but the Pew survey has painted a correct portrait of Indians. A treasure trove of data, the survey shows a billion plus Indians are either pretenders or geniuses (when it comes to inter-faith relations) who have found a desi, secular formula for a largely peaceful coexistence.

The survey covers Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and Jains of India.

Being religious: An Indian trait

The study reminds us that being religious is an Indian trait, with 84% of all Indians (including 84% Hindus and 91% Muslims) identifying as religious. While 89% of Muslims and Christians said they felt free to practice their religion, a majority find no discrimination on the basis of religion in India.

The importance of religion doesn’t decline even in the educated class. About 66% Hindus think they are different than Muslims, while 64% Muslims think they are unlike Hindus.

Just think, what a unique country India is: 77% of Hindus and Muslims both believe in karma, and same number think that respecting elders is important too. Around 32% of Christians, along with 81% of Hindus, believe in the purifying power of the Ganga.

The picture emerges of the ancient civilisation that is working out ways in the modern age to cohabit.

Sadly, 2/3 of Hindus don’t support interreligious marriages. 80% of Muslims think Muslims women should not marry outside their religion but, then, decisively, Hindus and Muslims are determined to be partners in nation building.

Around 81% Hindus and 78% Muslims say respecting all religion is very important to being Indian.

Proud to be Indian

Pew says, “India’s Muslims almost unanimously say they are very proud to be Indian (95%), and they express great enthusiasm for Indian culture: 85% agree with the statement that “Indian people are not perfect, but Indian culture is superior.”

Unfortunately, Hindus and Muslims are not mixing much at social level nor are interreligious marriages very common. One disturbing figure is that 36% Hindus do not want a Muslim as neighbour while only 16% of Muslims mind Hindu neighbours.

Both, Hindus and Muslims like to live in ghettos. The survey is sending alerts, too.

Some liberals have expressed fears that a new “linguistic-religious political Hindu Indian” is emerging under the current regime.

In a country where Hindus make up 80% of the population and Muslims 14%, around 60% worry about communal riots.

An interesting outcome of the survey is that it demolishes many beliefs of the extreme right and extreme left in Indian politics. Centrists have been more satisfied with the survey as real Indians seems to be people seeking middle ground in spite of having opposite views.

Many times, Indian liberals and secular thinkers tend to blame Hindus for majoritarianism, but the survey shows that 80 per cent Muslims support Sharia and average Hindus and average Muslims are more or less similar in their positions on religion.

As per the survey, the integration of South Indian Hindus and Muslims is better in all respects compared to North.

If Indian political parties wants to plan out 2024 campaign, they should take lessons from this study.

BJP's geographical limitations

For the BJP, the survey shows its geographical limitations as South India is not going along with the North Indian trends where the BJP has deeper roots.

It seems that the Indian toolkit of survival is not Western style secularism, which calls for separation of religion and politics. For the liberals and seculars alike, there is clear message that in India religion and politics will be difficult to segregate.

Perhaps the most talked about data point is what it means to be the nationalist. Pew claims that 64% Hindus say it is very important to be Hindu to be “truly” Indian and 59% Hindus interconnect Indian identity with being able to speak Hindi.

In the 2019 national elections, the survey notes, 60% of Hindu voters (who voted BJP) thought it was very important to be Hindu and to speak Hindi to be truly Indian.

This fusion of “Hindi-Hindu and BJP” that emerges from the survey is worrying many secular and liberal thinkers.

Experts who have experience of carrying out surveys have doubted the outcome of this one saying that the views of 30,000 Indians doesn’t give a holistic picture.

However, many domain experts agree with the methodology adopted by Pew.

A desi form of secularism

Also, according to Sanjay Kumar, Director of Centre for the Studies of Developing Societies, a similar survey done in 2015-16 (which wasn’t published for some reason) had shown more or less similar trends.

He says, “The survey says it’s a separate but equal India. When it comes to individual Indian, he/she shows caution and revels in their different colour but as a society they advocate great virtues. Indians, both Hindus and Muslims, have different facets in private and public.”

But, what’s wrong in it?

If an utopian situation isn’t arriving soon then this desi jugaad for peace, as long as transition and transformation goes on, should not be discarded but worked upon.

The survey is elaborate and tells us that Indians are tolerant, secular and conservative at the same time. These contradictions are possible to understand and accept if one understands the deeper human psyche.

A senior professor of political science told Gulf News, “Tolerance and secularism is Indian culture and this survey’s outcome is an acknowledgement of a thousand years of reality. Don’t just look only at contradictions. In the minds of most Indians, equal right to follow your own religion exists.”

Pertinently, the sum of all contradictions and negatives among Hindus and Muslims is not ending up in any loss of hope.

India is showing the way with all its struggles and pains on how to build the nation while keeping one’s faith and respecting other religions.