Indians value religious freedom and tolerance but not great at integration, finds Pew survey

Pew Center report on religious attitudes in India.

Most Indians, cutting across religions, feel they enjoy religious freedom, value religious tolerance, and regard respect for all religions as central to what India is as a nation. At the same time, in what might seem like a contradiction, the majority in each of the major religious groups show a marked preference for religious segregation and “want to live separately”, according to a nation-wide survey on religious attitudes, behaviours and beliefs conducted by Pew ResearchCenter, a non-profit based in Washington DC.

For instance, the report found that 91% of Hindus felt they have religious freedom, while 85% of them believed that respecting all religions was very important ‘to being truly Indian’. Also, for most Hindus, religious tolerance was not just a civic virtue but also a religious value, with 80% of them stating that respecting other religions was an integral aspect of ‘being Hindu’. Other religions showed similar numbers for freedom of religion and religious tolerance. While 89% of Muslims and Christians said they felt free to practice their religion, the comparative figures for Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains were 82%, 93%, and 85% respectively.

On the question of religious tolerance, 78% of Muslims felt it was an essential aspect of being Indian, while 79% deemed it a part of their religious identity as Muslims. Other religious denominations scored similarly high on religious tolerance.

The survey also revealed a number of shared beliefs that cut across religious barriers. For example, while 77% of Hindus said they believed in karma, an identical percentage of Muslims said so as well. Also, 32% of Christians (along with 81% of Hindus) believed in the purifying power of the Ganga, while the majority in all the major faiths said respecting elders is very important to their religion.

Index of religious segregation

And yet, paradoxically, despite these shared values and a high regard for religious tolerance, the majority in all the faiths scored poorly on the metrics for religious segregation: composition of friends circle, views on stopping inter-religious marriage, and willingness to accept people of other religions as neighbours.

The report, observing that “in India, a person’s religion is typically also the religion of that person’s close friends”, states that relatively few Indians (13%) had a mixed friends circle. Nearly half (47%) of Hindus said that all their close friends shared their religious identity, while 39% said most of their friends were fellow Hindus. The comparative figures for other faiths were 45% and 44% for Muslims, 22% and 56% for Christians, 25% and 56% for Sikhs, and 22% and 52% for Buddhists. In other words, people belonging to smaller religious groups were less likely than Hindus and Muslims to say that all their friends were of the same religion.


On the question of inter-religious marriage, most Hindus (67%), Muslims (80%), Sikhs (59%), and Jains (66%) felt it was ‘very important’ to stop the women in their community from marrying outside their religion (similar rates of opposition to men marrying outside religion). But considerably fewer Christians (37%) and Buddhists (46%) felt this way.

As for the third metric, the majorities in all the religious groups were, hypothetically, willing to accept members of other religious groups as neighbours, but a significant number had reservations. Among Hindus, most were willing to live near a member of a religious minority, such as Muslim (57%), a Christian (59%), or a Jain (59%). But altogether 36% of Hindus said they would not be willing to live near a Muslim, with 31% saying the same for Christians. Jains were even more likely to express such views, with 54% saying they would not accept a Muslim neighbour, and 47% saying the same about Christians.

In contrast, Buddhists were most likely to voice acceptance of other religious groups as neighbours, with roughly 80% of them wiling to accept a Muslim, Christian, Sikh or Jain as a neighbour, and even more (89%) ready to accept a Hindu neighbour. About 78% of Muslims said they would be willing to have a Hindu as a neighbour.

Interestingly, the survey found that Hindus who voted for the BJP in the 2019 elections tended to be less accepting of religious minorities in their neighbourhood. Only about half of the Hindus who voted for the BJP said they would accept a Muslim (51%) or a Christian (53%) as neighbours, compared with higher shares of those who voted for other parties (64% and 67% respectively).

Geography was a key factor in determining attitudes, with people in the south of India more religiously integrated and less opposed to inter-religious marriages. People in the South “are less likely than those in other regions to say all their close friends share their religion (29%),” noted the report. Among Hindus in the South, 31% said that all their close friends were Hindu, compared to 47% of Hindus nationally. An even lower number of Muslims in the South (19%) said that all their friends were Muslim, while 45% of Muslims across the country said all their close friends were fellow Muslims.

Religious identity and nationalism

The survey also found that Hindus tend to see their religious identity and Indian national identity as closely intertwined, with 64% saying that it was ‘very important’ to be Hindu to be “truly” Indian. Most Hindus (59%) also linked Indian identity with being able to speak Hindi. And among Hindus who believed it was very important to be Hindu in order to be truly Indian, a full 80% also believed it was very important to speak Hindi to be truly Indian. About 60% of Hindu voters who linked Indian identity to being Hindu and speaking in Hindi voted for the BJP, compared with only a third among Hindu voters for whom these aspects did not matter for national identity.

Southern deviation

The survey found that nationally, three-in-ten Hindus took both these positions: linking being Hindu and speaking Hindi to being Indian, and voting for BJP. But again, there was a clear geographical skew in their distribution: while roughly half of the Hindu voters in northern and central India fell into this category, only 5% of Hindu voters in the South did so.

Also, Hindu nationalist sentiments were less prevalent in the South. Among Hindus, those in the South (42%) were far less likely than those in Central states (83%) or the North (69%) to say that being Hindu was very important to being truly Indian. Also, people in the South were somewhat less religious than those in other regions: 69% said religion was very important to their lives, while 92% in Central India held the same view. Only 37% of Indians in the South said they prayed every day, compared to more than half of the Indians surveyed in the other regions.

The Pew Center’s survey of religion across India is based on nearly 30,000 face-to-face interviews of adults conducted in 17 languages from November 17, 2019 to March 23, 2020. The largest such survey in India till date, it covers the experiences and attitudes of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs and Jains.

The themes covered by the survey include religious identity, beliefs and practices, views on Indian national identity, caste, experiences with discrimination, religious conversion, and the connection between economic development and religious observance.

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