Pew Survey Insights: Intolerant Hindutva gains foothold in Indian Society

Noora S B

It is well known that the Indian society has been deeply rooted in religion throughout history. Religion has a significant say in determining the social and political engagements of the people in India. Obviously, a detailed study on the religious life of Indians can provide a lot of insights regarding the transformation of society. The Pew Research Center survey titled ‘Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation’ is a much laudable endeavour in this regard, in that it has conducted an in depth investigation into the various religious traits of Indian society, which can enable us to map the course of social and political change in India. Probably the first of its kind regarding the religious life in India, the Pew survey was conducted throughout the Indian mainland during a period of four months starting from late 2019 and made face-to-face interactions with about 30,000 adults.

One of the striking aspects of Indian religiosity as put forward by the Pew study is the clear ascent of Hindutva values and consequent escalation of intolerance, though the respondents would not admit in specific terms. In fact, the survey has explicitly correlated every religious characteristic under study with the respondents’ likeliness to support BJP. It can be seen that the people at large revere the traditional values of Indian society and founding values of Indian nation like tolerance, religious diversity, secularism, democracy, etc. in a perfunctory manner; but these concepts have rather lost its original sense in the minds of the people or have been recalibrated to the ideals of Hindutva nationalism.

Great majority of the people, who cuts across the religions, state that it is important to respect all religions to be truly Indian. Further, a good number of people from all religions state that respecting other religions is an important part of one’s own religious belief. It may seem that Indian society outshines any other in terms of religious tolerance, but when we go in detail into its various aspects, we realize that what prevails is a disguised intolerance. For example, 45 percent of Hindus say that they are fine with having neighbours from other religious groups like Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains. This means that 55 percent are not fine having people from other religions as neighbours, while 45 percent explicitly state they don’t want neighbours from other religions. Muslims face most of the stigma in this regard, with 36 percent stating they won’t accept Muslim neighbours. In the case of Jains 61 percent do not accept neighbours from other religions and 54 percent do not accept Muslim neighbours. This is the nasty interior of an outwardly tolerant mindset.

The idea of being an Indian is making a clear shift from its conventional notion as per the survey. 64 percent Hindus think that it is important to be a Hindu to be a true Indian and 59 percent Hindus think that it is important to be able to speak Hindi to be truly Indian. Thus the far right nationalism which places Hindu and Hindi as essential identifiers of Indianness fares well here. This trend is particularly visible in north and central regions of India. 60 percent of those who thought that ‘to be a true Indian it is important to be Hindu and able to speak Hindi’, said that they voted for BJP in 2019 election. The survey estimates with regard to 2019 elections that those who held these views and voted for BJP make up a third of Hindus. These figures make it clear that the election victories of BJP are not just a matter of votes but a firm imprint of Hindutva on the society, especially in the Hindi heartland.

A perplexing aspect regarding these statistics is that even while holding such divisive convictions, Indian society, in stark contradiction, seems to embrace some of the key principles of secular nationalism like religious diversity. While 53 percent Indians say that religious diversity benefits the country, the proportion of those who support religious diversity among the Hindus who say that ‘in order to be a true Indian one need to be a Hindu and speak Hindi’ and who voted for BJP, is much higher – 65 percent. This sounds like the most intolerant group turns out to be much tolerant than others. A probable explanation of this confusing phenomenon is the impact of propaganda driven post truth politics which enables the people to hold contradictory views. This reminds us of famous words of George Orwell in 1984: ‘War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength’. This translates to the Indian situation as ‘Bigotry is Tolerance’.

The survey reveals that 72 percent Hindus think that those who eat beef cannot be a Hindu. This is particularly disturbing considering that being a Hindu is held as a qualifier for Indianness. Thus, beef consumption becomes antinational along with anti-Hindu. The beef nationalism and cow vigilantism patronised by the far right Hindutva has claimed a lot of lives in India, mostly Muslims. The idea that beef consumption disqualifies from being a Hindu is largely held in North and Central regions (83%) and is much prevalent among supporters of BJP. This is to be understood as an indicator of Hindu nationalism deepening its roots, particularly in the Hindi heartland, though the Pew survey doesn’t seem interested to find its connection with far right nationalism and growing intolerance. The survey stops simply stating that beef is to Hindus what pork is to Muslims.

Intolerance towards the Muslim personal laws is another striking feature. While 74 percent Muslims say they want personal laws in their matters of marriage, divorce, succession, etc. the acceptance of Muslim personal laws among other communities is only 30 percent.

Another fact of concern is that the ideal of ‘the strong leader’ projected by the Hindu nationalism has convinced the people against democracy to a large extent. Among those who surveyed only 46 percent preferred democracy, while the preference for ‘leader with strong hand’ was 48 percent. This trend is predominant in central India, where the support for democracy is only 33 percent and leader with strong hand gets a support of 60 percent. This points to the rapid erosion of democratic ideals in the Indian society, particularly in BJP strongholds.

As regards caste based discrimination, the survey infers that people do not perceive widespread discrimination in India. Only 20 percent Indians think that scheduled castes are discriminated against and in the case of scheduled tribes and OBCs the proportion is 19 percent and 16 percent respectively. Obviously, these figures are not consistent with the realities on the ground. Here, the limitation is that the survey analyses the perception of the people with regard to discrimination. An objective assessment of discrimination in the country cannot be done by studying perception of the people, as the perception is limited by many aspects. Firstly, discrimination is not easily perceived in segregated lives; it is rather felt in shared spaces. Secondly, when discrimination is deeply entrenched in social life it is seldom felt. A person born and lives in discrimination is not likely to perceive it normally. Thirdly, the political awareness which equips to identify discrimination is not the same everywhere.

Similar is the survey results with regard to religious discrimination also while the study is made based on the perception of respondents. Various studies have documented different aspects of religious discrimination like hate crimes, mob lynching, Islamophobia and these studies indicate that the low levels of religious discrimination in India is highly unlikely.

Various features of Indian society as revealed by the Pew Research Center survey clearly marks the ascent of Hindutva nationalism. Now it is up to the strategists to formulate ways to politically take on the intolerant Hindutva and the detailed data on religious trends and characteristics can hopefully aid this exercise.