Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

New Survey Shows Many Indians Preach Respect but Don’t Practice It

Social equality needs to be more than a coat of paint.

By , a political science professor at Western Washington University, and , the advocacy director at Hindus for Human Rights.
Students protest death of Stan Swamy in India.
Students take part in a demonstration a day after Stan Swamy, an Indian rights activist and Jesuit priest, died in detention in New Delhi on July 6. SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images

A recent Pew Research Center survey of religious identity, nationalism, and tolerance in India presented interesting—and perplexing—findings. Some are heartening: An overwhelming majority of Indians, more than 80 percent, believe respect for all religions lies at the core of their identity as Indians. Most respondents, whatever their religion, said they are free to practice their faiths, that others are free to practice their faiths, and they do not face discrimination.

These findings seem to suggest religious pluralism and tolerance is holding up well in India. But the news shows a very different picture. The recent death of Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and well-respected social activist who was incarcerated under a draconian anti-terrorism law, has brought renewed international focus to the anti-democratic actions of India’s current Hindu nationalist government.

The Pew Research Center study noted deep-rooted segregation in India; in neighborhoods, friendships, and marriage, the country’s major religious groups tend to lead sharply separate lives. As others have noted, tolerance of religious diversity does not necessarily lead to harmony among groups.

A recent Pew Research Center survey of religious identity, nationalism, and tolerance in India presented interesting—and perplexing—findings. Some are heartening: An overwhelming majority of Indians, more than 80 percent, believe respect for all religions lies at the core of their identity as Indians. Most respondents, whatever their religion, said they are free to practice their faiths, that others are free to practice their faiths, and they do not face discrimination.

These findings seem to suggest religious pluralism and tolerance is holding up well in India. But the news shows a very different picture. The recent death of Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and well-respected social activist who was incarcerated under a draconian anti-terrorism law, has brought renewed international focus to the anti-democratic actions of India’s current Hindu nationalist government.

The Pew Research Center study noted deep-rooted segregation in India; in neighborhoods, friendships, and marriage, the country’s major religious groups tend to lead sharply separate lives. As others have noted, tolerance of religious diversity does not necessarily lead to harmony among groups.

How can we reconcile these contradictions—religious tolerance coexisting with widespread segregation and an increasingly narrow space for political dissent? The words of B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution, provides some answers to the enduring puzzle that is Indian democracy.

One of the sharpest minds of the 20th century, Ambedkar was born into a Dalit (formerly called “untouchable”) family and went on to study at Columbia University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is still famous for his tireless efforts to challenge the oppressive rigidity of the caste system and his leadership of the committee that drafted India’s constitution. Less well known but equally important is his astute understanding of democracy. Ambedkar wrote extensively about what it takes for a nation to be a democracy in practice and about the barriers it might face along the way. These thoughts and his warnings to fellow Indians remain astonishingly relevant to this day.

For many Americans, individual liberty is the most important value in a democracy: A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found 84 percent of Americans believe it is very important “the rights and freedoms of all people are respected.” But for Ambedkar, liberty was only one of three essential and coequal conditions of democracy—the other two being equality and fraternity.

Ambedkar believed political democracy was meaningless without social democracy. For a social democracy to be possible, every individual citizen must be treated equally in governance and in society. Ambedkar insisted that more than a form of government, social democracy was a “mode of associated living”—that is, a fraternity. After experiencing caste-based discrimination all his life, Ambedkar believed India’s segregated society, marked by rigid social divisions in every walk of life, made conversation, empathy, and negotiations impossible. He didn’t mince words when he warned Indian lawmakers in 1949 that “without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.”

B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution, believed political democracy was meaningless without social democracy.

Pew Research Center findings show Ambedkar’s fears ring true to this day.

Although Indians are accepting of other religions and, in fact, share many religious practices and beliefs with one another, they also live separate lives. Survey results tell us that 70 percent of Indians describe “most” or “all” of their close friends as sharing their caste; that number rises to 85 percent if we look at religion. Additionally, most Indians oppose marriage outside of one’s caste or religion. This creates what Indian political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta calls segmented toleration: “Each community has its place so long as each stays in its place.” For Ambedkar, this lack of interaction across communities wasn’t simply a theoretical issue but a fatal flaw in India’s democratic project.

Ambedkar noted political leaders have a moral and practical responsibility to treat people equally—that, in fact, equal treatment of people is the “only way” to proceed in politics. In the absence of conscious efforts to strengthen liberty, equality, and fraternity among Indians, he warned that India’s bold experiment in democracy would remain fragile: a mere “top-dressing” on undemocratic soil.

Today, although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pay lip service to Ambedkar’s words, their actions and words demonstrate their vision of India is marked by sharp inequality and polarization. Their divisive views seem to have permeated a significant portion of society. The Pew Research Center survey found two-thirds of Hindus now agree with one of the core tenets of Hindu nationalist thought: that to be truly Indian, one must also be Hindu. This sentiment is particularly strong in the populous Hindi-speaking belt of India, which is concentrated in the northern and central parts of the country. In that region, a majority believe a true Indian should not only be Hindu but should also speak Hindi. Hindus who express a heightened preference for religious segregation also show a greater tendency to support the BJP.

These are disturbing findings, especially since around 20 percent of Indians are not Hindu. Large swathes of the country do not speak Hindi as their primary language, and many Hindus do not subscribe to the BJP’s doctrinaire vision. In its quest to silence dissent, the BJP and other Hindu nationalist groups have consistently attacked Hindus and non-Hindus who have questioned the party’s majoritarian policies, often labeling dissenters as “anti-national” extremists. Such gradations of who is or isn’t a “true” Indian are antithetical to the founding principles of India’s republic.

Ambedkar himself viewed the establishment of the Indian republic with both hope and trepidation. In November 1949, just months before the India’s constitution was adopted, Ambedkar put the responsibility of protecting nascent democracy in the hands of the Indian people. In a speech, he said, “if hereafter things go wrong, we will have nobody to blame except ourselves. … Let us resolve not to be tardy in the recognition of the evils that lie across our path … nor to be weak in our initiative to remove them. That is the only way to serve the country. I know of no better.”

The Pew Research Center survey showed India’s vaunted pluralistic beliefs have persisted despite its current exclusionary turn and most Indians (65 percent of Hindus and Muslims) see religious violence as an important problem. Yet, the survey’s findings about continued segregation and distrust based on caste and religion also confirm Ambedkar’s worries. The Preamble to the Indian Constitution says the Indian people will secure justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity for their fellow citizens. Threatened by a repressive political climate and a hyper-nationalist government, the promise of India’s constitution can be kept only with purposeful, sustained commitment to these core democratic principles.

Bidisha Biswas is a political science professor at Western Washington University and a senior fellow for the Centre for Global Cooperation Research in Duisburg, Germany.

Nikhil Mandalaparthy is the advocacy director at Hindus for Human Rights.

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