Nearly two-thirds of Hindus in India believe that being Hindu is essential to be considered “truly” Indian. Yet 65% of this group also believes religious diversity benefits the country. These are the findings of US-based Pew Resarch Centre’s latest survey on Indian perceptions of national identity and religious freedom, which broadly throw up results that reveal a high level of tolerance – but also a sense that different religious communities have little in common with each other.

“Indians see religious tolerance as a central part of who they are as a nation”, the report said. “Across the major religious groups, most people say it is very important to respect all religions to be ‘truly Indian’. Yet, despite sharing certain values and religious beliefs – as well as living in the same country, under the same constitution – members of India’s major religious communities often don’t feel they have much in common with one another... Many Indians, across a range of religious groups, say it is very important to stop people in their community from marrying into other religious groups.”

The survey, titled Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation was conducted face-to-face with 29,999 Indians from November 2019 to March 2020 to explore the role of religion in public life in India. It took a sample of adult Indians across regions and included Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Sikhs in proportion to their representation in the general Indian population.

The survey throws up a number of contradictions in how Indians appear to perceive the place of religion in their lives.

For example, while 91% of respondents across all religions surveyed said they had religious freedom in India, 65% also recognised communal tensions as a “very big problem” in the country.

According to the study, most Hindus “tend to see their religious identity and Indian national identity as closely intertwined”. Along with the 64% that said being Hindu was essential to be “truly Indian”, 59% of all Hindus also believe that being able to speak Hindi is necessary to be an Indian.

The survey found a correlation between some of these views and the political leanings of the respondents. It said that “in the 2019 national elections, 60% of Hindu voters who think it is very important to be Hindu and to speak Hindi to be truly Indian cast their vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party”. The BJP is largely perceived to be a Hindu nationalist party, and according to the survey data, the party appeals to the section of Hindus that correlate their religious and national identity.

Yet, religious diversity in the country is seen as a positive thing by 53% of the entire respondents. Particularly, Hindus who said that it is important to be Hindu and speak in Hindi to be an Indian, and who also voted for the BJP in 2019 elections, largely believe religious diversity is positive – 65% of them do.

The study, therefore, suggests that “for many Hindus, there is no contradiction between valuing religious diversity (at least in principle) and feeling that Hindus are somehow more authentically Indian than fellow citizens who follow other religions”.

The study showed that almost 84% of Indians across all religions said that their religion was very important to them. Around the same percentage also said that respecting and tolerating all religions was an important part of being an Indian.

However, respondents from India’s majority religions – Hindus and Muslims – also said that they do not have much in common with each other. 66% of Hindus and a similar percentage of Muslims (64%) feel they are very different from each other.

The survey also said, “Many Indians say it is very important to stop people in their community from marrying into other religious groups.” Around 66% of Hindus and 80% of Muslims said they want to stop women from their religions from marrying into others. Thirty six percent of Hindus also said they would be unwilling to have a Muslim neighbour.

Yet, alongside these views, 82% also said they believe that religious tolerance is an important part of being an Indian. The study, therefore, concluded that,

“Indians simultaneously express enthusiasm for religious tolerance and a consistent preference for keeping their religious communities in segregated spheres...

Indians’ concept of religious tolerance does not necessarily involve the mixing of religious communities. While people in some countries may aspire to create a “melting pot” of different religious identities, many Indians seem to prefer a country more like a patchwork fabric, with clear lines between groups.”

While 95% of the Muslims interviewed said they are proud to be Indian, almost one in five Muslims admitted to having faced religious discrimination personally. This figure varies across regions, with 40% Muslims in the North region saying they have faced discrimination, to 18% in the Central region. The overall percentage of Muslims who think their community is discriminated against “a lot” is only 24%.

The survey is the Center’s most in-depth and comprehensive survey of India till now and has been calculated to have covered 98% of Indian adults, with an 86% national response rate. Funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation, the survey is part of the Center’s effort to understand “religious change and its impact on societies around the world”.

Almost all states and Union Territories were covered by the survey, barring Sikkim, Manipur and Andaman and Nicobar Islands – home to less than 1% of the total population – due to the rising number of Covid-19 cases in March 2020. However, the study mentioned that fieldwork was not conducted in the Kashmir valley, due to security concerns. While it covered the Jammu region, the survey states that it “cannot speak for the experiences of Kashmiris”, who are predominantly Muslims.