In India, ‘woke’ politics a liability: Pew survey
Indians, across religions, are not just believers but also conservative in their attitude towards religion. Political support, even for the rationalist and communist political formations, does not change this fact. While they claim to have respect for people from other religious persuasions, they are not very keen on promoting western style secularism, which calls for separation of religion and politics.
Some of the most controversial and divisive political positions around religion, such as the bogey of Love-Jihad sustain themselves not on facts but the widespread disapproval of such ideas in principle. These findings, if true, suggest that radical secularism or ‘woke’ politics is unlikely to work politically in India and mainstream politics will continue to pander to conservative values around both caste and religion.
These are among the interesting findings of a survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre, a Washington based “nonpartisan fact tank” that offers some useful insights on the role of religion in politics. The survey, Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation, is based on 30,000 interviews conducted between November 2019 and March 2020.
The intersection of religion and politics has always been a contested terrain in India. The Indian nation suffered a partition on religious lines at birth, yet adopted a secular form of state. This question has gained renewed salience since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a political affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), stormed to a parliamentary majority in 2014, becoming the first party to get a majority after 1984. It replicated that feat in 2019. The BJP’s political victory has come on the back of a massive consolidation of Hindu votes, and almost negligible representation of Muslims in the ruling party’s support base or elected representatives.
The Opposition, having realised the gravity of political challenge, has tried many tricks to counter the BJP. The most common among them has been what is often described as the “soft-Hindutva” approach. This is characterised by political leaders openly associating with Hindu religious symbols such as visiting temples or even reciting scriptures during political campaign. The success of such as an approach has been mixed, which also means it is difficult to establish a cause-effect relationship. There is also a small but vocal minority which advocates a radical approach to questioning and undermining established religious and cultural norms.
It is this background that makes the findings of the survey interesting. Here are some of the key ones:
Most Indians are believers
Indians are overwhelmingly believers when it comes to God. This trend holds across religions, except among Buddhists where one-third list themselves as non-believers. While the overall share of non-believers is small across major religions, the probability of finding a Muslim or Sikh non-believer is three times that of finding one among Hindus and Christians. The disproportionately large share of non-believers among Buddhists seems to be driven by the conversion of Bhim Rao Ambedkar to Buddhism in 1956. 89% of Buddhists identified themselves as members of the Scheduled Castes (SC) in the survey. “It does seem like the concentration of Buddhists who are also Dalit and atheist is higher in Maharashtra (5% of Maharashtra’s total population vs. 0.5% nationally). Of course, though, the overwhelming majority of Indian Buddhists (85%) are located in Maharashtra”, Neha Sahgal, associate director of research at Pew Research, told HT.
Voting for communists and rationalists does not change faith in a big way
What is also interesting is that one’s attitude to God does not change significantly with political persuasion. The share of believers among those who voted for the Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) does not differ significantly from the group which did not vote for such parties. This is contrary to perceived wisdom, given the fact that the leadership of the communists and DMK does not acknowledge religion in their political positions. However, this statistic does explain why the CPI (M) was so vulnerable to a Hindu backlash when it supported a Supreme Court decision (now stayed) allowing entry to women of all ages in the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala, which was against established custom.
On the face of it, communal harmony coexists with segregation
A large majority of Indians, across religious persuasions, sees respecting other religions as an important part of being Indian and true to their own religion. This feeling exists despite a majority of Hindus, Muslims and Christians seeing each other as very different from other religions and displaying a high desire for religious segregation, especially when it comes to marriage. The statistics speak for themselves. 80% and 79% of Hindus and Muslims believed that respecting other religions is a very important part of their religious identity. To be sure, experts believe that such responses might not reveal the true picture. “That people tend to hide or underreport politically incorrect views or responses in surveys is a well known fact and the scale of communal polarisation in India could be far greater”, said Neelanjan Sircar, assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University and a visiting fellow at Centre for Policy Research.
66% Hindus and 64% Muslims also thought that they were very different from each other. 67% and 80% of Hindus and Muslims, respectively, believed that it was very important to stop women from their community from marrying outside their religion. The numbers are not very different even when it comes to men marrying outside their religion.
To be sure, the high preference levels for communal harmony could be a result of a tendency to appear as being politically correct among respondents. When asked whether they saw religious diversity as beneficial to their country, only 53% (52% Hindus and 56% Muslims) said yes.
What makes people outcastes from their religion?
Eating prohibited meat (beef among Hindus and pork among Muslims) is the biggest disqualifier when it comes to being seen as part of the community. 72% Hindus and 77% Muslims believe that a person cannot be a Hindu/Muslim if they eat beef/pork. Sikhs and Jains are also highly disapproving of eating beef. While this is the common factor among both Hindus and Muslims, the two groups differ on other triggers of being considered outcastes. Observing festivals of other religious communities is a bigger taboo among Hindus than Muslims. Muslims are relatively more forgiving when it comes to observing other religious festivals than not participating in their own rituals and festivals. “Disrespecting India” is also a big trigger for being considered an outcaste, both among Hindus and Muslims. These statistics underline the political risk which a politician advocating tolerance of eating beef or pork, or questioning “nationalism” would attract.
The fear of perceived religious transgressions is what feeds communal politics
Why does something like ‘Love-Jihad’, a term used by many Hindu majoritarian organisations to claim large scale inter-religious marriage and conversion of Hindu women, manage to find political traction in India? Almost all Indians do not report having ever faced religious conversion in their lives. The occasionally rare instances of conversion, even when they occur, are present across all religions. What explains the paranoia such issues generate then?
One possible explanation could be the fact that most Indians are not averse to politicians influencing religious affairs. Politicians may be exploiting entrenched religious fears, such as aversion to inter-religious marriage or the disproportionate opposition to a uniform civil code among Muslims – 74% Muslims support allowing Muslims to go to their own religious courts to settle a family dispute as opposed to just 30% Hindus – to build a political constituency around such issues. That preference for an authoritarian leader is almost the same among many Indian religions, including Hindus and Muslims, must be encouraging such tendencies.