“You can marry anyone you like, but just not a Muslim.”
These divisive words are heard by many young Hindu-Americans over the dinner table, even today. Although first-generation Americans are far away from their homeland, they carry on many of the ideas, practices, and divisions that are rife many seas away.
This experience of religious divide in India was the foundation of a recent study by the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit think tank that seeks to study social issues and capture the way people move about in the world. The report, released on June 29th, 2021 aimed to measure religious beliefs across India by surveying 30,000 adults in various states and regions across the country.
In a June 30th dialogue with the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), the principal authors of the report, Neha Sahgal and Jonathan Evans shared their major takeaways from conducting this three-year-long research study.
“Overall, the story that’s appearing (at least from high-level findings) is largely one that reflects not the headlines that you’re going to find in the New York Times or the Washington Post,” said Suhag Shukla, the Executive Director of HAF.
India is tolerant—but segregated.
Of the many findings that emerged from the report, the data overwhelmingly pointed to this conclusion. Indians feel free to practice their religions and feel that others should have that same freedom.
However, Indians have a “Not in My Backyard” mentality towards other religions. Other religions can have their own practices—somewhere else.
Quite literally, many Indians do not want people from other religions as their neighbors. They prefer to be surrounded by folks who represent their own beliefs. About 45% of Hindus could not accept someone from at least one of the other major religions as their neighbor. The same goes for 36% of Muslims, 61% of Jains, and 41% of Sikhs.
The same in-group mentality extends to Indians in their friendships. “Hindus overwhelmingly say that most or all of their close friends are also Hindu… But even among Sikhs and Jains, who each form a sliver of the national population, a large majority say their friends come mainly or entirely from their small religious community,” the report states.
Indians also believe that they must stop inter-religious marriages. They do not wish to see individuals in their own religious circles marrying outside of it. While this may be no surprise to many Indians, the contrast between segregation and the nominal tolerance that Indians self-identify with is stark.
This stated dichotomy between religious freedom and segregation seems problematic to the outside eye. What does tolerance even mean if communities seek to stay separate from each other? India’s history of religion is a complicated one, and unfurling where these notions come from is a centuries-old task. It’s no surprise that Indians tend to take their religion (and others’) as a very serious part of day-to-day life.
For the Indian-American community, these sentiments from the motherland carry forward. Though the Pew Research Center’s study did not survey the Indian diaspora, there has been a Carnegie Endowment study that has tried to capture religious and political attitudes within the Indian-American community. The study, which surveyed 1,200 Indian-Americans found that the diaspora community feels ties to their religion and their caste group. In the Indian-American community, 40% of the members say they pray daily, and half of the Hindu respondents identify with their caste. Most Indian-Americans surround themselves with social groups that share similar backgrounds, and they are politically polarized between party lines, whether that be American political parties or Indian ones.
While the Carnegie Endowment did not study the phenomenon of tolerated separation in the Indian-American community, the fact that most Indian-Americans choose to only socialize with other Indian-Americans demonstrates how the diaspora may be evolving in similar ways to the homeland. Across the world, polarization is a lived reality, and more often than not people seek solace who look like them, think like them, and share their beliefs.
However, such separation cannot and should not be the solution. Contact theory reinforces the idea that the more time two different groups spend in contact with one another, the more often people feel positively about the other group.
So, get out into your community. Talk to people from different religious backgrounds, volunteer with them, work with them. Hopefully, we’ll get to a place where we’re more tolerant and less divided.
Swathi Ramprasad is a junior at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.