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A groundbreaking nationwide survey explores what Indians believe about their own and their fellow citizens’ religious faiths

The largest-ever study of attitudes about religion and civic life in India has revealed new insights into how the world’s second most-populous nation has developed its own distinct vision of pluralism as a patchwork of separate but mutually influential religious communities — spurring new conversations within India about the nature of identity, tolerance, and politics in the world’s largest democracy. This paradox — of tolerance and segregation — is at the heart of the groundbreaking study, conducted by the Pew Research Center and supported by $2.5 million in funding from the John Templeton Foundation. More than three years in the making, its findings are based on 29,999 face-to-face interviews of adults conducted in 17 languages in late 2019 and early 2020.

Using rigorous design and statistical methodologies, this survey aimed to cover 98% of India’s population, with tailored oversampling to gather statistically significant results from various religious and regional minorities. The results, released at the end June as Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation, a 239-page report and accompanying website. Since then the results have spurred reflection and conversation from a variety of religious and political perspectives, both in India and internationally. 

KEY FINDINGS

“It can appear like a paradox: how can you say that we respect everybody, but we want nothing to do with them?” says Neha Sahgal, the Pew Research Center’s Associate Director of Research, of the survey’s lead finding. “You get the sense that Indians prefer a concept of pluralism more like a patchwork quilt, with clear lines of segregation between religious communities.” According to the survey, more than 80 percent of India’s general population — and more than three quarters of respondents in each of the six religious groups the survey covered (Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains) said that respecting all religions is very important to being truly Indian. Such tolerance does not necessarily imply that believers place all religions on an equal footing: 64 percent of Hindus reported that being Hindu is very important to being truly Indian. And with few exceptions, most members of the various religions groups surveyed felt little in common with members of other religious groups. 

One of the most fascinating findings of the study was the extent to which members of different groups had beliefs more similar to Indians of other faiths than to members of their own faiths in other parts of the world. Muslims in India were just as likely as Hindus to say they believe in karma (77% each), despite the concept’s roots in Hinduism’s foundational texts. Unsurprisingly, 81% of Hindus said they believed that the Ganges (Hinduism’s most sacred river) has the power to purify — but so did 26% of Muslims and 32% of Christians and Sikhs. Overall Indian Muslims’ level of belief in heaven and angels more closely resembled that of Indian Hindus than of other Muslims in South Asia. 

“If you just take a look at the data, it’s surprising,” Sahgal says. “Despite the fact that people live highly religiously segregated lives, perhaps as a consequence of living side by side for so long, belief systems have just found a way to permeate those patchwork lines.”

HOW THEY DID IT

Start to finish, the survey took more than three years to create, carry out and produce its initial analysis. The questionnaire, which included about 100 questions, was developed by Pew Research Center staff under research associate Jonathan Evans, and translated into 16 languages, from Assamese to Urdu, independently verified by linguists proficient in regional dialects, and pretested to make sure the meaning was consistent. Topics covered include religious identity, belief and practice; social cohesion, national identity and politics; gender and the family; and demographic characteristics. The 29,999 face-to-face interviews with adults in 26 Indian states and three union territories were carried out over a period of four months by a team of around 400 interviewers, overseen by project staff. Using India’s 2011 census divisions as a starting point, Pew’s survey designers divided the country into sampling units, and created a system to ensure that the final randomized sample would be representative of the country’s regions, religions and other groups of interest. Within each of the smallest sampling units, after local leaders were consulted to ensure the surveyors were welcome, 12 households were selected via a random-route procedure, in which field staff count residential dwellings from a random starting point as they walk the street and select every nth dwelling for an interview. Once the households were chosen, staff would visit up to four times to give the selected adult the chance to complete the interview.

Despite challenges on the ground, the Pew team was able to cover nearly the entire country. A continued shutdown in the Kashmir Valley led residents to be excluded there, while the rise of COVID-19 ended fieldwork early in India’s Northeast, excluding results from the small states of Sikkim and Manipur.

DATA AND DEBATE

The survey’s results have been discussed widely in Indian media, both in legacy news publications and on platforms like YouTube and other social media. Sahgal says that some of the survey’s granular findings — for instance about the (small, percentage-wise) number of reported religious conversions — have been seized upon by various political or interest groups for admiration or criticism. “What we’re finding is that that public debate is occurring on the basis of the report’s data, which is transparent enough and accessible enough that it’s available to everybody,” Sahgal says.

“Ultimately, Pew Research Center doesn’t take any partisan positions or make any policy recommendations,” Sahgal says. “But there is one normative stance we do take: that knowledge is a public good. Good governance and good democracy deserve an informed citizenry. And data can be very empowering to a citizenry.”

Still Curious?

Read the full report, including subsections on religious segregation, nationalism and politics, religion and food, and beliefs about God.

View tables highlighting other key findings, including:

Learn more about the survey’s methodology, and view the English-language version of the survey’s questionnaire.