83% Of Indians Value Religious Freedom, Finds Pew Survey: Is The Government Listening?

21/12/2015 8:09 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
This picture neatly captures the appropriation of public space and walls by permanently painted images one can find everywhere in Chennai. Centre is a wonderfully inclusive trio of religious themes: Jesus, a Muslim message and Hindu Ganesh. What makes the images remarkable, if not uncommon, is that although beautiful and obviously made with a lot of effort, this is just a random, unremarkable, non-prominent section of road near my home. No reason to put it up, someone just felt compelled. Also caught are two examples of the ubiquitous messages painted, usually in blue or indigo; to the left is a typical, ineffective public service scrawl, "Keep Anna Nager Clean & Tidy" and to the right is the amazingly prolific advertising message for "A to Z Magic Show". These and their competitor "P James Magic Show" are simply everywhere, on gates, walls, buildings, street corners, and pillars. There is also the mass of less permanent advertising signs and posters, especially the poster bills of the latest movies that run like comic strips along many streets.

Amidst the ongoing debate on religious intolerance in the country, the findings of the Pew Global Attitude Survey 2015 that "India is among the top supporters of religious freedom" comes as a breath of fresh air.

Each morning we wake up to fresh instances of what looks like a growing culture of intolerance - the murders of three rationalists, the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri, the ink assault on Sudheendra Kulkarni, the protests against Aamir Khan ... the list goes on. In the meantime, several dozen writers, intellectuals and scientists returned their awards as a gesture of protest, severely denting the country's image. I must add here that in none of the instances mentioned was the BJP directly implicated, but the government has been held responsible by many commentators.

"India can draw valuable lessons from these findings and take effective steps to further promote the democratic principles that uphold social, cultural and religious harmony."

This blame does not quite stand up to actual data, which suggests that the problem of religion-driven conflict has been around for far longer than the current dispensation - contrary to what the award returners seem to think. The US congressional report on International Religious Freedom 2014 in its India section, which includes the UPA rule until May 26, says that last year, India witnessed several religiously motivated killings, arrests and riots, and coerced religious conversions, and the police in some cases failed to respond effectively to communal violence. David Saperstein, US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, talked about the possibility of the US encouraging the Modi government to turn the ideals of "tolerance and civility" into reality across the country.

Against this backdrop, the Pew Global Research, which conducted the Global Attitudes Survey 2015, covering 38 countries (including the US, UK, France and many countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East), and interviewing 40,786 people this year, found a large support amongst those polled in India for religious freedom. I hope the findings will silence the doomsayers.

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The survey, which explores support for democratic principles around the world, covered the following six broad areas:

1. People can practice their religion freely

According to the survey, 83% of the respondents in India supported freedom to practice religion as important, against the global median of 74%. Interestingly, the highest scorers were Nigeria (90%) and Senegal (90%), while Japan (24%) demonstrated the lowest support for religious freedom.

2. Women have the same rights as men

The global median for supporting gender equality is 65%. The United States, Canada, as well as European and Latin populations are the best scorers overall, while in the Asia Pacific region, Australia tops with 92%, followed by India at 71%. The Middle-East is one of the worst places for gender equality, with the notable exception of Israel (69%) and Lebanon (75%).

3. Honest elections are held regularly with a choice of two parties

In the Asia Pacific region, Australia tops with 92%, followed by Malaysia (67%), Japan (60%) and South Korea (62%). In India, 49% believe it is very important to have honest, competitive elections with a choice of at least two political parties. This is far below the global median score of 61%. One possible reason could be that in India having less than two parties has never been an issue.

4. People can say what they want without state or government's censorship

Germany tops the list with 86% of the people against the government's censorship. In India only 44% of those polled have agreed with the right to freedom of expression.

5. Media can report without state or government's censorship

Only 38% of the respondents in India supported the idea of the media's freedom to publish information without any form of censorship. Argentina tops with 71%, followed by Germany and Spain (both 69%). One wonders whether the low percentage of people supporting media freedom in India could be due to personal attacks on politicians, the increase in media trials and judgements passed on people in sensitive cases that are still pending in courts of law.

6. People can use the internet freely without censorship

Against a global median of 50%, India scored a surprisingly low 38% in its support of Internet freedom. The majority of people in 32 out of 38 countries say it is important to live in a country where people can use the internet without government censorship.

Now, there is no denying that this study has some obvious limitations, including the fact that a sample size of 40,786 respondents across 38 countries is quite small. In India, only 2500 people were interviewed which cannot be held as representative of as populous and complex a country as this.

However, in spite of these limitations, India can draw valuable lessons from these findings and take effective steps to further promote the democratic principles that uphold social, cultural and religious harmony. While I do believe the vast majority of people are strong votaries of religious freedom and social harmony, this section of the population has failed to raise its voice against all those indulging in divisive politics that lead to unrest and conflict. Further, the government's failure to rein in rabble-rousing leaders has helped fuel the (mis)perception that there is implicit support from the top for those who are creating an atmosphere of religious divisiveness. It is in this regard that the Modi government has let down the people and should come down heavily on all those who ratchet up issues that create fear and uncertainty among the minorities.

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