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OP-ED: Tracing the contours of Indian apartheid

  • Published at 01:14 am July 2nd, 2021
Is it necessary to be Hindu to be ‘truly Indian’? REUTERS

Will this tenacious Indian bigotry ever end?

Earlier this week, results of the largest-ever survey of religious attitudes across India delivered an unsettling portrait of sectarian anxieties. 

Pew Research Centre interviewed nearly 30,000 people in 17 languages in 2019-2020, and found instinctual tolerance everywhere, but always paired with an overwhelming bias towards living separately.

To be sure, these are complicated findings, and Narendra Modi’s India is not quite South Africa before Mandela. But the feeling of “apartness” is nonetheless real, and the instinct to segregate is effectively identical.

There are some interesting nuances. For instance, Pew points out that “Indians see religious tolerance as a central part of who they are as a nation. Across the major religious groups, most people say it is very important to respect all religions to be ‘truly Indian.’ And tolerance is a religious as well as civic value: Indians are united in the view that respecting other religions is a very important part of what it means to be a member of their own religious community.”

But there’s an accompanying twist because “Indians simultaneously express enthusiasm for religious tolerance and a consistent preference for keeping their religious communities in segregated spheres -- they live together separately. These two sentiments may seem paradoxical, but for many Indians they are not. Indeed, many take both positions, saying it is important to be tolerant of others and expressing a desire to limit personal connections across religious lines.” 

Some of these leanings can be attributed to ascendant majoritarianism. According to the survey: “Hindus tend to see their religious identity and Indian national identity as closely intertwined: Nearly two-thirds of Hindus (64%) say it is very important to be Hindu to be ‘truly’ Indian” and most Hindus (59%) also link Indian identity with being able to speak Hindi.”

What is more, “these two dimensions of national identity -- being able to speak Hindi and being a Hindu -- are closely connected. Among Hindus who say it is very important to be Hindu to be truly Indian, fully 80% also say it is very important to speak Hindi to be truly Indian.” Here it is essential to note huge regional discrepancies which are mirrored in the political landscape.

Pew says: “Among those who voted in the 2019 elections, three in 10 Hindus take all three positions: Saying it is very important to be Hindu to be truly Indian; saying the same about speaking Hindi; and casting their ballot for the BJP. These views are considerably more common in the largely Hindi-speaking northern and central regions of the country, where roughly half of all Hindu voters fall into this category, compared with just 5% in the South.”

It is another reminder of just how far Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Goa have sped up and away from the rest of the country (the north-east states are also different). They compete on par with the top developing nations, while the numerically dominant but endemically regressive “cow belt” lags at the bottom of the world.

All this is evident from Pew: “The survey consistently finds that people in the South differ from Indians elsewhere in the country in their views on religion, politics and identity. [They] are less segregated by religion or caste -- whether that involves their friendship circles, the kind of neighbours they prefer, or how they feel about intermarriage. These differences in attitudes and practices exist in a wider context of economic disparities between the South and other regions of the country.”

Here, another finding illuminates the ancient heart of Indian apartheid. “Over time, southern states have seen stronger economic growth [and] people belonging to lower castes have fared better economically than their counterparts elsewhere in the country. Even though three in 10 people in the South say there is widespread caste discrimination in India, the region also has a history of anti-caste movements. Indeed, one author [the political scientist Ashutosh Varshney] has attributed the economic growth of the South largely to the flattening of caste hierarchies.” 

It is an essential insight. 21st century India displays an exceptional -- and somewhat globally anomalous -- proclivity towards “aparthood” but the best way to understand that fact is in the context of thousands of years of what Ambedkar described as “an eagerness to separate.”

In his The Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization, Namit Arora writes: “Scientists trace the earliest instances of endogamy to the first millennium BCE, probably more than a millennium after the Aryan migration into the sub-continent; mixing of populations was the norm until then … DNA evidence has shown that endogamy first appeared and became the norm ‘among upper castes and Indo-European speakers.’ Indeed, as many scholars have long argued, the roots of the Indian caste system almost certainly trace back to the Aryan substrate.”

Persisting over millennia without substantial disruption, those prejudices became extraordinarily rooted. Pew notes that “most Indians from other castes say they would be willing to have someone belonging to a scheduled caste as a neighbour (72%). But a similarly large majority of Indians overall (70%) say that most or all of their close friends share their caste. And Indians tend to object to marriages across caste lines, much as they object to interreligious marriages.” 

“In addition, 64% of Indians say it is very important to stop women in their community from marrying into other castes, and about the same share (62%) say it is very important to stop men in their community from marrying into other castes. These figures vary only modestly across members of different castes. For example, nearly identical shares of Dalits and members of general category castes say stopping inter-caste marriages is very important.” 

Will this tenacious Indian bigotry ever end? There are clues from other countries. For example, in 50 years since interracial marriage was legalized in the race-addled United States, the majority of Americans have transformed their attitudes. Today, Pew says that over 90% of that country’s millennial generation is “equally accepting of marriage to someone of a different racial or ethnic group.” If that can happen there, there’s hope everywhere.

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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