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Why Indians like to keep diversity in its own box

India’s diversity is a given but as the 2021 Pew survey on religion shows, our engagement with that diversity is a work in progress

A biryani vendor outside Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, 2019. Diversity can be both uncomfortable and messy; it needs work.
A biryani vendor outside Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, 2019. Diversity can be both uncomfortable and messy; it needs work. (Getty Images)

Like many big surveys, the 2021 Religion In India survey of nearly 30,000 adults by the US-based Pew Research Center has something to please (and upset) everyone. Even a fortnight after publication, it still offers much to chew on.

Those who habitually write the obituary of India as a secular nation will be chastened to find that while India is deeply religious, 84% of Indians say that one has to respect all religions to be “truly Indian”. Fifty-three per cent see India’s religious diversity as a sign of strength.

On the other hand, those who claim India is already the tolerance capital of the world will have to digest the fact that 80% of Muslims do not want Muslim women marrying outside their religious community and 67% of Hindus feel the same way about Hindu women. Ninety-nine per cent of Indians marry within their own faith and Indians like it that way. In fact 56.5%, wanted inter-faith marriages banned, according to a 2004 Lokniti survey.

Also Read: How the invention of 'India' eroded the idea of Hindustan

But the number that jumped out for me was about food. The Pew survey says 72% of Hindus do not think a person can be a Hindu if they eat beef. Seventy-seven per cent of Muslims feel the same way about pork. But what’s most interesting is that as a percentage, that’s greater than those who say you cannot be a Muslim if you never go to the mosque (61%) or you cannot be a Hindu if you don’t believe in God (49%) (there goes my NRI friend’s carefully calculated McDonald’s hamburger exception, where he reasoned that as long as he didn’t have beef in India, his Hindu card was safe, especially since hamburger didn’t sound very beefy anyway).

Food is often our entry point to diversity and a way to signify tolerance. Faced with accusations of anti-Mexican racism, former US president Donald Trump boasted about his love for tacos. While the Pew survey found 36% of Hindus and 33% of Sikhs do not want a Muslim neighbour, the annual food delivery app surveys routinely find chicken biryani tops their most popular order lists. But food is also a flashpoint when it comes to diversity.

At some level we have always known that. Food is a place of personal preference, a place where bias is more socially acceptable. We require residents in a housing society to be vegetarian, claiming we have nothing against non-vegetarians but we don’t like the smell of fish frying. Every year there’s a food fight about shutting down butcher shops during the Jain festival of Paryushan. A landlord disguises his bias against North-Eastern tenants by claiming he cannot stand the smell of fermented bamboo shoots and soya beans.

Also Read: What Assam’s move to 'secularise' education misses

Reading the Pew survey, it seems that while we like diversity as an idea, we do not necessarily want it in our own backyard. Food and love can come too close to home for comfort.

A popular Bengali soap, Khorkuto, gingerly waded into those troubled waters recently. Khorkuto started out with the usual plot of a squabbling odd couple who don’t realise they are in love and a houseful of boisterous uncles and aunts and cousins who never seem to go to work. But then it suddenly introduced the plot line of a long-lost daughter who had married a Muslim man. The family is made to confront their prejudices when her son Adil comes to stay with them without revealing the family connection. But Hindustan Times Bangla says that the plot twist backfired. Instead of driving up numbers, some viewers called for a boycott, claiming that the serial was advocating “love jihad”. Whatever the reason, that plot line has disappeared and the senior Mukherjees, after tearfully embracing the grandson they never knew, are showing no urgency to meet his mother, their long-lost daughter, anytime soon.

It shows that while we all grew up cheering the great inter-faith love stories on screen at least, they now face a backlash even in a soap opera or an ad for Tanishq jewellery with a loving Muslim saas and Hindu bahu. It’s hardly surprising that laws criminalising inter-faith love have gained traction in some states.

Is the old idea of tolerance and unity in diversity dying? According to Pew, 80% felt respecting other religions was an important part of what it meant to be a member of their religious community. And unpacking the overall percentage numbers, we can find significant variations between north and south.

It’s not surprising that human beings gravitate to people like themselves, find comfort in their own. This is not unique to India. At the height of ugly immigration debates in the US in the 2000s, I remember reading a New York Times feature about a small town in the US which had turned against immigrants. An elderly white lady said she once enjoyed playing canasta with her neighbours. But now her neighbours all spoke Spanish. She had nothing against them but she had no one to play canasta with any more. In a 2010 essay in Time magazine, Joel Stein lamented that in his old home town of Edison, New Jersey, the Pizza Hut had become an Indian sweet shop and the town a maze of “cheerless Indian strip malls”. At the time, Arizona had become the battleground state for anti-immigrant laws.

Stein wrote, “Whenever I go back (to Edison), I feel what people in Arizona talk about: a sense of loss and anomie and disbelief that anyone can eat food that spicy.” Stein later apologised for the essay, saying he believed “immigration had enriched America” and he had written the essay because he was just “shocked” that he had felt even a “little bit uncomfortable with (his) changing town”.

I remember bristling in righteous indignation. But with time I also understand where his unease was coming from. We understand the idea of diversity in a grand, hypothetical way. But in our day-to-day life we do not want to deal with the other, especially if that changes our lives in any way. We wish them no harm. We might even enjoy their food. But we do not want them next door or, God forbid, in our homes. We want diversity in its own box.

In a way the problem is we have been spoon-fed the idea that diversity is our natural default setting. We have done those school projects on unity in diversity. And we have been lulled into thinking that diversity comes easy. Our politicians go to different parts of India and wear different head-dresses, making diversity appear as smooth as a costume change. We go on a Ramzan walk near the old Masjid during Eid with a map of hole-in-the-wall kebab shops and think of diversity as nothing more strenuous than a food walk. We read about Bismillah Khan sitting with his shehnai in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi and proudly saying he played his music for both Allah and Saraswati and we swell with pride at what historian Ramachandra Guha called “a delicious paradox that can only be Indian”.

But diversity, or rather the embrace of diversity, is not our natural inclination despite those well-meaning school projects. Bismillah Khan faced hostility from some Hindus who chafed at a Muslim man’s identification with their holy city and from Muslims who thought music itself was haram. He held firm.

Diversity requires work, hard work. It requires challenging our own preconceptions and prejudices. It can be uncomfortable and messy and it also means being okay with that discomfort. The diversity of India is a given but as the Pew survey shows, our engagement with that diversity is a work in progress. Diversity cannot be something we admire from a safe distance, like exotic species in separate cages, before we return to our daily lives. There is no strength in that diversity, it’s merely a zoological garden.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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