India: High On Religious Freedom Low On Free Speech

Don’t believe the noise about intolerance. Not if you believe a survey released this week by the Pew Research Centre, an American think tank, which says 83%  of Indians maintain that freedom of religion is very important for their country. The survey spans 38 countries and tries to gauge global support for democratic rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, press freedoms and gender equality.

It reflects what may be called the Charlie Hebdo paradox. Respect for religious freedom is somehow at odds with support for freedom of speech. Or at least, some kinds of freedom of speech and in most countries. The United States is a happy outlier, which scores high on both religious freedom and support for all forms of free speech.

India values religious freedoms more than most countries – the global mean is 74%. It also scores well on gender equality – 71% think it’s very important. But Indians are less worried about free and fair elections (49% think it is important), the media’s freedom to report without censorship (41%), people’s right to say what they like without censorship (44%) and freedom of the internet (38%).

Net Freedom

On the whole, it appears halfway down on the free expression index, scoring 3.68 where the United States scores the highest at 5.73. Which places India below authoritarian Russia, monarchist Jordan, and other countries with a dubious democratic record, such as Turkey and Ukraine. In Pakistan, by the way, support for freedom of religion is even higher at 84%. But it is considerably lower down on the free expression table.

But India values religious freedom more than the older democracies of the West, which have placed higher in the free expression index. On an average, about 63% of respondents in European countries felt religious freedom was important. It is interesting to compare India with France, which also articulates secularism as a constitutional principle. Only 52% of people surveyed in France think freedom of faith is very important.

The Pew survey points out that freedom of religion is more significant to those who personally value religion. In India, 86% of people who say religion is very important in their own lives think it is vital that all people are able to practise their own faith. Only 74% of those who say religion does not matter personally find that freedom so vital. Compare this to France, where 70% who say religion is important in their own lives think freedom of faith is that important. For those who say religion does not matter personally to them, this figure is only 49%.

Contrasting Views

The figures bring us face to face with two contrasting forms of secularism. In France, where notions of individual liberty coalesced in the wake of the French revolution, secularism means a project of emancipation from religion. The state is to be separated from faith and all forms of religious expression are to be erased from the public sphere.

The intense religiosity of the subcontinent has created a different kind of secular space. State and faith are still to be separated. But freedom of religion is essential to an individual’s expression of herself. This secularism has given rise to a public space which is crowded with the performance of religion, several different religions.

Both secularisms have given rise to different kinds of unfreedom. In India, the state must mediate between competing, often conflicting, religious sentiments. It has led to a lower tolerance of speech which hurts religious feelings, both of the majority and the minority. It may also be argued that this support  of religiosity has encouraged orthodoxy, which means that sexually explicit content is frowned upon.

Bans All Around

So the Satanic Verses are banned and Salman Rushdie is turned away in deference to conservative Muslim sentiments. So also the majoritarian bullying that drove MF Husain out of the country and had AK Ramanujan’s essay expunged from the Delhi University syllabus. Meanwhile, our censor board works overtime to stop James Bond from kissing on screen and waggling bushes is code for getting steamy in Bollywood.

France is not losing any sleep over religious feelings, even those of the minority. So there is higher tolerance of speech that might offend such sentiments. Therefore Charlie Hebdo and cartoons of the Prophet. Therefore also relentless mockery of the pope, possibly a gesture of rebellion in a country that has historically been Catholic. And French political leaders are lampooned in ripe imagery and language. The kind that would make Indian politicians reach for their smelling salts.

But wiping religion out of the public sphere has also meant banning the hijab and crucifix, even if they are vital to a person’s sense of herself.

So do France’s minorities, stripped of their religious identities in public, feel any more free than India’s minorities, hounded and ghettoised by the majority? The Pew survey, which measures individual freedoms rather than the freedom of social groups, does not say.

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