Liberals are really India’s fringe: What a new book on data says

While recent instances of religious intolerance and bigotry may have shocked many, data on Indian attitudes and behaviours - particularly among young people - show that these attitudes are the mainstream, and not the fringe.
A collage of Rukmini S and her book cover, Whole Numbers and Half Truths
A collage of Rukmini S and her book cover, Whole Numbers and Half Truths
Written by:

For some time now, Indians have held fairly conservative views about how the country should be governed in broad terms. The World Values Survey, a conglomerate of various country-level polling agencies, has surveyed sample populations around the world on their views on various social values for nearly forty years. In the latest round (2010–2014), the Indian sample demonstrated a lower commitment to democratic principles than most other major countries. India, along with Pakistan and Russia, featured below the global average on the importance accorded to democracy. Indian respondents had an even lower regard than Pakistani respondents for civil rights that protect people’s liberty against oppression as being an essential part of a democracy. Indian respondents expressed greater support for a ‘strong leader’ and for army rule than most other countries and the global average. The share of Indians who thought that a strong leader was ‘very good’ for the country was higher than in any other country — even Russia (World Values Survey, 2018).

‘Elections are just a waste of time. We should have a strong leader, a saintly and noble man who we can trust, and then he and the army can run the country in the right direction,’ Mahesh Shrihari, a thirty-three-year-old accountant based in Bengaluru in southern India, told me. Shrihari’s grandfather was a Gandhian who had spent time in jail during the struggle for Independence. His father, Ramalingam, had been a lifelong Congress supporter, until he discovered the anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare who captured middle-class India’s

imagination in 2013. Ramalingam then lost all interest in electoral politics. Shrihari, however, is a dedicated supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and has only ever voted for him — ‘I’ll discuss anything with you,’ he told me, ‘religion, spirituality, science, feminism. I am up for a good debate. But I will not hear a word against Modi from anyone. That is the end of the conversation for me because I know the person is not worth wasting time on.’

India ranks poorly on relative commitment to democratic principles on other international opinion polls. In a 2015 Pew Research Center global survey, the importance that the sample of Indians gave to freedom of expression was lower than all the surveyed countries but Indonesia; by 2019, the share of Indians who said that it was very important that people could say what they want without government censorship was the lowest in the world, lower even than Indonesia, and lower than in 2015. India joined Tunisia and Lebanon at the bottom of the list of countries that believed that it was important for the media to be able to report and people to be able to talk on the internet without censorship.

In 2019, India was below the median of countries that believed it was very important for human rights organisations to operate freely in their country without State interference, as compared to European nations, which valued this highly.

‘NGOs [non government organisations, or charities] are out to defame the country. They take money from foreign countries and from the Church and they instigate poor tribal people against the government,’ Manu Koda, a twenty-fouryear-old from Raipur in eastern India’s Chhattisgarh, told me. Koda, who now lives in Kolkata, studied in a missionary-run school that functions as a charity in Raipur, and when the country went under the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in March 2020, a local NGO arranged for dry rations for his mother and grandparents back home, he told me. But those were the only good ones, he insisted. His friends in college who were affiliated with the militant Hindu right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and a well-known Hindi nightly news anchor, had convinced him of the evil of NGOs. He was now part of a Facebook group that called itself Fans of [News Anchor]. Koda regularly saw pictures of NGO signboards posted there, with lurid tales of kidnapping and sex abuse in the captions. He did not need more evidence.

The country was also below the median in its commitment to the free operation of Opposition parties. India was at the bottom of thirty-four countries surveyed in the share of respondents who believed that a fair judiciary that treated everyone equally was important. Only four countries had a lower share of respondents who said that it was very important that honest elections were held regularly with a choice of at least two political parties.

Yet, Indians remain believers in their government. In a 2019 Pew survey, a median of 64 per cent across the nations surveyed believed that political elites were out of touch, disagreeing with the statement, ‘Most elected officials care what people like me think’. This opinion was particularly widespread in Europe where a median of 69 per cent expressed this view. Seventy-one per cent shared this opinion in the US. In contrast, just 31 per cent in India felt this way. Indians were also particularly likely to agree the State is run for the benefit of everyone. Most Indian respondents believed that voting gave people like them some say about how the government runs things. Indians in 2019 were among the most satisfied in the world with how democracy in their country was working.

But alongside this belief in the State comes a muscular majoritarian notion of what the state should regulate.

A study of four Indian states—Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka and Odisha—found that two-thirds of respondents felt that the state should punish those who do not say ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, a nationalistic slogan that Muslims say militates against their religious beliefs, in public functions, and those who do not stand for the national anthem. As levels of education rose among respondents to the survey, so did support for restrictions on free speech; close to half the respondents with a college education or more supported restrictions on freedom of expression. Three-fourth of respondents expressed what the survey described as a majoritarian form of nationalism. Only about 6 per cent subscribed to a strongly liberal nationalism and a further 17 per cent took a weak liberal nationalist position. The highest proportion of respondents with this majoritarian nationalist position were those with a graduate or postgraduate education. These positions included the belief that the state should punish those who do not ‘respect’ the cow, considered sacred by some Hindus, or eat beef. About two-thirds of respondents supported the view that the State should punish those who engage in religious conversion.

Younger people do not have much more progressive beliefs; a 2017 survey on the attitudes of young people found that six out of ten respondents supported banning movies which hurt religious sentiments, even more so among Muslim youth, 70 per cent of Hindu youth were opposed to allowing anyone to eat beef, and one-third of young people opposed inter-caste marriage.

This is not a ‘liberal’ country, nor do most Indians likely see liberalism as a virtue. Under 17 per cent of respondents in a nationally representative survey described themselves as ‘modern’—this included just 16 per cent of the youngest respondents. A majority of all respondents, young or old, rural or urban, uneducated or graduates, described themselves as ‘traditional’ (as per Lok Foundation/ University of Oxford - CMIE Lok Survey Pulse II).

There was once perhaps an assumption that education and urbanisation would automatically drive change towards more liberal values in India. But it no longer seems as if these transformations are inevitable. The education level or wealth of respondents had little impact on the likelihood of experiencing social bias according to a recent survey. Moreover, there was little difference between the experiences of rural and urban respondents; 28 per cent and 27 per cent of rural and urban respondents, respectively, indicated that they had faced social bias. These findings suggest that urbanisation and improved access to education may not automatically reduce social bias.

Extracted with permission from Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India by Rukmini S., published by Context, an imprint of Westland Publications, December 2021. You can buy the book here.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute