In a land of Hindus, minority voices speak

Story by Anne Dudley  |  Photos by Melinda Yoho  |  Photo Gallery


  • Sikhism, Jainism, Christianity and Islam make up a fraction of the religious population in India compared to Hinduism, the foundational religion of the country.
  • Diverse religions coexist with relatively few tensions, but some hurdles do occur because of religious differences.
A Sikh student in Delhi

A Sikh student in Delhi

Americans often perceive India as a place where many cultures and religions coexist seamlessly. Ten students of four minority religions (Jainism, Sikhism, Islam and Christianity) confirmed that overall, the outsiders’ view is correct, but not without some blunders. The students related personal experiences of how being of a minority religion affected their everyday lives.From the student perspective, modern day India is growing increasingly secular. It’s no longer as simple as saying that religion alone separates people. Factors like age, location, socioeconomic status, as well as traditional or modern outlook influence people’s perception of coexistence.

A Muslim student in Delhi

A Muslim student in Delhi

Minorities see Hinduism as the most accepted religion in India. “Hinduism is at the top,” a Muslim student explained. “Christian, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists; any other religion is kept aside always.” Sikhism, she feels, does not fit into this category, as they are an established and supportive community that is also often in the upper middle class.

In some states, Hindu temples refuse entrance to Muslims. “My sister went to Corisa and she wasn’t allowed to enter some of the temples, because she was a Muslim.” In Delhi, this is not a problem for her, but it is practiced in other areas.

The perception of

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Muslims has drastically changed in the post 9/11 world, she explains. She related a report from Delhi University that found that even after ten years, when Indian students from the University were asked what a terrorist looks like, Muslims and men in turbans were suggested.

“I come from a family with a very modern outlook. But sometimes the other family members and friends get influenced by the extremists and they start judging us.”

Despite the pressure from their relatives, she says her family ignores it and moves on. “Such things don’t affect us; we lead our lives the way we want.”

Christianity does not recognize the caste system, but other religions still see the residual effects of caste on marriage arrangements.

A Christian student in Delhi

A Christian student in Delhi

The stereotypical Christian from India is from the south, has a dark complexion and a Christian name, one source related. “When my friends came to know that I am a Christian it was a bit awkward for me. They thought I was a Punjabi boy or a Muslim because I’m fair and I don’t have a Christian name. They took it very surprisingly…I found myself a bit aloof and they started behaving in a different manner.”

“Generally what happens is if you’re a Christian they think you’re more inclined to Western countries, it happens. You are so hip, you go to parties, your ladies drink and what not.”

He admits that when his pastor asks him to talk about his faith with his friends, it can get uncomfortable. To him, Delhi has accepted Christians as a community, where in other cities, Christians face more adversity.

Jain, although a minority, is very accepted and established in India. It is a religion of peace that does not actively attempt to convert, so it remains a small percentage of the population.

A Jain student in Delhi

A Jain student in Delhi

“As a woman, being a Jain has a different perspective from the family’s side,” a female source explained. “Generally the Jain families are conservative. So they want their girls to get married at an early age, around 18-19. If that doesn’t happen, families will start asking a lot of questions.” Parents want their daughters to stay with the family and often place restrictions on them, such as studying locally rather than abroad, coming home early or not socializing with men.

She says that it is rare for an inter-caste marriage to be accepted. Families can cast off the couple. “Parents do expect, especially from their girl child, that they marry their parent’s choice. If a girl chooses a guy for herself, especially if it is inter-caste, parents will pressure against it.”

Economic status is weighted in marriage decisions. “On paper we have gotten rid of the caste system, but reality it is not like that,” she said. She believes that India will be slow to change on perception of caste, in the realm of fifty years.

In metro cities I think people have evolved as well, especially among the youngsters,” the Christian source said. “The scenario has changed from what it was 5 years ago or a decade ago, from my experience.” If this sentiment is shared amongst the next generation of India, it will be interesting to see if the lingering effects of caste will survive.

Category: Faith, families and education