No Kashmiris please: Housing discrimination in Delhi’s Muslim majority areas

Activists in New Delhi draw murals and messages on a street during a protest against the Indian government's revocation of Kashmir's special status. In the aftermath of the 5 August announcements, Kashmiri students said they were denied rented accommodation in Delhi. Altaf Qadri / AP
20 November, 2019

On 12 August, a 23-year-old Kashmiri student in Jamia Nagar, a locality in Delhi, was asked to vacate his three-bedroom flat along with two of his flatmates who are also Kashmiri. He had been residing there for two years. While the landlord told him that this was for conducting house repairs, the student suspected that he was being evicted because he is a Kashmiri. His inability to find another rented accommodation in Jamia Nagar over the next few weeks confirmed his fears that the problem was his Kashmiri identity.

On 5 August the Indian government read down Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir. The move came amid a communications blackout and internet shutdown in the region. It was followed by a security crackdown, with reports of widespread human-rights violations.

Ever since the escalation of the conflict in Kashmir in the 1980s, ordinary Kashmiris living in mainland India have often faced threats and harassment. Many of mainland India’s residents have viewed Kashmiris with distrust. In the past, Kashmiris have suspected that they have been denied housing in Delhi because of their identity. After 5 August, as Kashmir became a national flashpoint that divided opinion across the country, similar patterns seemed to repeat. On the condition of anonymity, several Kashmiri Muslims spoke to me about their recent challenges in finding rented accommodation in Delhi.

After the landlord told the three flatmates to move out, they contacted a broker to look for another apartment in and around Jamia Nagar. Jamia Nagar is a Muslim-dominated locality in South Delhi, close to the Uttar Pradesh border. It is home to many students of Jamia Millia Islamia, a public university that attracts several Muslim students from across the country, including Kashmir.

The three flatmates had two weeks to locate a flat or find themselves without accommodation. They tried to find apartments in the areas surrounding Jamia Nagar—Zakir Nagar, Ghaffar Manzil and Okhla Vihar—but had no success. The 23-year-old said that he noticed they were being denied accommodation after being shown the apartments. “We got impatient and asked the brokers what was wrong,” he told me. “They simply told us that Kashmiris are not allowed here.”

On 10 October, Basharat Ali, a Delhi-based academic whose focus is on political violence, wrote a post on Facebook about a similar trend he had encountered. “The Muslim Ghettos in Delhi, Zakir Nagar-Batla House-Okhla Vihar in Okhla, are increasingly denying rented accommodation to Kashmiris for simply being Kashmiris,” he wrote. “Over the past one month I met with more Kashmiris, particularly students, who told me they were denied accommodation than I have met in the last five years.”

He further emphasised that Kashmiris were being denied housing even in Muslim localities. “While as non-Muslim localities in Delhi were not much open to Kashmiri Tenants and also were not preferred for the obvious reasons, the denial of accommodation from predominantly Muslim localities in Delhi is telling of the times we live in,” he wrote.“The trend also suggests that these places are no longer safe for Kashmiris in times of any escalation of war between the Indian state and the people of Kashmir.”

I spoke to Ali after he had posted this message. “I am trying to understand whether this is the result of an increasing otherisation of Kashmiris in India alone or a strand of Islamophobia where ‘good’ Muslims are suspicious of the ‘bad’ Muslims or a combination of the two,” he told me. “I suppose it is more likely that these suspicions emerge from the construction of a Kashmiri person in the Indian imaginary as this eternal threat.”

A 26-year-old Kashmiri student who is pursuing her PhD at the Jamia Millia Islamia university told me about her experience of being denied accommodation in Delhi. When I spoke to her in October, she was living in Jullena, an area opposite Jamia Nagar. After six years in the area, she said she was looking to move to Jamia Nagar. “After some point, your family and relatives feel more comfortable with you living in a Muslim-dominated area,” she told me. “Especially considering what has happened recently, they would feel better.” It was when she began looking for a flat that she realised the challenge ahead.

In early October, as she was heading to view an apartment, she received a call from her broker, who said that the landlord was no longer interested in showing it to her. When she asked the broker what happened, he told her that the landlord “became hesitant after he heard that we were from Kashmir.”

“The broker did try to intervene, but they refused,” the 26-year-old said. “So I thought I’d look for some other place.” This time, she was able to have a look at the apartment before being rejected. “After we reached and told the broker that we liked the flat, he called up the landlord,” the 26-year-old told me. “The landlord was also willing to give us the flat, at least till the broker told him we were Kashmiri.” Once again, the PhD student was refused an apartment.

“The broker was on the phone in front of us, we could hear him argue with the landlord about us being Kashmiri,” she told me. “I wish I was told I was not welcome here earlier. If there’s one thing we Kashmiri Muslims have learnt living here over the years, it’s that we don’t expect such solidarity from Indian Muslims.”

According to Ali, Indian Muslims have always had an “added responsibility” and “as a result an increasing propensity” toward “proving their patriotism openly.” He noted that while in past, “Indian Muslims have been accommodative of Kashmiris because that was thought to be a secular thing to do,” under the Bharatiya Janata Party government, it has become “more imperative for them to be counted as nationalists.”

Ali added, “Following the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, and changing definitions of the idea of India under BJP, Indian Muslims (as Indians) feel a sense of emasculation and power over Kashmiris (now that the place and it’s people are “completely ours”) so much so that their actions are perfectly aligning with the actions of the Hindutva forces against Kashmiris.”

A broker who operates in Jamia Nagar told me that while it was difficult in the past to convince some residents in the area to accommodate Kashmiris, the situation has become worse since 5 August. “Earlier I could have convinced them and told them that these people are quiet and reserved people, but now they won’t listen,” he told me. “I have to put in a few extra assurances about rent.” The landlords I reached out to refused to comment.

I spoke to another Kashmiri, a 24-year-old former master’s student from Jamia Millia Islamia. He said that he had hidden his Kashmiri identity for as long as he could, and often told landlords that he was from Lucknow, where his uncle was working. However, recently, he began to reveal his real identity. “I don’t know if my face says Kashmiri,” he said, “but I found it harder to keep up the lie and just told them that I’m from Kashmir.” He told me about his attempt to rent an apartment in Ghaffar Manzil in early October. “We were about to finalise the deal, when he got a call and left the room,” the 24-year-old said, referring to the broker who received a call from the landlord. “He said he would need two days to let me know.” The 24-year-old never heard back.

For students already living in rented accommodation, the communications blackout and the inability to contact their families had impacted their capacity to afford the rent. “We weren’t able to contact our families back home or know when our money was coming,” the 23-year-old student said. “It was a very difficult ordeal.” Many students told me that they had to ask for extensions to pay the rent. Some also said that they were asked to go to a police station and fill out police verification forms just before Independence Day. “I can tell you about how we’ve had to manage and pull strings together, but what you will not understand is the stress we’ve had these last few weeks,” the 23-year-old student told me in October. “We’re constantly having to prove ourselves to Indian authorities.”

Almost every Kashmiri I spoke to said the weight of not being able to speak to families back home had left them feeling anxious and exasperated. “No one shows any sympathy, on social media people keep saying that this the shutdown is for our own good and for our own safety,” a 27-year-old Kashmiri freelance journalist told me, referring to the communications shutdown. “Why do we have to keep sacrificing things? No one here,”—referring to the mainland—“has to prove anything.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the 26-year-old lived in Junaina. She was a resident of Jullena. The Caravan regrets the error.