Separate and Unequal

How growing communalisation led to a rise in Muslim-only enclaves

According to a 2017 study, the segregation faced by the Muslim community in Delhi and its adjoining areas was third highest among the 11 cities. RISHI KOCHHAR FOR THE CARAVAN
01 September, 2019

Earlier this year, Muhammad Raees, a 57-year-old resident of Jamia Nagar, began looking for a new house for his family. In his years of living in Delhi, he had never found a house that suited his requirements, a secure locality being top of his list. In May, a fortnight before Eid-ul-Fitr, he found a lead. “Festivities before festivity for Muslims who wish to live in Noida,” an online advertisement read. It offered residential towers “exclusively for Muslims” at Rs 4,200 per square foot.

Jamia Nagar, the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood where Raees has lived for the past fifteen years, lacks several basic facilities, such as clean drinking water, schools, parks and dispensaries, like most other Muslim localities in India. Nevertheless, it provided Raees “a sense of security,” he told me. “The first and foremost thing for anyone is being free from a sense of threat. I can afford a flat at many places in Delhi, but I did not move anywhere as I felt more safe living among the members of my own community.”

In his 2017 paper, “Muslims in Indian Cities: Degrees of Segregation and the Elusive Ghetto,” Raphael Susewind, a lecturer in social anthropology and development at King’s College in London, studied religious demography and segregation in 11 Indian cities. He found that the segregation faced by the Muslim community in Delhi and its adjoining areas was the third highest among those cities, behind only Ahmedabad and Hyderabad. He wrote that “in order to achieve a religiously even spatial pattern in Delhi, either half of the capital’s Muslims or half of its non-Muslim citizens would need to relocate to another neighbourhood.”

Religious ghettoisation in urban areas is not new, and has been widespread for over two decades. In 2006, the Sachar committee’s report on the socioeconomic status of Muslims in India noted that “fearing for their security, Muslims are increasingly resorting to living in ghettos across the country. This is more pronounced in communally sensitive towns and cities.”

“It takes more than segregation to form a ghetto,” Susewind wrote in his paper. “Or rather: it takes something else.” He argued that the policy debate and academic literature about ghettoisation has neglected “the political and social mechanisms that produce these spaces.” A key factor behind the emergence of Muslim ghettos was the growth of Hindutva politics and large-scale communal violence during the 1990s. The 1992 riots in Bombay, which began as a consequence of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, resulted in over seven hundred deaths, and contributed to the influx of thousands of Muslims into Mumbra. The suburb is now home to nearly a million people; Muslims make up 80 percent of the population. The neighbourhood of Juhapura, in Ahmedabad, houses almost half a million Muslims—a consequence of consistent communal violence between 1985 and 2002.

The advertisement that caught Raees’s attention was published by the Aqaar Group, a Delhi-based builder. It is not the only real-estate company in Delhi that builds Muslim-only enclaves. In 2014, Adarsh group announced the construction of Gulistan Golf View Heights, promoted as “dream homes for elite Muslim brotherhood.” Since then, the company has been constructing apartment buildings exclusively for Muslims. “Circumstances drive such ideas,” Mohammed Saleem Jafar, the managing director of the Adarsh Group, told me. He said that many Muslims realised after the demolition of the Babri Masjid that they were susceptible to communal attacks, and it was better to form safety constellations. They began moving to neighbourhoods that already had a substantial Muslim presence as a defence mechanism.

“We all know Muslims as a community are living through difficult times,” Jafar said. “Being a builder, my motive is profit, but if my community benefits from my business, it is a bonus.” However, while they provide security to people like Raees, the unabated construction of such high-end minority enclaves only contributes to residential segregation in India.

Landlords and property dealers have long had informal rules to keep out religious minorities, which goes against the multi-ethnic nature of urban India. “We are being denied spaces on the pretext of being meat eaters or on the assumption of being too aggressive or conservative,” Arif Ahmad, an intern at a Delhi-based law firm, told me. There is no law in India that prohibits religious discrimination while selling or leasing property. “There is literally no way I can see people getting out of these concentrated clusters anytime soon, even if they have the means,” Neyaz Farooquee, the author of The Ordinary Man’s Guide to Radicalism, an autobiographical account of growing up Muslim in India, told me. “I know people who can afford to buy properties in the most posh localities of Delhi, but they don’t. Even if some people live in these posh areas, they have reserve flats in the ghettos.”

While access to housing primarily remains tied to one’s caste and religious identity, other persistent gaps, such as economic status, education and employment, also play a substantial role. Indian Muslims, who find themselves at the lower ends of these indicators, are particularly vulnerable to being denied the housing of their choice. “We conducted a survey on three social groups in India—Muslims, Scheduled Castes and upper castes—and found that Muslims were most discriminated, even worse off than Dalits,” Vinod Kumar Mishra, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, told me.

In addition to such informal exclusion, residential segregation is further aggravated through legislation. In Gujarat, the Prohibition of Transfer of Immovable Property and Provision for Protection of Tenants from Eviction from Premises in Disturbed Areas Act, 1991 prohibits a Muslim from selling or leasing their property to a Hindu, and vice versa, in areas deemed communally sensitive, without clearance from the district collector. The law was amended in 2010 to give the local administration greater authority over granting permission for inter-community sales of property.

Another amendment, passed in July this year, increased the punishment for unauthorised transactions in disturbed areas, and expanded the definition of “transfer of property.” It did, however, authorise the district collector to ascertain whether a transfer of property disturbs the demographic equilibrium of a disturbed area and increases the likelihood of “improper clustering of persons belonging to one community in the area.” The state government has been given the power to review any order passed by the district collector in this regard. “The amendment has made it tougher for people to buy and sell their properties,” Majid Alam, a journalist with the news channel News18, told me. “Even if two parties are in agreement, the district collector has powers to nullify it. Definitely, anyone can discern the evil intentions at the face of it.”

A number of experts have warned of the impact of residential segregation, and advocated reintegration of neighbourhoods as a means of de-escalating the situation. The Sachar committee argued that ghettoisation had made the Muslim community “easy targets for neglect by municipal and government authorities.” Farooquee argued that along with the infrastructural exclusion, the ghettoisation also affects the psychological well-being of an individual living in such an atmosphere. As inhabitants of a ghetto respond to a certain stimuli in a similar and expected manner, “it becomes sort of a herd mentality” he added. The social activist Shabnam Hashmi called the mushrooming of minority ghettos a huge problem, “since in these areas, you may have a sense of security, but there is also more susceptibility to fall prey to conservative forces. It is like living in a bubble.”