Around one hundred and eighty members of Sardar Kunj, a residential society in the Shahpur neighbourhood in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad city, have been trying to sell their houses for over two years now. The only obstacle to the sale is a Gujarat land-transfer law that prohibits the sale of immovable properties in areas designated as “disturbed areas” without the concerned district collector’s sanction. The law empowers the state government to designate an area as disturbed when it deems it to be impacted by riots and violence. Shahpur, a Muslim-dominated area, is listed as a disturbed area under the law despite not witnessing such incidents since 2002. “Shahpur is a backward area where we don’t have access to facilities like good schools,” Sanjeev Patel, the president of Sardar Kunj’s residents association, said. “It is also a socio-cultural problem as people don’t prefer to have even marriage relations with residents here.”
The law is titled the Gujarat Prohibition of Transfer of Immovable Property and Provision for Protection of Tenants from Eviction from Premises in Disturbed Areas Act, 1991—commonly known as the Disturbed Areas Act. It was passed to check distress sale of properties—when properties are sold at a rate lower than the market value—in light of recurring communal violence in the state. The Act prescribes a lengthy and tedious process to transfer properties. For the collector’s approval, the parties to the sale have to confirm their consent to the registrar, and the local police to examine the area and sanction the transfer. After this, the collector issues the final stamp of approval.
In practice, however, the state has weaponised the law to disincentivise property transactions with Muslims, causing spatial segregation on religious lines. Generally, when property sellers approach the collectors for carrying out transactions with Muslim buyers, Patel said, “the permission is denied or the applications are kept pending for months or even over a year.” An official at a sub-registrar office in Ahmedabad confirmed on condition of anonymity that “most cases of pending or delay in approvals are when the buyer happens to be a Muslim.”
The state’s agenda of communal segregation became transparent in July this year, after the Gujarat legislative assembly amended the law to give the state more leeway to interfere in property transactions and determine areas with the possibility of communal violence. Discussing the amendment later that month, Vijay Rupani, the chief minister of Gujarat, told the Economic Times, “A Hindu selling property to a Muslim is not okay. A Muslim selling property to a Hindu is also not okay.” He added, “We have set this rule in areas where there have been riots to tell them (Muslims) that they must buy property in their own areas.”
Though the Act does not directly state this, Rupani’s words hold true. Like Rupani, the state’s right-wing leaders have been vocal in their demand for Hindu-Muslim segregation in Gujarat, which comprises instilling a sense of paranoia about Muslims taking over land belonging to Hindus. They propagate an inaccurate interpretation of the Disturbed Areas Act—that spatial segregation on religious lines would ensure that there are no riots. “The fear of the ‘other’ translates into spatial boundaries and geographies of segregation,” Fahad Zuberi, an academic and writer who teaches at Ahmedabad’s CEPT university, said.