The Gujarat government is enforcing communal segregation and criminalising property transfers

Chaarvaat is a locality in Ahmedabad’s Dariapur area. Pointing to vacant houses and dilapidated structures in Dariapur, Gulzar Ahmed Momin, a real-estate broker, said, “Poor people whose only investments are these houses are in real trouble.” Nileena MS for The Caravan
21 August, 2019

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.

In May 2018, Danish Qureshi, a businessman and a minority-rights activist, filed a petition in the Gujarat high court challenging the Act. He told me that the Act is in contradiction to the Registration Act, 1908, which just requires both the parties of a property transaction to jointly file for registration. “It also violates the basic principles in Article 19 of the Constitution to acquire, hold and dispose of property and reside anywhere in India,” he said.

According to the Act, the state can designate an area as disturbed if it is “of opinion that public order in that area was disturbed for a substantial period by reason of riot or violence of mob.” Gujarat is the only state with such restrictions on the transfer of properties. In the last three decades, the state government does not seem to have studied the impact of the Act. None of the demarcated disturbed areas have ever been delisted. Following a nationwide trend, Gujarat saw an increase in communal violence from 2014 to 2016, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. But it has not seen any large-scale communal riots since 2002.

However, in July last year, the state government brought 74 new locations under the Act, increasing the number of disturbed areas from 697 to well over seven hundred. This year’s amendment provides that the state can declare an area as “disturbed” if it is of the opinion that “improper clustering” of persons of one community is likely to take place “where the mutual and peaceful coherence amongst different communities may go haywire.” The amendment also brought a radius of 500 meters surrounding the designated disturbed area within the ambit of the law. The punishment for flouting the law has also become graver—from a six-month-long imprisonment to six-years.

The amendment comes in the backdrop of a long history of geographical segregation of communities in Ahmedabad. With the construction of bridges across the Sabaramati river in the 1870s, the affluent upper-caste Hindus moved to its western bank, while Muslim, Dalit and Bahujan communities remained in the eastern side of the city. The east of the Sabarmati now comprises the old city, and the west holds new business hubs with better infrastructure.

In the 1940s, many of the housing societies in the city were even demarcated for specific communities, as suggested by their names—“Brahmakshatriya Society,” “Saurashtra Society,” “Jain Society,” “Patel Society,” “Brahmin Society” and so on. In line with the tradition, most of the packed housing clusters, called pols, in the old city continue to be inhabited by people from same communities even now. “There is a social legitimacy to the Act which comes from the notion of ‘borders’ as the properties are already very strictly segregated on community lines,” Zuberi said.

The recurrence of communal riots in Ahmedabad—in 1969, 1985, 1992 and 2002—further cemented the borders between Hindus and Muslim communities. Between the 1960s and 1980s, Muslims moved out of Hindu-dominated areas, such as Khadia and Teen Darwaza, while Hindus moved out of areas such as Shahpur. Gradually, minorities were pushed into underdeveloped areas and overcrowded ghettos. The old city’s Juhapura is currently the largest ghetto of Muslims in Gujarat—after the 1992 and 2002 riots, a large number of Muslims moved to the area as it was identified as a safe zone.

The corollary to this segregation is the economic loss to the real-estate market, which which adversely affects Hindus as well. Zuberi said, “The idea, as presented to the public, was to prevent a takeover of properties through distress sale after incidences of communal violence. Whatever the case be, the Act has been used for exactly the opposite purposes.” He added, “If one is living next to a Muslim owned property, the prices of their real estate are likely to go down.” When non-Muslim buyers do not make offers at the market price, sellers are forced to either gamble on getting permission to make the sale to Muslim buyers or make the sale at lower costs.

The losses to the real-estate market in the old city are almost as evident as the ghettoisation of Muslim spaces. Gulzar Ahmed Momin, a real-estate broker, took me through the maze-like streets of Shahpur and Dariapur. Pointing to vacant houses and dilapidated structures, Momin said, “These are lying in this condition because the owners are not able to sell them at a reasonable rate. Poor people whose only investments are these houses are in real trouble.” Zuberi said some real-estate developers do not sell flats to Muslims as the value of their project plummets. He added that it’s worth noting how an Act which is “detrimental to the market especially in a business-oriented state like Gujarat had sustained this long.”

In the backdrop of these existing divisions, right-wing groups have invoked the Act to brand Muslims as enemies. At a public gathering in 2014, Pravin Togadia, a former leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, suggested that the Disturbed Areas Act was imposed so that Muslims could not enter Hindu spaces. Togadia claimed that taking over land owned by Hindus is a “long-time conspiracy that Muslims have been executing.” He continued: “How can we stop this? There are two ways. One, to impose Disturbed Areas Act everywhere. Two, consult a lawyer, barge into their house, occupy it forcefully and hang the board of Bajrang Dal”—the VHP’s youth wing. He added, “We can handle the brawl later.”

Both of Togadia’s propositions seemed to be at work in the city. Malek Hussen, an 89-year-old, told me that he and his family of six have not resided in their house in Dariapur, a Muslim-dominated area, since 1994. That year, Hussen said, individuals associated with the VHP encroached upon the house. When Hussen approached the police, they did not intervene in the matter he said. In May 2013, the Gujarat high court directed the police to do the needful if Hussen approached them again. But the police still did not come to his aid, Hussen told me. He now lives in a one-room rented house, he said, while the intruders collect rent from the people currently occupying his Dariapur property. Four of Hussen’s neighbours said they have also faced the same issue with VHP members, and that their cases are still pending in the court.

Leaders of the BJP have invoked the same arguments as Togadia, especially ahead of elections. In August 2017, four months before the assembly elections in Gujarat, Sangitaben Patil, the BJP MLA from the Limbayat constituency in Surat district, said, “Limbayat was once a Hindu area.” She sought the imposition of the Act in her constituency “to stop them from spreading into Hindu areas.” According to news reports, she insinuated that it was wrong of Muslims to offer very high price to lure Hindus into selling their houses. Purnesh Modi, the BJP MLA from the Surat West constituency had also raised the same demand.

In October 2017, the Act was imposed in parts of Surat, including Limbayat and Vadodara, despite the lack of any disturbance. Both Patil and Modi were reelected from their constituencies. According to Qureshi, by controlling the demographic spread of the minority community in most constituencies, the state government has brought down the number of representatives of the community in the assembly.

Taking their segregation aims forward, some right-wing groups have also expressed concerns about Muslims having a society of their own. For instance, in March this year, Bharat Shah, a BJP leader and a former mayor of Vadodara, along with residents of 52 localities in Vadodara’s Nizampura threatened to boycott Lok Sabha elections if the permission given to a housing project for 800 Muslim families was not withdrawn. The protesters marched to the collector’s office with posters that said, “Save Hindu-majority areas.”

They submitted a memorandum to the collector. It stated, “Following this, all construction by the Muslim community member will eventually go to members of his community in the future, and abiding by the rules of the Disturbed Areas Act, they will sell it to people from their own community.” During his mayoral tenure, too, in 2015, Shah had withdrawn permission for an affordable-housing scheme that sought to rehabilitate 450 Muslim families who were displaced from slums.

An April 2018 controversy regarding Varsha Flats, an apartment complex situated in the upmarket Paldi area, is illustrative of how religious segregation is hindering development. That month, when news spread that a Muslim builder had taken up the redevelopment of the complex, people affiliated to the Nagrik Sewa Samiti, an affiliate of the VHP, protested. Twenty out of 24 owners of the flats were Muslims. The protestors hung posters that said, “Don’t let Paldi become Juhapura” and “Save Paldi from Land Jihad” on the walls and gates of residential societies in Paldi.

The Hindu and Jain communities who live in Paldi did not have a problem with Muslims in that area, a Muslim resident of Varsha Flats told me. “It is the politicians and politically motivated groups who are making an issue out of it,” he added. The resident, pointing to a residential property situated across Varsha Flats, said, “The owners of that house want to sell, but they are not able to sell it at a fair price because of all this religious segregation.”

There are many cases that are similar to the situation in Sadar Kunj. Patel said they wanted to buy properties in developing areas like Navrangpur, but if they sell their Shahpur properties “at the rate being offered by Hindu or Jain buyers, we can’t even afford to buy even a bathroom there.” There were Muslim buyers who were willing to offer the market price, but getting the collector’s permission to make the sale to them is a hindrance, he said, before adding, “We don’t care about the religion of the buyers.” I contacted the concerned collector of Sadar Kunj, Vikrant Pandey, and the MLA from Shahpur, Gyasuddin Sheikh, but they did not respond.

Moreover, there seems to be ambiguity in the implementation of the Act. Naushad, one of the developers of the Varsha Flats, said, “When we sought permission for redevelopment in 2015, the registrar said these plots do not come under the Act, but when a new registrar took charge he said some of the plots came under the Act.” An official at the state revenue department admitted that there is lack of clarity about the areas covered under the Act—one plot may come under its purview and its neighboring plot may not.

The onus of granting permissions, however, seems to be on the local police. I met a 56-year-old automobile-repair shop owner in Shahpur who told me he has been renting his shop for two decades. He said, on the condition of anonymity, that he has been trying to get permission to buy the premises from its Muslim owner, for one and a half years but has not received it yet. “People pay around Rs 20,000 or Rs 30,000 to the police officers to get the approval,” he said. “These things happen everywhere. But the frustrating part is even after that the work doesn’t get done.”

The collector’s permission hinges upon the determination by the police. AK Singh, Ahmedabad’s police commissioner, did not respond to multiple calls and an email. The official from the revenue department confirmed the delay on the police’s part to grant the permission as well. “The permission from the police station takes times—sometimes even six months and above,” he said. Usually, when the permission is not granted, he added, “the applicant gets a reply saying that the deal cannot be approved because there are chances of communal disturbance in the area.” Qureshi found this method to be flawed. “It is the duty of the police to protect the citizens,” he said. “If they know that there are chances of violence, why they don’t take action to prevent it instead of predicting it?”