Mansoor and Saeeda Sardar didn’t want to raise children in a Muslim ghetto.
Seven years ago, they fulfilled that promise, moving from a crowded slum in Bhiwandi into a middle-class, mixed-community complex in the same neighbourhood. Their sparse apartment is decorated with only an ayat—a saying from the Koran engraved in marble—but the home represents a “dream coming true”.
“I found peace for the first time,” recalls Azba. “I felt safe. I found people who did not always fight and yell. I never, ever want to go to that ghetto again.”
Over the last few years, as the economy boomed and beckoned others with upward mobility, some Muslim families here have left neighbourhoods entirely defined by their religion—and which served as havens after the 1992 riots—to again enter the mainstream and find a place in the India growth story.
But it hasn’t been easy. Some report an uphill battle in their quest, from blatant housing discrimination to more subtle queries on dietary habits. This, they say, comes despite similar incomes and values of other middle-class (read non-Muslim) Indians such as placing a premium on safety, good schools, continuous water and power.
Now, some Muslims are openly questioning the double standards, inspired by the recent public interest litigation filed by television actor Aamir Ali, who has asked the government: “Why are Muslims refused housing on religious grounds?”
Ali plays a Hindu on television—Saumya, the protagonist of Voh Rehne Wali Mehelon Ki. And when he tried to buy a flat in Springfield, a gated community in posh Andheri in western Mumbai, the sellers seemed thrilled to meet a celebrity. Until they learned his real name.
“After we agreed on the terms, the broker said they no longer wanted to sell the place to me because I was a Muslim,” Ali recalled in a recent interview. “I was shocked.”
Four months ago, he asked the courts to clarify if people can refuse to sell homes based on religion. “I am not a political guy, yaar… I am a TV addict. That’s all I do between shoots,” he grins. When friends recounted similar housing ordeals, he decided he had to act. “I love this city.”
After the 1992 riots in response to Babri Masjid’s demolition, India’s most cosmopolitan city saw its social fabric ripped, then shredded. The biggest casualty was housing. People who had lived together for decades suddenly became suspicious of each other’s religious identities, and the city gave birth to countless communal ghettos. Even the wealthy and well-established among Muslims found themselves moving out of largely Hindu suburbs such as Andheri and Vile Parle to Muslim localities in Jogeshwari, Kurla and Mahim.
Fifteen years later, change is coming, albeit slowly, says Sarfaraz Arzu, editor of the Hindustan Daily, a Mumbai-based Urdu newspaper. Muslims who were only children during the riots, are doing well, moving out to more cosmopolitan places such as Lokhandwala, an up-market locality in western Mumbai. “They take their parents with them,” Arzu says.
While anecdotal data suggest incomes rising among Muslims, official statistics are hard to obtain since the government does not encourage compilations along religious lines. Abu Shariff, chief research economist at the National Council of Applied Economic Research, who has led many studies about the condition of Muslims in India, said the Muslim middle class has been defined by slow and steady growth. “Their growth story is not as spectacular as the economy’s, but it is there,” he said. “Muslim boys and girls have the same aspirations as other Indian youth. They also want to live a good life, live in secular, open spaces, and look after old parents in good, decent homes.”
Thus, the discovery that they might be unwelcome is a painful one. “I grew up in Lokhandwalla, playing cricket with friends from different religions,” Ali said, smiling at memories of his boyhood. “Only when I was buying my new apartment I understood how much my religious identity mattered to others.”
His formal challenge represents a rarity. Few bother to complain, says Abraham Mathai, vice-chairman of the State Minorities Commission. “Although we receive complaints from people who have been turned down housing, it’s not often,” he said. “Most times, people just move on and find another house to live in.”
This is compounded because housing discrimination can also be self-segregation in a country where migrants of different regions and religions band together to buy property or flats.
Under the Co-operative Societies Act in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that the Zoroastrian community may live in exclusive localities in Ahemdabad, for example. The ruling said that people can form cooperative housing societies and enforce certain lifestyle conditions—like no ritual killing of any living thing and no cooking meat.
Such societies are a familiar sight in Mumbai. Experts say the city grew around its religious buildings, Maharashtrans and Hindus in Dadar around Siddhivinayak; Christians and Muslims in Mahim around Mahim Church and Mahim Dargaha of a Sufi Saint; mixed communities defined Andheri and Lokhandwalla where few prominent places of worship exist.
For many, 1992 only intensified existing divisions.
The memories of Hindu mobs killing his friends and burning their homes still remain, says Syed Firdaus Ashraf, a columnist for web portal Rediff.com, who authored a 2006 online column headlined, “Why I won’t live among Hindus.”
Fourteen years later, when Ashraf and his wife were ready to buy their own home, they looked for a place in a Hindu locality. They were turned down—because they were Muslim, he says.
“It is too painful to talk about it,” he says. “When there is no room for them in an ordinary housing complex, how can you expect them to join the mainstream? When they want to stay in a mainstream locality, they are kept away.”
Real estate brokers say there are many reasons for this.
People became a little more rigid about their lifestyles, more outwardly religious, says Kishore Alreja, a broker in South Mumbai. The city has created its own lingo to keep some communities out, he says. “Like in the Walkeshwar, Napeansea area, there are a lot of Jain buildings with temples in the building, so they don’t allow non-vegetarian,” he says. “It becomes that much harder for Muslims to find a place.”
Alreja says he has not heard of an all-Muslim building—besides ghettos—in the market so far. Even if it did exist, not many Hindus would want to go live there, the broker says.
Geeta Shukla lives in a mostly Gujarati building in Mumbai’s Vile Parle section and says she fears neighbours being very religious. “What if they insist on bleeding a goat in the building? I don’t want my children to see that. Bas (enough).”
Others like Arzu glean hope from the likes of the Sardars, and say they feel newly emboldened by Ali’s petition. “Muslims are trying to find a way to come back to the mainstream and are questioning things now,” Arzu says.
The Sardars say their escape came by looking and looking until they found a place where some Muslims already lived among residents of other faiths–one of the few places that did not reject them. “It wasn’t easy. I feel I sometimes sacrificed their childhood,” Sardar says of his children. “But I had to protect their future. There was nothing for them in a ghetto.” (Sardars’ children—Baariz, 20, and Azba, 18—are studying in Pune.)
Saeeda Sardar, an English teacher at a government school, describes her former home: “No one was interested in studying. Young boys were constantly getting into fights, loafing on the street, staying up all night, shouting, screaming. We had to move.” They were lucky to find this two-bedroom home, they say. The Muslims who had lived there paved the way for the Sardars, they say, and they intend to do the same for others.
Last week, the Maharashtra high court ordered the state government to answer questions raised by Ali within four weeks.
On a recent day, as Ali sipped tea in his rooftop make-up room, his TV wife, Pari, paced the terrace in a yellow sari, a mangalsutra around her neck and red sindoor on her forehead. There’s an irony: as long as he’s Saumya the Hindu, he lives a luxurious life, envied by millions of viewers. In real life, Ali found another nice, comfortable apartment in Lokhandwala—although it is still not the house he wanted to buy for his mother.
Shrugging self-effacingly, he said: “I have just done what I thought was right.”