Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The making of a ghetto

If Muslims aren't welcome in parts of urban India, they will live in their own complexes, creating new walled cities

When I was in Bangalore about a year ago, a friend received a message on his cellphone from a real estate agent, offering him a spacious flat in the “Masjid Road" area. And then it said “No Muslims".

The irony of keeping Muslims out of an area called “Masjid Road" showed what India had become. The recent launch of a Muslim-only apartment complex in Sports City in Greater Noida is its inevitable consequence. Reportedly, it will have an in-house madrasa and a mosque, and the complex will face the appropriate direction for prayers.

This is of course a good business opportunity. If Muslims aren’t welcome in parts of urban India, they will live in their own complexes, creating new walled cities. If one side builds its enclave, the other will build its own. And thus we divide, debilitate, diminish, and dehumanize ourselves, eventually segregating ourselves into apartheid-era like ghettos.

The assumption is that Muslims want to live in flats designed in specific ways or that they want to send their kids to madrasas. But it is also because they feel safer and easier to live together, because they have found they can’t buy or rent property easily. This isn’t the first such project. Zahir Janmohamed has written in his despatches from Juhapura (the area of Ahmedabad that locals charmingly refer to as “Pakistan") that a few such projects have come up. The property show Ummat 2014 advertised Muslim-only buildings, and two-bedroom-hall-kitchen flats in Al Burooj in Ahmedabad, developed with a Hindu partner, going for 45 lakh, he says.

This April The Indian Express reported that in Bhavnagar in Gujarat a Muslim owner could not move into his bungalow because of protests from Hindu residents.

The reliable Vishwa Hindu Parishad rabble-rouser Pravin Togadia duly turned up and urged his supporters to force Muslim buyers to leave, even explaining how it could be done. He later denied saying that, but recordings showed otherwise. In 2012, Kingshuk Nag wrote in The Times of India of other instances of intimidation of Muslim buyers or owners in Bhavnagar. The Noida project reveals the Juhapurization of urban India.

The issue goes beyond religion: in some of the posh parts of Mumbai, apartment complexes have rules prohibiting renting or selling property to non-vegetarians. Others being discriminated against include single women, unmarried couples and so on.

Indian law permits prejudicial actions. A property owner can sell or rent property to anyone, and by that logic, not sell nor rent it to anyone. The owner is not obliged to deal with the highest bidder. Besides, communities can build residential co-operative societies that forbid people from other communities to buy or rent, to preserve the community’s cohesiveness. There are de facto, and in some cases, de jure Catholic, Parsi, and Saraswat colonies in Mumbai, and courts have supported such colonies.

To be sure, ethnic enclaves reinforce cities’ cosmopolitanism. Manhattan is richer because it has Chinatown, Little Italy, and Little India. French Huguenots once lived in London’s East End. They made way for the Jews, and now that area is predominantly Bangladeshi. But these developments have been largely organic, transforming the area’s unique persona over time.

It is one thing where people of one kind want to live together, but quite another where they are forced to live in ghettos. The latter is the result of “purifying neighbourhoods", when rejected communities are compelled to move to other areas, eventually leading to ethnic cleansing.

Ever the pragmatic Lee Kuan Yew mandated that public housing in Singapore must broadly reflect the population distribution of the island, which meant each apartment complex had to have a certain percentage of Chinese, Malay, and Indian residents. Singapore still has its Chinatown by the pier, Little India on Serangoon Road, and Geylang is largely Malay though no longer a kampung (village); but public housing, in which the vast majority of Singaporeans live, has forced desegregation.

Indeed, some devout Gujarati Jains find the smell of fish being fried in a Marathi Hindu neighbour’s home offensive, and some Parsis don’t like the noise of dandiya ras or Ganpati puja, and some Hindus may not like waking up to the call of azaan. But we are like that only: one man’s noise and smell is another’s fragrance and music.

People have the right to live the way they wish and can choose their location, if they can afford it. People also have the right not to be forced to sell—or not—their property to some people. In an ideal world, markets would reward the virtuous and punish the bigots. But decency cannot be forced.

The liberal challenge is to foster a culture where people who discriminate are jeered and shamed, and not cheered and applauded. The meat-eater cannot fry fish in the vegetarian’s home. But in his own home, he must have the freedom to do so. Freedoms need protection, which is where the state comes in. It must ensure that the powerful do not intimidate and marginalize the vulnerable.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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