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Home >News >India >What’s in a name? A lot, according to traders of Delhi’s iconic Khan Market
Khan Market, named after Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan, is among the world’s priciest commercial real estate locations.

What’s in a name? A lot, according to traders of Delhi’s iconic Khan Market

  • The Khan Market traders’ body plans to meet home minister Amit Shah if there is an attempt to change its name
  • Initially, the rent was 50 a month for a shop of about 420 sq. ft. Today, that rent can cross 6 lakh a month

NEW DELHI : In the two decades that Sanjiv Mehra has been president of the Khan Market Traders’ Association, he has faced a few struggles to retain the character of the tony market in south Delhi. Now, the association has prepared a letter and plans to meet home minister Amit Shah in case there’s an attempt to change its name.

In the two decades that Sanjiv Mehra has been president of the Khan Market Traders’ Association, he has faced a few struggles to retain the character of the tony market in south Delhi. Now, the association has prepared a letter and plans to meet home minister Amit Shah in case there’s an attempt to change its name.

“I don’t want to take any chances. Khan Market is known worldwide for its real estate value, our history links us to the freedom struggle and we are a symbol of people who worked hard to build something from scratch," says Mehra, who runs Allied Stores in the market, which is listed among the world’s priciest commercial real estate locations. Mehra’s father, a refugee from Lahore, was allotted shop 10-B in 1950 and ran Elite Departmental Store, which the family turned into a toy and party needs store in 1975.

“I don’t want to take any chances. Khan Market is known worldwide for its real estate value, our history links us to the freedom struggle and we are a symbol of people who worked hard to build something from scratch," says Mehra, who runs Allied Stores in the market, which is listed among the world’s priciest commercial real estate locations. Mehra’s father, a refugee from Lahore, was allotted shop 10-B in 1950 and ran Elite Departmental Store, which the family turned into a toy and party needs store in 1975.

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More than two weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made liberal use of the term “Khan Market gang" in an interview to describe a clique of entrenched power, influence and intellectual tradition, the hashtags and comments haven’t gone away. One Bharatiya Janata Party worker wrote to the home ministry suggesting that the upscale market’s name be changed to “Valmiki Market".

“I’m sure wisdom will prevail, as it has whenever we’ve met the government," Mehra says, detailing the association’s struggles with infrastructure management. A few years ago, they went up against Bollywood actor Salman Khan, who registered “Khan Market" as a web portal. “He was reasonable and didn’t pursue it after we spoke to him," he says.

“Khan Market gang" as a descriptor for those with pedigree and privilege resonated even with those unfamiliar with the market that’s a few metres from the homes of some of Delhi’s most powerful, many of whom have inherited their influence. Within about 3km of the market are the colonial bungalows of ministers, judges and senior bureaucrats; the expansive buildings and lawns of Lutyens’ Delhi; and some of the most expensive private homes as well as cultural centres such as India Habitat Centre and India International Centre, and embassies and luxury hotels of Lodhi Estate, Amrita Shergil Marg, Pandara Road and Sujan Singh Park.

“When Modi came to Delhi, he rejected the old elites, bureaucrats and intellectuals who were seen as close to the Nehruvian establishment," says author Sandipan Deb, who describes the bookstores at Khan Market as the best in the city. “No matter which government was in power, their hold on public discourse did not lessen but Modi managed to sideline them. These kinds of places and people are in every city but in Delhi, they influence national discourse, and that is why, to Modi, Khan Market is a symbol of what is wrong with the country."

“It takes all kinds to make the world," says Mehra, agreeing that power brokers and politicians congregate at Khan Market, “but this is a very small group of people. For most of us, Khan Market is where we make a living".

Of the 74 families, all refugees from Pakistan who moved into the market in the 1950s, only three remain in the flats above the 156 shops from which tailors, doctors and general store merchants operated. Initially, the rent was 50 a month for a shop of about 420 sq. ft. In 1956, the shops were allotted, each for 6,516 under the rehabilitation ministry’s scheme, says Mehra.

Today, the rent for 420 sq. ft can cross 6 lakh a month, and high-end chains and boutiques dominate. Most of the first-floor flats, which have entrances in the middle lane, have been converted into restaurants. The fourth generation owners of Faqir Chand bookshop are the only ones who still run a store as well as live in the flat above. “The first fancy shops came in 1993," remembers Mehra.

Historian Swapna Liddle says it is “just a market" that has changed in response to economic and social factors. “Many markets are undergoing this change," she says, giving the example of South Extension as a neighbourhood market in the 1970s. “Suddenly, traders realized its economic potential and it transformed," says Liddle, who is at Khan Market “all the time" as it is close to her workplace on Lodhi Road. “You have a vendor hawking fruit next to a high-end designer store... it is more inclusive than many other places; it doesn’t shut out people the way malls do," she says.

Antara Datta, who teaches English at Delhi University, says such terms are reductionist. “One cannot ascribe labels, hollow descriptions that are a shorthand for complex ideas," she says. “We should ask questions about privilege, access and caste, but the aim should be to promote real equality. Will renaming a market really break down privilege or will a different set of people with similar power occupy the same space," she asks.

“The government wanted us refugees to have some stability," says Mehra of the origins of the market named after freedom fighter Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan. Mehra, 63, never lived in the market—his home has always been in nearby Nizamuddin—but says most of his life has been spent in it. Before he was elected in 1998, his father was president of the association from 1972 to 1994. “Just like the Gandhis, mera bhi chakkar yahan hi hai," he says, chuckling.

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