This article appeared in the Times of India on April 23, 2009
by Ather Farouqui
Ghettoisation is a grave and complex part of the communalism problem plaguing this country. The ghettoisation of Muslims has a decisive bearing on communalism but, unfortunately, it remains a theme ignored in public discourse. It is common knowledge that during the last two decades, Muslim families have faced enormous difficulties in renting houses in Hindu-majority areas in India, as Hindu landlords tend to shun Muslim tenants even if they belong to the same social class and enjoy an equal or better footing in society.
In Mumbai, for instance, some housing societies refuse membership to Muslims openly. In other cities too it is difficult for a Muslim to get an apartment in a housing society. In cities like Delhi, housing societies generally do not say no to Muslims openly but adopt various subterfuges.
Muslim ghettoisation began in the mid-1970s, gathered pace in the 1980s and is now a well-established and worrying phenomenon. The Muslim population in many north Indian villages has been forced to migrate to Muslim localities in nearby towns. The situation is such that at present even new settlements and illegal and irregular colonies in urban India are ghettoised.
In general, Muslims today are forced to settle in Muslim-predominant areas, where poor infrastructure and civic facilities pose immense problems, for which only the government is to blame. Until the early 1990s, one could find Muslim government servants occupying government housing in areas where the majority of the population was not Muslim. But even here, a reverse trend has been visible lately. Take just one example: Muslim teachers in Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, reputedly an enlightened place with a liberal outlook, prefer to live in Muslim-dominated colonies rather than on the university campus.
The end result of this phenomenon is that Muslim families are seen only in areas that can be termed as Muslim clusters. It is important to note that families that moved from the old city to New Delhi some 50 years ago are now moving back to their old family houses simply because they do not feel secure in Hindu-dominated areas.
For instance, Jamia Nagar, in south Delhi, boasts a sizeable Muslim elite, which shifted there after 1992. Land costs here have now shot through the roof owing to the demand-supply mismatch, with each new day bringing more families, placing undue stress on the already poor infrastructure. The state of affairs is such that this area, which adjoins the Jamia Millia Islamia campus, a central university, does not even have a government dispensary or a nationalised bank branch (though there is one on the university campus).
Jamia Nagar conjoins many Muslim colonies such as Batla House, Zakir Nagar, Abul Fazl Enclave, Ghaffar Manzil, Noor Nagar, etc. This whole area, with a population of about 10 lakh, is a victim of official apathy. And this is just the case of Delhi, the national capital. This scenario is common to other parts of the country as well.
Who is responsible for this growing ghettoisation of the Muslim population? Undoubtedly civil society is to blame. The Bhagalpur riots of 1989 were responsible for the migration of rural Muslims in north India and the demolition of the Babri masjid on December 6, 1992 and the resultant backlash all over the country were the last nail in the coffin of Hindu-Muslim neighbourhoods. In contrast, there are fewer incidents of non-Muslims, particularly Hindu families, living in Muslim-dominated areas that have faced a similar situation during communal riots.
The question to ask is: Does this represent the death of our hitherto composite culture, with its liberal, tolerant and understanding outlook? Or can we still do something to save it? What can be done to set the clock back and foster secularism? It will take a lot of courage and will to figure out the answers but that is the only way Indian democracy can survive.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.