A Divided Cityscape

Illustration: Anand Naorem

How is one to understand the decision of the real estate developers and agents of Surat not to sell or rent houses or commercial properties to Muslims of the city? “We want to control the percentage of Muslims with properties and shops in our areas,” was the official explanation of the association that called the meeting of builders. This, they argued, was a precautionary measure against Mumbai-like terror attacks and the failed bomb strikes against Surat in July. No terror attack could be planned or carried out without local support, they argued. This comes at a time when Muslim groups in the country have assiduously distanced themselves from the Mumbai terror attack. The Babri Masjid Action Committee decided not to observe December 6 as a ‘black day’, Eid was marked by mourning, and a few months ago, the Darul Uloom at Deoband had unequivocally declared terror as being un-Islamic.

This could be seen as a public acknowledgement of a process that has been going on for a long time, not just in Surat or Gujarat but also elsewhere in the country. Terror is only the upper layer of many deepseated fears, which include in Gujarat fears of non-vegetarianism. But it is not just an expression of cultural fear or a communal mindset. It is also a sign of a newly-emerging cityscape. It is possible to speak of a city as being divided into ‘our’ areas and ‘their’ areas. It conveys a belief that a city can be conceived as being inhabited by mutually exclusive community groups, with no interdependence, either in terms of trade and commerce or in the sense of a shared daily life. It claims that the new city will have no ‘public spaces’ but only community specific institutions: separate schools, hospitals, commercial establishments and also separate underworlds. In this new city, it is possible to speak in terms of ‘boarders.’ And as Juhapura in Ahmedabad would testify, this boarder is not imaginary or pathological. It is real, in all its brick and mortar materiality. What they hope to create is a city of ‘a permanent underclass.’

Narmad listed cultural symbols, communities and castes, and said Gujarat belongs to all of them

But it is not only this imagination that drives Surat. Surat was and is an entrepreneurial city; with diamonds and textiles driving the city’s growth. It is a city that is capable of exemplary civic will, as the post-plague period in the city’s recent past demonstrated. Surat’s economic ambitions are at variance with its desire to create separate enclosures for its Muslims and Hindus. What they do not recognise is that an entrepreneurial city cannot survive with a permanent underbelly.

For Surat, it also conveys a deep amnesia about its own history and cultural moorings. Surat, on the banks of the river Tapi, has been a major trading port since medieval times. The Arabs, Mughals, Portuguese, English, Dutch and the French all came to Surat and contributed to its cultural and architectural imagination, which are still in evidence, if recessive in memory. Surat was the most cosmopolitan of urban settlements on the west coast of Gujarat, before the emergence of Mumbai. Surat celebrates its association with Narmad, the poet, lexicographer and historian of the city, who gave us the song Jay Jay Garvi Gujarat.” Its major university is named after Narmad. But it also violates Narmad’s memory. It was Narmad who asked the question of “Who does Gujarat belong to?” He listed all the cultural and religious symbols, communities and caste groups and said that Gujarat does not belong to anyone of them. He sang that Gujarat belongs to all those who make Gujarat their home.

If Surat wants to prosper as an entrepreneurial city, it can do so only by reclaiming its forgotten cosmopolitan character, and not as a city that seeks the erasure of a large part of its citizenry.

(Suhrud is an academic living in Ahmedabad)


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