Estranged by Birth

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No open spaces Communities find themselves huddling in ghettos instead of spreading their wings. Photo: AFP
No open spaces Communities find themselves huddling in ghettos instead of spreading their wings.
Photo: AFP

“I’ve faced this issue in Mumbai for the last five-and-a-half years. Sometimes brokers do not even take me on as a client. However this time I was asked to leave the house within a week because I am a Muslim,” 25-year-old Misbah Quadri was quoted as saying after she was asked by the broker of a housing society in Mumbai to vacate her flat.

Her allegation, widely publicised by the media, was that the broker told her that the complex did not accept Muslim tenants. The housing society later came out with the clarification that there is no bar on Muslim tenants — three are in residence currently — and it was the broker who was responsible for creating a controversy.

This is not the first such instance happening in Indian metros, nor will it be the last. Even celebrities have been victims of religious profiling in the matter of housing. In 2009, actor Emraan Hashmi alleged that his attempt to buy a flat in a housing colony in Mumbai did not materialise because of his religion.

More damningly, instances like this have become so commonplace that people do not even bother to report the discrimination based on religion and caste. This poses a bigger question: Is urbanisation in India exacerbating the process of segregation based on religion and caste? Why has the urbanisation process failed to blur the social divisions existing in society?

“Despite increasing urbanisation, segregation based on various factors is also on the rise among Indian cities,” says Tanweer Fazal, sociology professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Earlier, says Fazal, food habits were the major factor for people of the same belief to live together in a particular flat or enclave. “But now people, especially Muslim minorities, are forced to live together for security reasons in major cities of the country.” This type of ghettoisation is the result of communal tensions.

With the deeply divided hierarchical social order that prevails in India, segregated living has been a fact of life for centuries. If you walked down different lanes in some cities, you would typically find houses of only one community in each – for instance, a Sindhi mohallah, a Kashmiri mohallah and so on. But in spite of this, there used to be a spirit of coexistence among people belonging to different religions.

“After many communal riots, cosmopolitanism is on the decline in Indian cities. Riots result in increased consciousness of identity, prompting people to live in segregated housing colonies,” explains Fazal. Industrialisation, a major indicator of urbanisation, also failed to break the hierarchical social system, since a majority of the labourers came from Dalit and Muslim communities, and white collar employees belonged to higher castes.

Fazal says that even in cities such as Delhi, which is yet to witness large-scale anti-Muslim violence of the kind that made Gujarat infamous, there is no dearth of ghettos that exclusively house only Muslims or Hindus. The media has been reporting several instances of landlords refusing to rent flats to people from other caste or religious groups in both Hindu- and Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods in the national capital.

Tehelka visited the Muslim-dominated Batla House and the Hindu-dominated Sukhdev Vihar in the neighbourhood of Jamia Millia Islamia to gauge how deep the prejudice against the religious ‘other’ runs among the residents of the national capital. Posing as potential tenants looking for a house — Hindus in Batla House and Muslims in Sukhdev Vihar — what Tehelka came across was astounding: The landlords said they were willing to take them as tenants and didn’t mind their religious identity.

The only thing almost every landlord asked, though, was about their food habits — specifically, whether the tenants eat meat. One of them said he “won’t insist on the tenant turning vegetarian” but felt it necessary to throw in a caveat. He said he is “very particular” that the kitchen must be “washed thoroughly” every time non-vegetarian food is cooked.

This shows that despite a clear pattern of ghettoisation driven by as well as reinforcing caste and religious prejudice, there is always the possibility of individuals departing from the neighbourhood norm in their own small ways, and that is perhaps how germs of a cosmopolitan culture survive even amid widespread xenophobia. It also shows how prejudice and discrimination can work in subtle ways. Here, the landlords did not reject the tenants saying they don’t want people from another community to live on their property. What they did was to ask questions that give the potential tenant a hint of the underlying distrust about their way of life and the need to adjust to the norms followed by the landlord from the dominant community.

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