A walk through
The streets of Zakir Nagar and Batla House wear their usual pomp as the shops shimmer with red and blue in the evening. Mosques located in close proximity echo the sounds of Azaan calling the devotees for prayers. Burqa-clad women flood the streets to shop for daily essentials. The scene turns chaotic at Batla House Chowk where the traffic confluences into a cacophony. Zakir Nagar, an illegal residential colony situated in the larger ghetto of Jamia Nagar is home to thousands of Muslims coming mainly from states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir.
The road leading from Batla House to Zakir Nagar whiffs the mouth-watering aroma of kebabs from the roadside roast. Vehicles moving at a breakneck speed, as we walk down the street towards Zakirnagar, we find Jameel Ahmad on our left, surrounded by photo frames with Qur’anic verses decorated in exquisite calligraphy.
The camera focuses on Jameel’s face with a white skull cap on his head. A little apprehension shows on his face. We exchange greetings, he enquires about our intent behind clicking his picture: “kis channel se aye ho, photo kyun le rahe ho.”
After a brief chat, Jameel introduces us to two friends, Suhail and Arshad, who are living here for decades.
Saleem, who migrated to the ghetto of Jamia Nagar from Meerut in the year 1993, believes that the area was not a Muslim locality in the beginning. He traces the history of this place from the year of his migration. “It was all forest here. There used to be lots of mosquitoes and marsh everywhere. You Initially people lived in temporary hutments and jhuggis”, he says.
Arshad whose family had migrated to Okhla more than 4 decades ago grabs the attention with his gesticulations.
However, Suhail has a different say about the Muslim ghettoization altogether. He says, “the turbulent years of 1992-93, when a series of riots and bombings had taken place in Mumbai and the demolition of Babri Masjid had flared up communal tensions. It was only after these events that Muslims developed certain apprehensions and preferred staying in a Muslim dominated area”, says Suhail.
Suhail also cites other important factors which have resulted in the making of Jamia Nagar. Minority institute, Jamia Millia Islamia features as the most important factor. “Most of the students in Jamia Millia Islamia have come from the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and majority of students are Muslims who prefer to stay in nearby areas”, says Suhail
The Jamia Nagar area of South Delhi is a cluster of colonies such as Batla House, Zakir Nagar, Abul Fazal Enclave, Shaheen Bagh, Ghaffar Manzil, Johri Farm, Noor Nagar, and Okhla Vihar. Situated in close proximity to Jamia Millia Islamia, a central university which has an overwhelming number of Muslim students from across the country, especially from northern India
According to various estimates, the area houses around 6-7 lakh Muslims with diverse ethnic, caste, social and economic backgrounds. There is a negligible population of non-Muslims living in this area, mostly Hindus. During early 70’s this area was known as ‘teachers colony.’ As it started attracting migrant Muslims primarily from Old Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar, the Hindu population slowly started moving out of the locality. Gradually the populace of this area became homogenized, because of the singular religious identity of the residents. Thus, the outsiders started recognizing it as ‘Muslim belt.’
A ‘ghetto’ could be delineated as a locality that has homogeneous population coerced to live together out of certain apprehensions. Loic Wacquant defines a ‘ghetto’ as ‘a bounded, ethnically [or religiously] uniform sociospatial formation born of the forcible relegation of a negatively typed population.’ Laurent Gayer and Christophe Jaffrelot elaborate the concept of ‘ghetto’ by pointing out five major characteristics:
“An element of social and/or political constraint over the residential options of a given population; the class and caste diversity of these localities, which regroup the individuals of different social backgrounds on the basis of ethnic or religious ascribed identities; the neglect of these localities by state authorities, translating into a lack of infrastructure, educational facilities, etc.; the estrangement of the locality and its residents from the rest of the city due to lack of public transport as well as limited job opputunities amd restricted access to public spaces beyond the locality; the subjective sense of closure of residents, related to objective patterns of estrangement from the rest of the city.”
The phenomenon is certainly not alien to Indian Muslims who have gotten concentrated in certain pockets in almost every city of India. The term ‘ghetto’ has gained recognition not only in the regular vocabulary of academics and mainstream media but also within the political realm of this country.
While the country has been a witness to umpteen communal riots, a sense of fear has inculcated in the collective psyche of the Muslims. The July and August months of 1947 witnessed a splurging rise in the ghettoization. At a time when the states of India and newly formed Pakistan were deluged with migrants and mass slaughter of humans ensued, efforts were made to keep Muslim population concentrated in certain areas to ensure their security. Throughout the country there was a vicious circle of riots, often specifically targeting the Muslim communities. Worst of these riots occurred in the month of September when 10,000 to 20,000 Muslims were killed by Hindu mobs with the support of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The pockets of Muslim population got consolidated (some even expanded) after these communal incidents. (Jaffrelot,2012)
Historical accounts also suggest that as many as 44,000 Muslim houses in Delhi were occupied by non-Muslims in the aftermath of partition. (Jaffrelot,2012). However, the homogeneity and cultural exclusivity of Muslim localities have resulted in lack of interaction and accommodation with other communities.
Communal harmony in India has always been scrutinized through a Hindu-Muslim lens. The city of Delhi hasn’t seen communal riots that frequently but, the Ram Janmbhoomi movement and old Delhi riots of may 1987 further deteriorated relations between Hindus and Muslims. Out of all the riots, Gujarat pogrom of 2002 further increased profound fear in Muslims, and their personal security became a determinant of where they live.
How did we get here?
Internal and External factors that lead to ghettoization
There are various “push” and “pull” factors which caused this phenomenon of ghettoization. The pull factors are purely internal and arise within the community that draw them towards living in clusters while there is a push from outside.
Many residents value the Muslim character of the area which they describe as Muslim mahol, an Urdu term meaning Muslim atmosphere. This ‘Muslim mahol’ becomes distinctly visible as one enters the area, from Maulana Ali Jauhar Marg road. The most visible markers of this Muslim atmosphere is the number of mosques in this area. The minarets of the mosques, men donning skull caps and women wearing hijabs as they move around in the streets with loud sonorous azaan coming from the loudspeakers. This atmosphere is unique in its characteristics and occurrences, for it is rarely seen in any other part of Delhi.
A large number of conservative Muslims see the presence of a “Muslim atmosphere” as a basic tenant of their religious life. For them, the absence of this mahol makes a huge difference in their lifestyle and that of their children. Those who don’t follow or adhere to this unwritten code are seen as Others. This desire for a Muslim mahol arguably takes precedence over basic civic amenities and thus influences the housing decisions.
The most obvious advantage of living in a Muslim-dominated area is the availability of religious facilities in the area. The presence of a mosque in close proximity is deemed as a mandatory facility: “There are certain prerequisites that need to be met, for example, there should be a mosque close by. It is not possible to construct a mosque where there are two Muslim homes. Only places with large Muslim population can have mosques and Madarsas”, says Intizar Naeem.
Another factor that can alter the housing decisions is the availability of land for the burial of the loved ones. There are around 488 Muslims graveyards in Delhi, out of which only 25 are available for burial. Jamia Nagar area has one of the biggest graveyards in Delhi. Residents here feel privileged to have a graveyard in close vicinity.
Kamran, a government clerk says: “The biggest issue is that of life and death.There are a lot of posh colonies where people have lots of problems because of the burial and the bathing rituals of deceased. People have problems getting things done properly. So maybe this is why people feel that this is a familiar environment. The customs are all familiar.”
In an interview with the website Countercurrents.org in April 2015, Wahiduddin also shed some light on the way Muslims not only in India but across the globe try to maintain their cultural exclusivity. “This obsession of Muslims with maintaining and reinforcing their separate cultural identity is pro-Muslim thinking. It is not an Islamic thinking. It is a communal thinking, which Muslims wrongly imagine as Islamic”, Wahiduddin told the website.
However, Arif Mohammad Khan, a former Union Cabinet Minister and author of Text and Context: Quran and Contemporary Challenges, says the Shariah law clearly mentions it’s un-Islamic to live in polytheistic societies:
Owing to the communal riots of Gujarat from 1985 to 2002, a large population of Muslims migrated to Juhupura of Ahmedad. Juhupura was a small suburban locality with a tiny population in early 1980’s. The communal polarization caused by the unending riots lead to a mass migration resulting in the ghettoization of this locality. At present Juhupura houses around 500,000 Muslims with a bare minimum population of non-Muslims.
The growing communal tensions in various parts of the country in late 80’s and 90’s had caused a sense of fear among the Muslim minority. Fearing for the security, more and more Muslims started living in ghettos across the country barring the Muslim majority area Kashmir valley. Living in the ghettos gave a sense of security, as a large population started living together, with an imagined protection from possible attacks from outside. Juhupura is a glaring example of how the external factors push Muslims to live in closed communities. After the demolition of Babri Masjid and Gujarat pogrom, Juhupura was repeated across the country. Muslims fearing for their security started migrating to ghettos.
Another “push” factor that results in ghettoization is the denial of accommodation. A large number of cases of housing discrimination on the basis of religion have been reported in mainstream media. Muslims are denied accommodation in Hindu majority localities thus forcing them to live in areas where they are more acceptable. David Devadas, a research fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library says:
An overview of the state civic amenities in Jamia Nagar
The findings of Sachar Committee in the year 2006 reflected upon the abysmal status of socio-economic conditions of Muslims all across the country. From under-representation in government jobs to the terrible state of education, Muslims lag behind in almost every respect.
The education facilities within the area are severely lacking though they are marginally better than the other basic services due to the presence of Jamia Millia Islamia. The neighborhood has only three Municipal Corporation run primary schools (Batla House, Okhla and Block D, Abul Fazal) and two Government Senior Secondary Schools. The number is clearly inadequate in light of the population especially given that large segment of the population belongs to poor families. Source (IBID)
Health infrastructure and other civic amenities also lie in shambles. Al-Shifa, arguably the biggest hospital in the region has piles of garbage right in front of it. What also lies on the way to Al-Shifa is a wide conduit that not only releases filthy stench but also gives rise to diseases such as malaria. Open drains in the region have perennially remained in existence and even after repeated efforts by administration little has changed.
While talking to a number of residents in Zakir Nagar, what was also quite visible is a sense of introspection that they have developed. It’s been since a very long time that Muslims have been projected as victims and in a way they have started liking this view.Arshad, who migrated to Jamia Nagar more than two decades ago, seems to concur that Muslims like being projected as victims. “Problems lie within us as well. I always worked in the private sector and if I start saying that I never got a chance in Government sector, it would be wrong.
It’s often asserted that the employment sector has been partial against the Muslims. Sachar Committee also recommended an apparatus to look into the matter and promote Muslim participation in private as well as in government sector. “We suffer from this inferiority complex that we don’t have it. We should focus on competing at all the levels”, says Arshad.
At a time when the metro construction in Jamia Nagar region is taking place at a rapid pace, the condition of roads continues to be dilapidated. A few hours of rain deluges the entire area with water owing to the poor state of the drainage system. “Why is the road condition in these areas so bad? Why even after years, roads are not constructed? The Kalindikunj road that runs from Jamia Nagar Police station to Kalindikunj took years to be constructed. We filed an RTI as well, funds were kept and the construction was on halt for no reason”, says Intizar Naeem, Assistant Secretary, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind.
Ghetto of hope?
The region of Jamianagar continues to provide refuge to hundreds of thousands of Muslims. However, the sorry state of health and education infrastructure and other civic amenities also gives rise to a number of stereotypes Muslims have become synonymous to. It’s heard on repeated occasions that Muslims like to reside in narrow lanes and don’t really like to blend with the outside world. At a time when the BJP has already wrecked havoc on the secular fabric of this country with its reprehensible planks such as Ghar Wapsi, love Jihad and numerous others, Muslims have become increasingly apprehensive.
Such apprehensions coupled with internal and external factors which coerce Muslims to form clusters as it is quite manifest in Jamai Nagar result in ghettoisation. These ghettos also ignite a discourse on a number of other factors including the most important one called the identity. Jamianagar, especially in the aftermath of infamous Batla House encounter, the veracity of which is still questioned came under severe scrutiny and always remains under Police radar.
The area of Jamia Nagar like the old Delhi is also at times referred to as mini Pakistan owing to its pre-dominant Muslim configuration.