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essay: Muslims in india
The Sense Of A Community
A team of French and Indian scholars go past the stereotype of the ‘ghettoised’ Muslim and visit 10 Indian cities to document the various patterns in which Muslims gather together in a particular locality
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Indian Muslims entertain a peculiar relation to cities. Historically, many of the subcontinent’s cities—when they have not been colonial creations (like Bombay or Calcutta)—have a Muslim origin, as their names often suggest: Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Agra, Aligarh, Ahmednagar, Aurangabad, Allahabad, Bhopal...the list is long. Even Delhi, though not founded by Muslims, has been transformed by first the Delhi Sultanate and then the Mughal Empire. This legacy comes from the traditional affinities Islamic civilisation has had with urbanity following its Medina utopia. But it also stems from the larger political role bequeathed to Muslims after they came to power in India in the medieval period and beyond. As rulers, they had to live in the power centre that was the city. While the emperors stayed in Delhi or Agra, the nawabs, nizams and begums established smaller cities that are, today, often state capitals. Along with the rulers came the service gentry and the artisans who worked for the kings and their courtiers—three groups among whom Muslims were over-represented.

Today, and largely because of this historical legacy, Muslims constitute the most urbanised community in India—with the exclusion of the Parsis and the Jews. While India’s urbanisation rate, according to the 2001 census, is below 28 per cent, 35.7 per cent of its Muslims live in towns and cities. The gap had been even larger in earlier decades. Interestingly, more than 50 per cent of Indian Muslims live in towns and cities in seven states (whose urbanisation rate is in the range of 20-45 per cent): Tamil Nadu (73 per cent), Maharashtra (70 per cent), Madhya Pradesh (63.5 per cent), Chhattisgarh (63 per cent), Karnataka (59 per cent), Gujarat (59 per cent) and Andhra Pradesh (58 per cent).

If Muslims are more numerous than any other community in cities—that they have often built or fully refurbished—they are also on the verge of marginalisation in most of them. Theirs is the only community (barring the Sikhs) where the proportion of poor is greater amongst the urban population than in the rural one. Thirty-seven per cent of urban Muslims live below the poverty line against 27 per cent of rural Muslims—as opposed to, respectively, 22 and 28 per cent among Hindus. This state of affairs shares congruence with some of the findings of the Sachar Committee, which showed (among other things) that only eight per cent of urban Muslims were integrated into the formal sector whereas the national average was 21 per cent for city-dwellers. In towns and cities, Muslims make a (usually very modest) living as artisans (mechanics and weavers, among others) or peddlers. They are not as constituent a component of the salariat as are other communities.

The decline of the Indian Muslims harks back to the British Raj (when they ceded their power and when Persian and Urdu lost their statuses as languages of the court) and, subsequently, to the abolition of the princely states (Hyderabad, Bhopal, among others) besides Partition, which mangled the community. The rise of Hindu nationalism in the 1980s-90s also contributed to the marginalisation of the community, and not just in socio-economic terms—the representation of Muslims among local businessmen and lawyers is on the decline almost everywhere—but also in spatial terms.


Fruit of urbanisation The burqa is no restraint to a workout. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)

Communal violence and ghettoisation

In preparation for a book I co-edited with Laurent Gayer this year, Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalisation, a team of 12 Indian and French researchers analysed the situation of the Muslim populations of 10 Indian cities: Ahmedabad, Aligarh, Bangalore, Calicut, Cuttack, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Lucknow and Mumbai. This analysis was not limited solely among the local elite groups (businessmen, politicians, lawyers...), nor limited in geographical terms. While this ethnographic and statistical exercise by and large vindicated the assessment of the Sachar report insofar as the socio-economic decline of Muslims is concerned, the responses received to our question “Where do Muslims live?” are more nuanced.

Many of the elderly we interviewed emphasised the past composite culture of their city in evocative and emotional terms: they kept using formulae such as mili juli/mushtarka/ganga-jamuni tehzeeb. Their nostalgia was, for the most part, misplaced since Indian cities have always been structured along ethnic lines. Neither caste groups nor religious communities traditionally mixed in the same building—or even in the same lane. One of the reasons for this (self-)segregation was deeply rooted in their food habits (and taboos).

But the old-timers had a point in the sense that cities formed mosaics in which different communities cohabited in the same neighbourhoods. In the old cities—which were also known as the walled cities—next to a Brahmin or a Jain lane, one could find a Pathan mohalla. Similarly, on the periphery of these urban cores—especially after industrialisation resulted in the creation of new suburbs—low-caste Muslims and Dalits used to coexist in separate, but adjacent settlements. Many of them had a shared culture as part of the labour movement, especially in the cities where unions had fostered a labour culture. Ahmedabad is a case in point: in addition to the mosaic of ‘pols’ (lanes) of the walled city, the ‘challis’ (the dense rows of one room-houses) of the ‘Manchester of India’ developed along these lines in the first decades of the 20th century.

This pattern of erosion is put into practice today in many places—and ghettoisation has been the end-result in some extreme cases. And here, we need to formulate a new definition for ghettoisation because the word tends to be used in a rather loose manner today. We must reserve it for designating the gathering together of members of a community (in this case, the Muslims) irrespective of their other social markers (class/caste or ethnic origin, for instance) in a locality insulated from the rest of the city (be it at its centre or at the periphery) where state services (roads, schools, hospitals...) are not maintained properly—if at all present.

The main factor of ghettoisation is communal violence. In riots, the most common targets are isolated pockets of the ‘other’ community. Therefore, the minority (whatever its religion) tends to move to safer neighbourhoods where co-religionists are already in large numbers. These safe havens can be in the walled cities—like in Hyderabad, Jaipur or Bhopal—or on the periphery—as with Mumbai or Ahmedabad. In that case, Muslims are often uprooted and dislodged from the city centres. Again, Ahmedabad best illustrates this point. In spite of its rather modest size, compared to Mumbai, for instance, Ahmedabad is the city where Hindu-Muslim violence has been the more devastating over the last six decades. Every 10 years or so, a major access of violence occurs (1969, 1985, 1992, 2002...). After each bout, some Muslims from the walled city and the industrial belt have moved in large numbers to the periphery, and more especially to Juhapura. Here is a ghetto of about four lakh where middle-class people (ias, ips and IFS cadres, lawyers, businessmen) have joined slum-dwellers for the sake of safety. The state has neglected this locality to such an extent that no bus service connects Juhapura to the city. Simultaneously, the Hindus who used to live here have left and those who live in the neighbouring localities have built walls.

While walls separating communities are making an appearance everywhere in the world—including in West Asia—few cities (Belfast is a notorious exception) have resorted to such lines of demarcation. Ahmedabad is the only one we found in India. But in many places, railway lines and roads are used as almost invisible borders between India and what is locally known, sometimes, as “little Pakistans”.


The uprooted Homes and hearths lost to communal violence. (Photograph by Siddharaj)

Muslims = Victims?

The combination of spatial concentration and socio-economic decline has resulted in the making of specific kinds of “Muslim constituencies” in many Indian cities. In the old cities of erstwhile princely state capitals, where Muslims represent a large share of the voters—Hyderabad, Bhopal, Lucknow—local parties (the mim in Hyderabad, for instance) and the Congress indulge in emotional politics without paying much attention to the effective upliftment of the Muslims. They project themselves as the defenders of the waqf properties more than they promote education. That way, the local voters are bound to remain in the need of local saviours. The Congress and the mim are very good at playing this brand of clientelism which makes the ghettoised Muslims victims...of other Muslims!

Similarly, ghettoised Muslims are not victims but actors when the making of Muslim enclaves is due to their quest of cultural homogeneity. Lower-middle-class neighbourhoods—like in Zakir Nagar in Delhi—sometimes develop along these lines. They do not result only from discrimination, but also from self-segregation on the part of families eager to offer to their children an atmosphere free from Hindu influences likely to “corrupt” them.

Ghettoisation can also be a blessing in disguise. In Ahmedabad, the 2002 pogrom led middle-class people to go to Juhapura, where they took new initiatives that benefited the old, poorer inhabitants—including some slum-dwellers. Not only somewhat better roads were developed, but private hospitals and schools were created. This last initiative met rising expectations of the poor whose hunger for education was even more acute than elsewhere in India. If the relief colonies had been created for the victims of the pogrom by Islamic NGOs, which kept telling their “beneficiaries” that they had been punished for not being “good enough Muslims”—and which built mosques before anything else almost—most of the refugees do not indulge in guilt feeling any more but believe in modern education. Some of the new Juhapura schools are so “modern” indeed that their Islamic nature is completely obliterated. Some of them have even adopted Hindu names....

The paradoxical, positive impact of ghettoisation suggests that the real victims among the Muslims are not those who live in ghettoes, but those who live in slums within cities where the Muslim middle class can afford not to go to the ghetto, like in Mumbai and Aligarh. In Mumbai, the Muslim middle class has been shaken by the riots of 1992-93 and is affected by discrimination, but is more resilient than its Ahmedabadi cousin. As a result, there are more Muslim slums—like Shivaji Nagar—than Muslim ghettoes. In Aligarh, the Muslim university professors (and employees) represent such a critical mass that they form an enclave by themselves and do not mix (not even interact!) with the inhabitants of the Muslim slums (including Shah Jamal).


Muslim social Class is a factor in Muslim fragmentation. (Photograph by Jitender Gupta)

 
 
The real victims among Muslims are not those in ghettos but those in slums within cities where the Muslim middle class are safer and have no need to ghettoise.
 
 
In addition to these socio-economic divisions along lines of caste and class, there are other factors of fragmentation within the Muslims. In Lucknow, Shias and Sunnis are locked in historical rivalries—which have to do with unequal access to power and economic resources again, and this fracture translates in the making of additional forms of spatial self-segregation. In Gujarat, a similar sectarian cleavage has resulted in the insulation of the Bohras from the other Muslims. In fact, the Bohras—trading communities who converted lately from Hinduism—do not wish to share the pain of the Sunnis and sometimes even do not give “Islam” as their religion to the census enumerators. Some of the leaders of the community have decided to make peace with Narendra Modi and are as close to the BJP as many Shias of Lucknow.

Marginalisation is not the order of the day for Muslims of all Indian cities. Their situation is better in the south and the east than in the west and the north. The case studies conducted in Calicut, Bangalore and Cuttack (and presented in the book mentioned above) show that mixity resists trends of (self-) segregation. Such contrasts are the products of history: in the south, Islam was introduced by Arab merchants along commercial routes in a quietist manner and Muslims felt (and were seen to be) as much Dravidian as the Hindus did. In Kerala, they also benefited from the Gulf connection that partly explains their relative affluence.

But the Muslims from Kerala are not the only ones to benefit from Gulf remittance money. In fact, in almost each and every city mentioned above, including Bhopal, Jaipur, Lucknow and, of course, Mumbai and Hyderabad, large numbers of Muslim families have expatriate members working in that part of the world. This external resource plays a major role in keeping them afloat. But the new, emerging (if not embryonic) middle class which is developing among the Muslims in the cities elsewhere is hopeful that other opportunities will materialise in India itself thanks to liberalisation. They not only expect more international trade from the economic reforms, but also more jobs. Usually, weaker sections—including the Dalits—long for a stronger public sector. The Muslims (who do not get the benefit of reservations) have no nostalgia for the Nehruvian pattern because the State has discriminated against them more than against any other community—as evident from the figures of the Sachar Committee reports which show, for instance, that non-OBC Muslims represent 2.7 per cent of the psus’ personnel and 4.5 per cent of the railways, when the Hindu OBCs are respectively 8.3 and 9.3 per cent.

Whether the private sector will do better in this respect remains to be seen. The Muslims who invest in education have great expectations that may remain dead letter. In the process, they may learn to downplay their Islamic identity like some of the best schools of Juhapura or some of the Muslim localities which have adopted the name of Shivaji (in Bangalore and Hyderabad) in order to conceal their Muslim character. Whatever the result, these moves already suggest that even if ghettoisation is not as bad as it sounds, Indian multiculturalism is in danger.

There is much at stake there. Most of SIMI’s cadre—including the few, radical ones who created, apparently, the Indian Mujahideen—were educated Muslims. To alienate those who invested in education in order to be part of the brighter part of urban India may result in the making of “reluctant fundamentalists”, to use the title of a recent book.


(Christophe Jaffrelot is the co-editor of Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalisation, to be published soon in India by HarperCollins.)

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