The new untouchables of India

Aijaz Zaka Syed

A couple of years ago, when rising Bollywood star Emraan Hashmi complained of facing religious discrimination at the hands of a housing society in Mumbai, he had invited instant derision and ridicule. Known as the ‘serial kisser’ for his onscreen shenanigans, Hashmi was accused of hunting for cheap publicity.

Wagging tongues fell silent only when Shabana Azmi, one of India’s finest actresses and a liberal activist, came out in Hashmi’s support saying she and her distinguished writer husband Javed Akhter faced a similar predicament when they went house hunting in Mumbai’s posh neighbourhoods.

More recently, Saif Ali Khan, one of India’s top-ten superstars, talked of facing a similar problem. The fact that Saif’s mother happens to be Sharmila Tagore or the fact that he is set to marry Kareena Kapoor, the reigning screen queen, didn’t help at all. This in a city that is home to the world’s biggest movie industry. Mumbai is considered the most cosmopolitan of Indian cities bringing together as it does dream chasers from across the country and beyond.

As Emma Lazarus said for New York, Mumbai seemed to implore: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

Not anymore. And it’s not just Mumbai; the state of affairs in Delhi or for that matter in other metros and major cities is little different.

The Hindu, India’s widely respected newspaper, did a remarkable story this week, training the spotlight on the issue of growing housing apartheid facing Muslims in major cities. The Sunday Story, based on the first-hand experiences of reporters covering four major metros, makes for sobering reading.

Down south in Madras and Bangalore, the religious divide is not so pronounced and if Muslims are denied entry into some neighbourhoods, it is apparently because of their dietary preferences. As the paper evocatively puts it, “A prospective tenant often faces the question, ‘what are you, veg or non-veg?’ In the land of curd rice, vegetarians have it easy.”

In Mumbai though landlords don’t even bother to camouflage their prejudices in excuses anymore. Vast neighbourhoods in south Mumbai like Walkeshwar, Malabar Hill, Peddar Road, Breach Candy, western suburbs like Vile Parle, Bandra, Borivali, Kandivli and eastern suburbs like Ghatkopar, Sion and Mulund are out of bounds for Muslims. And as the examples of Hashmi, Shabana and Saif Ali Khan suggest, even your superstar status doesn’t help you beat the bias. Ironically, the Mumbai film industry had once been the ultimate symbol of India’s secular traditions and diversity. The Muslims have always done rather well in the tinsel town, excelling in many areas – from writing to filmmaking to music and, most important, in turning it all into magic on screen. This didn’t change even after the Partition when there had been a minor exodus of artists from Bombay to Lahore and Karachi. Some of the biggest stars today, including the reigning superstar over the past two decades, happen to be Muslim.

This hasn’t done anything to dispel the negative stereotypes of Muslims in the ‘Maximum City’ though. People love the famous Khans on screen and cheer when they sing and run around trees, bash up the baddies and save the damsels in distress. Girls go delirious when they take off their shirts and there’s a riot every time they are seen in public. But they aren’t clearly good enough to live in respectable, good Hindu neighbourhoods.

Things are not any better in Delhi. As The Hindu’s reporter duo discovered after posing as a couple that finding a home to rent in the capital is “almost impossible for citizens who happen to be Muslim.”

Homeowners and property dealers contacted by reporters firmed up deals, only to reject them as soon as they revealed their religion. The problem is at its worst in Delhi’s most affluent neighbourhoods. “The landlords want only Indians, not Muslims,” as a real estate agent helpfully put it. “Property dealers seemed to operate an informal network of religious segregation, often pointing the reporters to supposedly Muslim-appropriate neighbourhoods,” reports the paper.

No wonder Muslims have been driven to the margins of society and to ghettos and slums of Jamia Nagar, Okhla, Rithala and Bhogal. It’s hard to believe this is the city from which the Muslims, not long ago, ruled the subcontinent for nearly a thousand years.

They are fast catching up with the Dalits, who have for centuries lived on the edges of Indian society, as the new untouchables. In terms of unemployment and economic and educational backwardness, they have already replaced the Dalits as the lowest of the low.

How did they end up here? And at this pace of total alienation from the rest of the country, where’s the community headed? These are questions that must be addressed by India’s leaders and intellectuals as well as the Muslim leadership. More important is the question as to what needs to be done to tackle the challenge.

Clearly, the decades of demonisation of the community – in textbooks, media, television, movies and political and cultural discourse – over the past several decades, especially since the Partition is beginning to bear fruits. The history taught in Indian schools and colleges is so toxic and distorted that even Muslim children grow up loathing Muslim rulers who did nothing but demolish temples and spread Islam at the sword point!

The housing apartheid is only one part of the story. It’s only a symptom, not the disease. The Hindutva mindset, which blames Muslims for dismembering Mother India, isn’t evidently limited to a miniscule minority anymore. (It chooses to ignore that the then Congress leadership, Nehru and Patel in particular, were as much responsible for Partition as Jinnah had been but then that’s another debate.)

The continuing political and economic instability and the parallel rise of militant groups across the border hasn’t helped either. The three wars and constant, explosive friction with Pakistan and the terror strikes attributed to the Lashkar and others have only added to the Indian Muslim’s woes.

As a result, he has ended up as a helpless, pathetic punching bag for everyone. He finds himself forever in the dock both for the sins of his ancestors and for the crimes of the neighbours. Politicians use his vote only to play with him when they come to power. Instead of demanding and getting what’s his due, he’s busy being grateful forever begging for security and state crumbs.

A dismal state of affairs, anyway you look at it. There are two ways to deal with it. Either live with it condemning the future generations to face even greater hostility and hardship in this country or gird one’s self to take on the problem. The battle needs to be fought on many fronts – political, economic, ideological and on the media’s front.

The Indian Muslims need to get out of their ghettoes and mental and psychological shell to reach out and interact with the larger Hindu society. They as a people have a serious image problem and urgent steps are desperately needed to correct it. Majority of Indian society remains reasonable and tolerant. They need to win over it with their conduct and actions and with Islam’s message of universal brotherhood, just as the early Muslims arriving on the Malabar coast managed to do. Not an easy task by any means. But the alternative is total peril.

The writer is a commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs. Email:

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