Aijaz Zaka Syed
Wagging tongues fell silent only when Shabana Azmi, an actresses and 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.
Mumbai is considered the most cosmopolitan of Indian cities bringing together as it does dream chasers from across the country and beyond. The Hindu, India’s one of the biggest newspapers, 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 Chennai 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.
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 actors 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. 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 we 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 demonization 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 our 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 India, isn’t evidently limited to a miniscule minority anymore.
As a result, the Indian Muslim has ended up as a helpless, pathetic punching bag for everyone. 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 our future generations to face even greater hostility and hardship in this country or gird ourselves to take on the problem. The battle needs to be fought on many fronts - politically, economically, ideologically and on media front.
We need to get out of our ghettoes and mental and psychological shell to reach out and interact with the larger Hindu society. We as a people have a serious image problem and urgent steps are desperately needed to correct it. We need to win over it with our 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. –Arab News