View Full Version : Saying no to ghettoes - Praful Bidwai - 29th May 2015

29th May 2015, 01:28 PM
Meet Rahul, a journalist with extensive experience of working for Indian and foreign media. During his many years in Delhi’s market for rented housing, Rahul was a welcome prospective tenant for landlords, particularly in South Delhi’s well-appointed colonies.

Welcome, that is, until he returned with a contract containing the agreed terms, which revealed his surname, Jalali. On seeing it, most landlords would freeze and invent excuses about why the flat in question couldn’t be rented to him: it was already promised to someone else; they are vegetarians; the idea of a meat-eating tenant doesn’t appeal to them; whatever...

It didn’t matter that Jalali is a Kashmiri Brahmin surname – and an expression of the syncretic culture of the valley, just as Muslim surnames like Pandit are.

Such anti-Muslim prejudice was recently revealed twice, even more blatantly, in Mumbai. First, Zeeshan Ali Khan, a 22-year-old management graduate, was refused a job with a big diamond-polishing firm on the ground “that we hire only non-Muslim candidates”. Second, Misbah Quadri, a 25-year-old communications professional, was evicted from a flat she had rented in north-central Mumbai because she’s a Muslim.

When the email reply to Zeeshan went viral, the company, Hari Krishna Exports (HKE), claimed that the human-resources manager who wrote it was unfamiliar with company policy. Although this stretches credulity, the HR manager probably internalised what has become part of normalised discourse or commonsense in sections of Indian society under Hindutva’s sway, including stereotypes about what kinds of jobs go to whom.

Zeeshan’s case is one of those rare instances where religious prejudices get expressed so openly. Even rarer, the police booked HKE under Section 153-B of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with hurting religious sentiments. More remarkably, two of Zeeshan’s Hindu classmates decided not to take up a job with HKE.

Misbah was told by the apartment builder’s representative that it was his “policy” not to have Muslim tenants. She then tried to live with two Hindu women in the building as their “guest”. All three were thrown out. This is obviously a fit case for bringing serious charges against the builder. But it’s not yet clear how the police will proceed against him.

Past experience in such cases isn’t inspiring. In October 2013, in another revolting instance of religion-based discrimination, the real-estate portal ‘99 acres’ carried an advertisement by a broker: “Excellent brand new 2BHK fully furnished flat with cross ventilation, natural light. Cosmopolitan society, no Muslims, with car parking on immediate sale, fifth floor interested please call...”

Amidst the uproar this caused, the wording of the notice was modified. The portal apologised and promised to introduce checks and balances. There was no prosecution.

The widely prevalent exclusion of Muslims from cooperative housing societies in Indian cities has produced great perversities. Even Muslim property-brokers recommend flats to prospective Hindu clients in ‘good buildings where there are ‘nice’ people and ‘no Muslims’.

Gujarat – Hindutva’s laboratory, it bears recalling – has predictably carried religion-based discrimination to further extremes. Muslims have fled from Ahmedabad’s inner-city areas affected by the butchery of 2002, and moved into Juhapura, a western suburb. Juhapura’s population has doubled to four lakhs, but it has abysmal municipal facilities and bus services. It’s a ghastly ghetto.

The segregation process is being carried right into primary schools in Ahmedabad. Of the 456 schools run by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, only two are English-medium schools: at Shahpur and Dani Limda. At Shahpur, where most students are Hindus, the uniform is saffron. At Dani Limda, where students are predominantly Muslim, the uniform is green.

Segregation and sordid forms of ghettoisation of Muslims are now common in virtually every Indian city, as documented in Christopher Jaffrelot and Laurent Gayer (eds) Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalisation. Many other studies, including the Sachar committee report, also show that these ghettoes are starved of schools, milk booths, government dispensaries, banks, municipal amenities and civic infrastructure. Even pizza-delivery boys won’t deliver there.

Segregation excludes Muslims from civic life, and effectively, from citizenship. This is as unacceptable and egregious as segregation in the American South until the 1960s, which disenfranchised and discriminated against Blacks in countless ways.

Dr Martin Luther King’s civil liberties movement had to wage a prolonged, bitter struggle to achieve de-segregation. Coercion had to be used to compel the White mayors of southern cities to have common buses for all children. Many kinds of anti-discrimination laws had to be enacted to promote a modicum of equal rights.

India too needs a similar struggle to stop and reverse growing segregation. So does Pakistan, where anti-Shia, anti-Christian and anti-Hindu stereotypes and prejudices prevail.

In India, the Sachar report (2006) and its follow-up committee under Amitabh Kundu have made some excellent recommendations pertaining to these issues. The Kundu report was submitted last September to the government, which still hasn’t made it public. But parts of it are available and contain thoughtful suggestions.

The Kundu committee builds on the Sachar idea of a ‘diversity index’, which measures the representation in institutions of groups of diverse social, gender, religious, caste, ethnic and linguistic orientation, and covers education, employment, housing, healthcare and development schemes. Public and private institutions with higher diversity are to be given larger grants, incentives and preferential treatment.

The committee notes that communal violence, and state inaction against it, “harms the bedrock of constitutional equality and ruptures the social fabric. It … subdues the democratic voice, and discourages active citizenship among minorities…” Therefore, the state must encourage educational and cultural programmes to promote equity and diversity in all spheres; and counter efforts to “segregate social and cultural spaces”.

Equally important is the enactment of a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation to prohibit and punish discrimination based on disability, sex, caste, religion and other criteria, in state and non-state spheres, through “legally mandated civil remedies.”

India has only two laws that punish discrimination: against disabled people, and against the abuse of Dalits/Adivasis. Their logic must be extended to other categories including religious and ethnic-social groups. India is one of the world’s few democracies with immense diversity, difference and inequalities, but without a proper anti-discrimination law or an equal opportunities commission.

Reservations for Dalits and OBCs are only one of several tools to address widespread systemic discrimination. A diversity index and anti-discrimination law together “can help build a more equitable society and a deeper … notion of equality” that goes beyond “group-specific quotas”.

However, this won’t happen under the deeply communal Modi government without a special effort. The government’s minority affairs ministry is headed by Najma Heptullah who started her innings by saying that Indian Muslims are too numerous to be called “a minority”. Her deputy Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi doesn’t understand the difference between slaughtering cows and killing bulls/buffaloes. He recently said those who want to eat beef should go to Pakistan.

A special initiative must be launched by civil liberties groups, and conscientious citizens cutting across religion, to file criminal complaints against companies like HKE and the Mumbai builder.

They should also petition the Supreme Court to seek clarification that the spirit of the constitution’s anti-discrimination and equal-treatment articles applies to non-state institutions too. That will prepare the ground for the legislation India sorely needs.

The writer, a former newspaper editor,is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.