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How The Real Estate Market Ghettoizes Muslims In India

A year after riots in Delhi and elsewhere, Muslims are being forced out of their neighborhoods.

A family walking on an empty road towards Delhi in December 2020, amid farmers' protests against the government's new agricultural reforms.
A family walking on an empty road towards Delhi in December 2020, amid farmers' protests against the government's new agricultural reforms.
Flavia Lopes*

NEW DELHI — Gali no. 13 is a typical lane in Shiv Vihar Phase-6, a low-income neighborhood in North-East Delhi. This lane is so narrow only two-wheelers can pass through. Sewage flows in open drains on both sides. At one end of the lane is a Hanuman temple. At the other is the Madina mosque.

In February 2020, this was one of the sites of the worst communal riots in Delhi's history since the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. Fifty-three people were killed and thousands more were injured or displaced. At Gali no. 13, rioters damaged the Madina mosque and Muslim family homes near it were burnt, damaged or vandalized.

One year later, even as communities and courts come to terms with what happened in those harrowing days, a major change is slowly unfolding in these lanes – a change best described by 40-year-old Zubaida Begum. Although her house was spared from violence and her son narrowly escaped rioters, in July 2020 Begum and her husband Salim sold their house and moved out.

"We were stressed that every other Muslim family from the lane was leaving and we were feeling isolated," Begum told me one morning in February 2021, from a new house she is renting. "We were the last to move out, five months after the riots." Begum stayed within Shiv Vihar, but out of the Gali and near the main road where she says she feels safer.

In the last one year, the number of Muslim families selling their homes in this riot-hit neighborhoods has increased, as demonstrated by research recently conducted by Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India.

Muslims families sold their houses fast at reduced prices – at least 25% below market rates, according to several testimonies including from property dealers, some of whom appear to have encouraged the sales.

The next generation will not have the opportunity to call a member of the other community as their friend.

Mohammed Rizwan, a property dealer who operates from an office near Gali no. 13, said he is looking for buyers for nearly 40 homes put up on sale by Muslim families. He is so busy, he is barely in his office. There were about eight Muslim families who lived in Gali no. 13 before Feb. 2020; now, only two or three have remained, said Mohammad Mukhim, another resident of the lane who moved into a rented house in another lane of Shiv Vihar Phase-6.

When asked if he will manage to sell all the houses, Rizwan said that sales happened when sellers were open to selling both at a sizable loss and had no restrictions on the buyers' religion – meaning they were open to selling to Hindu families.

The segregation in neighborhoods like in Delhi can result in future violence, as research across the world has shown.

"As long as you live in a mixed colony, there is a greater chance to intermingle," says Harsh Mander of the Centre for Equity Studies in Delhi. "Now, the next generation will not even have the opportunity to call a member of the other community as their friend. Then the manufacturing of hatred becomes easy."

"In the aftermath of the Gujarat riots, courts stepped in to pause or restrict the sale of properties and, although this led to mixed outcomes, it slowed down distress sales," said Teesta Setalvad, a civil rights activist and secretary of the Citizens for Justice and Peace, an organization formed to seek justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

In Delhi, neither the NCT nor the Union governments have made any effort to address the sale of properties and the segregation of neighborhoods. The Delhi NCT government led by Arvind Kejriwal governs the registration of property transactions. The Union government's Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs governs land administration in the city-state and of the so-called unauthorized colonies like Shiv Vihar, which was regularized in 2019.

We sent emails to NCT deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia and Delhi Development Authority vice-chairman Tarun Kapoor on March 9 and March 15, seeking their responses on the regulation and restriction of the sale of properties in riot-affected localities like Shiv Vihar.

Sisodia forwarded the email to Kailash Gahlot, minister of law, justice and legislative affairs, and Dinkar Adeeb, an officer on special duty to the housing minister in the Delhi government, to "look into the matter and take appropriate action". A similar response was received from the DDA.

Without intervention from the government, there will be permanent changes to the demographics of North-East Delhi, which may make the region vulnerable to more riots in the future.

Gali no. 13 runs between two main roads near Hanuman Mandir tiraha in Karawal Nagar and the main road of Shiv Vihar.

Houses and shops in the area demolished in the riots are being reconstructed. Newly added cement and bricks can be easily identified. Masons are still working on some houses; the smell of wet paint fills the air.

The families here make a living from driving cars and running bakeries and Xerox stores.

Zubaida Begum, whose husband works as a welder, sits in a tiny room in her rented house on the main road of Shiv Vihar Phase-6. A small rickety staircase leads to a terrace and the house's only toilet.

She and her family of ten moved here in July 2020 after selling their old home. This is a rented house; they have been looking for a house of their own but it is difficult to buy one because they sold their earlier house for much lower than the price of equivalent homes. "This is our makeshift house," she says. They had made up their mind to sell their house while they were still living at their relative's place after the riots. She told us that she sold her 25 gaj house (equal to 225 square metres) house for Rs 12 lakh, though the market value would be around Rs 18 lakh.

It is wise to sell it to Hindus only. Why push another Muslim family into the ‘jungle"?

However, they didn't move out of Shiv Vihar. "We cannot afford to live outside of Shiv Vihar," she says. "Thankfully, this house is on the main road," she says.

"After the riots, the property rates have gone down by 20-25% in Shiv Vihar," says Mohammad Ameel of Pappu Bhai Mansuri Properties in Shiv Vihar.

"A few asked me to sell it to only Muslim families, they are still looking for buyers," said Rizwan, the property dealer. All the buyers are Hindu families, he said. "It is wise to sell it to Hindus only. Why push another Muslim family into the ‘jungle"?" says Rizwan, making a reference to emerging Hindu-majority lanes.

Within the last year, real estate dealers have encouraged Muslim families to sell their houses, stoking fears of demographic change within the neighbourhood, said Mukhim, a resident of the lane. Mukhim, who lived in Gali no. 13, said the moment he decided to move out, real estate dealers were badgering him to sell his house even if it meant doing so at a loss. They kept saying, "Shift to your gad (fort), why do you want to risk your own safety," he said. Mukhim hasn't sold his house as it is getting rebuilt. But the property agents are still pushing him to sell, he says.

Residents and agents, many who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that it was Muslim families who sold homes in the area, in order to move to other Muslim-dominated areas of Shiv Vihar or further away to Mustafabad or Maujpur.

Kanta Goswami, whose house is at the beginning of Gali no. 13 near the Hanuman Mandir, says that none of the Hindu families from the lanes had sold their homes or moved out after the riots. When asked about the Muslim families leaving the lanes, she only says, "They look after their safety and we have look after our safety."

Communal violence and segregation

These instances reflect findings of lawyers and social scientists who have studied the aftermath of the North-East Delhi violence.

"Several Muslim families we came across reported regular harassment from Hindu neighbours after the riots, to such a degree that they felt they had no choice but to move out," says Ashmeet Kaur from the Institute of Social Studies Trust, which is involved in relief work in Seelampur.

Not only riots but the "fear of riots' has been driving housing segregation, says Mehmood Pracha, a Supreme Court lawyer who has been defending several persons accused in the riots in Delhi. He added that local strongmen – other than the real estate agents – play on this fear and have become prominent in these localities.

After the 1984 riots, many families from Shahdara, Gandhi Nagar and Shakarpur in Delhi fled to Sikh ghettos in Tilak Nagar and Tilak Vihar.

In the Bombay riots of 1994, many Hindu and Muslim families moved out from mixed neighbourhoods to ghettos. As a result, many housing co-operatives in Mumbai began to refuse residence to families from any other community. Similarly, localities like Juhapura in Ahmedabad, one of the biggest Muslim ghettos was formed after the Gujarat riots of 1992 and 2002.

French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot suggests that the process of ghettoisation after riots is not just an urban phenomenon. "In 2013, violence spread in the rural parts of Muzaffarnagar district, resulting in new forms of village-based ghettoisation," he wrote in a column in 2015. He wrote that ghettoization does not only segregate people but it can also lead to the neglect of the provision of basic amenities by the authorities.

Border security officers outside a mosque in New Delhi, in August. — Photo: Naveen Sharma/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Violence plays the most important role in ghettoizing or turning mixed areas into monolithic or homogenous areas, says Dr Mohsin Alam Bhatt, principal investigator of the Housing Discrimination Project that collected empirical information on the religious biases in urban India's rental housing market. People are also afraid of the possibility of violence happening which leads to this fragile choice of selling the house and moving to other areas, Bhatt says. "They don't want to be caught unaware."

Harvard University's Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren found during their research on segregation in neighbourhoods in the United States that highly segregated areas can affect social and economic mobility of an individual. Children growing up in segregated neighbourhoods are more emotionally vulnerable and prone to failure. "Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighbourhood seems to matter," their paper said.

In Gujarat, in the aftermath of the 2002 riots, the court intervened in many cases to stop forced distress sales, says Setalvad. "As a result, several people in localities like Gulbarg and Naroda Patiya still have properties in their name even though they haven't returned to live in these localities."

In 2006, the Bihar government said that it would attempt to return property to the original owners who were survivors of the Bhagalpur riots of 1988, and that it would identify those guilty of forcing distress sales. In 2015, the report of the Justice N.N. Singh Commission of Inquiry on the riots said it identified 85 cases of sale of houses under "distress or duress' and asked the state government to restore properties to original owners.

No action from the government

On March 20, 2020, a group of activists, academics, relief workers and volunteers under the umbrella organisation ‘Citizen Volunteers for North East Delhi" sent a memorandum to the Delhi government demanding "strict monitoring of sale or purchase of commercial and residential properties in the area" while the rebuilding takes place. "This is necessary to avoid distress sales and the incursion of the land mafia as has been witnessed in the aftermath of riots previously," the memorandum said. "This will prevent a plunge in property prices. Transfer of titles should be strictly monitored during this time period.

Without gates we feel scared.

A member from the group (who did not want to be named) says, "We met chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and deputy minister Manish Sisodia in the first week of March when they verbally promised that they will look into the recommendations. However, we received no response after the memorandum was sent." He adds, "Until now, no policy has been initiated by Delhi government apart from disbursing minimum compensation."

In Shiv Vihar's Gali no. 13, there is another new feature: iron gates. Two gates were installed in one section of the lane close to the Hanuman temple, roughly demarcating the old Hindu-dominated areas.

Local residents say the gates were built at the initiative of Hindu families, but with contributions from both Hindu and Muslim families – some of whom said they had no choice but to pay towards their construction. "They would decide when to open or close the gate," said Zubaida Begum.

Mohammed Ameel, the property agent, says the gates were put up after Muslims families had left as a result of the riots. He thinks that the reason for doing so is that the Hindu families were scared that the Muslim families would come back and ask questions about what they had seen on the days of the riot.

"Gates are our safety. Without gates we feel scared," said Goswami, a Hindu resident of the lane.

For Begum, who had to pay Rs 1,000 as a contribution towards the gates (a sizable sum, given her monthly rent is Rs 6,000), the gates were another reason to move out. "I would get scared when the gates were kept closed during the pandemic," she said. "The gali and the gates haunt me."

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