Indian Muslims are the most urbanised community in India (35.7 per cent of them resided in towns and cities in 2001 when, according to the Census, the urbanisation rate was 27.8 per cent). It is also the poorest with monthly per capita expenditures (MPCE) of Rs 980, against Rs 1,125 for the Hindus, according to the 2009-10 National Sample Survey Office report. Another disturbing element of this study pertained to the shrinking of the Muslim urban elite: among the non-OBC urban Muslims, the proportion of those who had reached the higher education level — which was already very low (10 per cent) compared to the non-OBC/ SC/ ST Hindus (35 per cent) — had declined by 1.5 percentage points since 2004-05. Unsurprisingly, therefore, urban Muslims form a huge pocket of mass poverty. According to Amitabh Kundu and P.C. Mohanan, the MPCE of the urban Muslims represented 67 per cent of the MPCE of the non-SC/ ST urban Hindus in 2009-10. Half a decade after the Sachar Committee Report, these figures suggest that its findings and recommendations have not made a big difference. But where are these Muslim masses in Indian cities?

In the book I co-edited with Laurent Gayer in 2012, Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalisation, a dozen Indian and French researchers showed that the socio-economic situation of India’s largest minority translated differently in different cities, because the standard of living is not the only variable to consider when we try to explain the urban geography of a community.

Christophe Jaffrelot
Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
More >

First, Indian cities have always applied some form of segregation based not only on religion but also on caste. Each group lived in one mohalla or even one lane, as evident from the pattern of most of the old (or walled) cities — founded by Muslim chiefs in many cases. This topographical divide had to do with considerations of ritual purity, including food habits. But most of the old urban cores were like mosaics, with each neighbourhood or even street occupied by a different group. This arrangement did not preclude interactions — Muslims could hear the temple bells and Hindus the call for prayer — and both would often meet at the dargahs for the yearly Urs (if not more often). This sharing of the urban space has been resilient in the south and in some eastern parts of India, as evident from the comparatively more cosmopolitan atmosphere of places like Kozhikode or Cuttack.

In the north and west, the socio-economic decline of Muslims has been partly responsible for the physical estrangement of both communities. This is evident from the fate of the Muslims in former princely states like Lucknow, Bhopal or Hyderabad, where their elite were affected not only by the demise of the local aristocracy (some of whose members left for Pakistan), but also by land reform and the replacement of Urdu by Hindi as an official language. In most of these cities, the old core has remained a Muslim preserve but has stagnated, while Hindus have developed the periphery.

However, the making of these enclaves is also sometimes due to Muslims’ desire not to mix with others in order to protect their identity in a process of self-segregation. This is clear from the evolution of some dargahs, which are not as easily accessible to non-Muslims as they used to be. But enclaves are also the product of the housing market, since many landlords are not prepared to rent apartments or sell flats to minorities anymore. They also result from a (correlative) sentiment of insecurity, fostered by communal riots. Abul Fazl Enclave in Delhi illustrates both factors, the push and the pull. While those who belong to the (lower) middle class gather together in enclaves like this one (or Sir Syed Nagar in Aligarh), the poor go to slums and form “Muslim bastis”, like Shivaji Nagar in Mumbai.

In some cities, riots have become so frequent and devastating that rich and poor Muslims have started to live in the same locality for the sake of safety. They know that arsonists generally attack Muslims when they live in small, isolated pockets. They then form ghettos, which combine the features of enclaves and of slums. The poor, who are an easy target, have usually been the primary victims and are therefore the first to migrate. The rich have followed once they have also been affected, as in Jaipur in 1990 or Ahmedabad in 2002. Juhapura, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, exemplifies this process of ghettoisation. It grew after the riots of 1969, 1985 and 1992, but it became a ghetto of four to five lakh people after the 2002 killings, which, for the first time, resulted in the death of elite Muslims, including Ehsan Jafri, the former MP. Incidentally, many of the contributors to Muslims in Indian Cities discovered that the circumstances of Jafri’s death were known to Muslims throughout the country.

Paradoxically, Muslim ghettos are sometimes a blessing in disguise for the poor. Certainly, they have lost their jobs in the city, where they cannot commute easily, and they miss proper roads, schools and hospitals. But the rich who have joined them, even if they do not live in the very same neighbourhood, have the resources to develop the place to an extent. Some of the private roads, schools, hospitals built by the rich are accessible to the poor too. But the positive effect of ghettoisation is not easily sustainable. The more Juhapura develops itself, the more it attracts rich Muslims. With the demand for land increasing, its prices increase too, easing out the poor, who end up in nearby slums.

Yet the class element has not affected the political mindset of Indian Muslims, going by the voting patterns in the last Lok Sabha elections. No community seems to have been more influenced by urbanisation. According to a CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey, which will soon appear in a special issue of Studies in Indian Politics, 32.6 per cent of Muslims voted Congress in rural constituencies, 42.9 per cent in towns and cities and 50.5 per cent in the metros. Which means that the more urbanised they are, the more Congress-oriented they are as voters. I would hypothesise that this virtual regrouping is a metaphor of the ghetto — urban Muslims join forces, irrespective of class, occupation and level of education, in strategic voting. Numbers are the best protection, vis-à-vis rioters in the ghetto and vis-à-vis the BJP in the polling stations. And if such a mindset is more developed in the city, it is probably because communal violence has been more prevalent in this context.

This state of things may change. In 2013, violence spread in the rural parts of Muzaffarnagar district, resulting in new forms of village-based ghettoisation, a process that may be repeated in Bodoland too. Growing urbanisation is creating a continuum between towns and villages, giving rise to “rurbanisation”, which blurs the differences between the two worlds in terms of communal politics as well.

The Muslim ghettos, enclaves or slums that have developed in Indian cities may, however, retain a distinctive feature: they remain more connected to the Gulf countries, from where family members send huge remittances. This Gulf connection may take the separation process to its logical conclusion: the development of a de facto sense of extra-territoriality, at the expense of national integration and citizenship. This exit option is not uncommon among “second-class city-zens”.

This article was originally published in Indian Express.