| If ever in any posh colony or good apartment even educated and socially well placed Muslims population grows a sense of having been taken over starts pervading the Hindu residents there Photo FlickrJosé Miguel CC BY NC ND 20 | MR Online ‘If ever, in any posh colony or good apartment, even educated and socially well-placed Muslims’ population grows, a sense of having been taken over starts pervading the Hindu residents there.’ (Photo: Flickr/José Miguel (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

What we lose through the ghettoisation of urban India

Originally published: The Wire on August 13, 2023 by Khurshid Akram (more by The Wire)  |

Overarching facts lead to overriding arguments. Overriding arguments beat all arguments even if they are more logical, even if they have more meaning.

For example, there can be a communal flare up at any moment and there can be riots on any day and at any time. Consequently, you can be attacked and killed at any time. This is unfortunately a fact in the India we are living in.

And so, there is the overriding argument we hear – “live amongst your folks.”

If you are a Hindu, don’t live in an area dominated by or surrounded by Muslims, and vice versa. And because you never know if and when any such a moment will come in your life, you tend to follow your fears.

Thus, “only Hindus can protect Hindus and only Muslims can protect Muslims” is the overriding argument in the India of the 21st century.

Such ‘facts’ and such ‘arguments’ go hand in hand, traversing the length and breadth of the country.

In the past 70-odd years, Hindus and Muslims appear to have increasingly followed this undeclared dictum. With rapid urbanisation, rural and small town populations have shifted base. Big and small cities have mushroomed rapidly in the Indian landscape. In such cities, everybody has, first and foremost, a desire to get a good job, set up a good business, get a good education, have access to good medical facilities, and all the other material goods one can think of.

Valid aspirations, aren’t they?

Urban versus Rural

Those living in villages may have the same aspirations. They, too, may be longing for a good life within the limited and available resources they have.

But unlike the neo-urban population, their preferences and priorities are different. Perhaps their overarching desire is to have good neighbours and live in a close-knit society.

In places that are not urban, civic facilities are scarce. So in an emergency, those who live there need each other’s moral and physical support. It could be said that religious identity is secondary to them. Religion itself is rather simple and resides deep in their faith system. Of course, it would be naïve to say that there is no religious divide in the villages and small towns of India. Religious identities result in cultural differences as well, but, in my view, they are mostly confined to the domestic and private arena.

But the over-assertion of rituals and religious festivities by one community or the other can sometimes lead to skirmishes, which in turn has been known to lead to communal riots. But once the dust settles, both Hindus and Muslims, irrespective of whose population is more in a particular area, seem to reconcile and go on co-existing. They can’t afford to and don’t shift their homes or fields to ‘safer’ places, unlike how urban people seem to be able to do.

And so, despite the fact that there are villages and towns entirely or predominantly inhabited by one community or the other, there is no ghetto. A line of division may be there, but that is often largely invisible.

In urban settings, though, the picture is strikingly different.

The urban phenomenon

Because the urbanites are mostly, if not all, displaced people, they don’t have any archetypal memory or attachment to their new abodes.

Because they are keen to earn according to their aspirations and can secure access to most facilities on their own, without seeking the help of a neighbour, they feel they don’t require the community life they found necessary in villages. Inter-dependence, which is central to village residents’ harmony with each other, has little meaning in urban settings.

Yet the urbanites’ sense of community can appear far stronger, even vocal at times and more aggressive. Religion here is not simple. It is strong and evocative. It dominates life, but for no reasons apparent outwardly, with no visible signs, can suddenly surface. The books interpreting religious scriptures are, at one end, soft like a cotton ball and at the other end, sharp and unbending like a dagger.

With prosperity promised and ambitions high, elements of spirituality and contentment which are understood to be the core of religion, bear little relevance in an urban population’s life. Yet their sense of religious identity remains all pervading. There is a conundrum here: religion in them appears skin-deep and yet, religious identity is writ large on their face.

A Hindu, whether or not s(he) is religious and a Muslim, whether or not s(he) is a practicing one, have access to big mosques and grand temples. They have community leaders and protectors of their ‘interests’. And of course, there are communal conflicts. Not necessarily in their neighbourhood, not necessarily where they could be affected, and maybe at a much farther place, which they may not have even heard of before.

But the impact of all this is nearly the same.

Any such strife is enough to bring a sense of insecurity in them and they think of shifting to a ‘secured’ place, thus creating more and more ghettos, which continue to expand even in times of peace.

And this is not limited to less well-off Muslims. Posh colonies, localities or apartments are largely beyond the economic reach of most members of the Muslim community. Still, there are many who wish to live a quality life and have enough money for such a life to sustain. But it is not as simple for them. There have been numerous instances when Residents’ Welfare Associations have resisted, mostly successfully, attempts by any Muslim to purchase a house within ‘their’ area. Even when not a single Muslim family stays there, an unseen, undeclared and sub-delicate hatred towards Muslims hangs like a dark cloud, overhead. So, effectively, that too is another form of a ghetto.

There is another aspect to this, which one can call a ‘wilful exodus’.

If ever, in any posh colony or ‘good’ apartment, the population of educated and socially well-placed Muslims grows, a sense of having been ‘overtaken’ starts pervading the Hindu residents there. And what do they do, consequently?  They start shifting from there to a place where there are no Muslims as yet. There, they feel ‘secure’. This is not a standalone fact; this is a phenomenon which is usually brushed under the carpet. The same is the case with Muslims, though they are fewer in number, compared to Hindus.

The effective result in both cases is the proliferation of ghettos. Muslims feel secure living with their brethren, Hindus with their folks. And this is despite the fact that they both need to deal with each other in businesses, in services, and in workplaces. In the economic spheres of life, Hindus and Muslims still are dependent on each other. And why won’t they be? They largely belong to the idea of the same people, speak the same language, eat the same foodgrain and suffer or enjoy the same weather and air.

Muslims go to hospitals where they are treated by doctors, who may be Hindus. And Hindus go to Muslims’ restaurants to savour delicious biryani, kebabs and Mughlai dishes. Children go to schools, older ones go to colleges and universities and make friends with each other, without letting their religious identities come in between.

And yet they live, out of an unseen and ever-lingering fear and mistrust, in separate and clearly demarcated areas. Their ghettos. Back in their ghettos, this liberalism, secularism and brotherhood vanishes. Because there, the air is thick with the purported injustices meted out to the Muslims or the imaginary fear of Muslims outnumbering Hindus.

Now, most of them speak the same language of victimhood and portray the same mistrust towards the other. They have grown up with this notion and their children also grow up with the same notion of otherness. Unfortunately, the educated and affluent class, which is less prone to be affected by communal strife is rather more radicalised, exudes more mistrust and is filled with more hatred. Effectively, both Hindus and Muslims in large urban swathes of India are happy in their ghettos and this alienation is increasing day by day. They don’t extend their trust towards each other, thus depriving their children of a composite and humane culture. Mixed populations which were not uncommon in urban areas once, are fast becoming a rarity in semi-urban towns, along with big and small cities.

The most unfortunate fact is that the educated and financially well-off middle-class Muslims and Hindus, who are safer than people living in unorganised, unplanned or undeveloped areas or localities, are not keen to beat ghettoisation.

What is worrying is that if it continues this way, India, as a composite society, will suffer immense losses. The urbanites are, wittingly or unwittingly, making the task easier for those who are out to sharply divide the country in the name of making an undivided India or akhand bharat.

The big question is, is there a way out? It gets harder everyday with the kind of blatantly divisive social atmosphere which is promoted by the powers that be.

Khurshid Akram is a former IIS officer and is known for his literary pursuits in Urdu.

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