Gulistaan Golf View Heights, a planned apartment compound on the outskirts of New Delhi, promises all the amenities middle-class Indian homebuyers typically seek in a property development: swimming pool, back-up power, security, children’s play area and ample parking.
But touted as “Dream Homes for Elite Muslim Brotherhood”, the property also promises something more unusual: a place where affluent members of India’s Muslim minority can easily acquire a home, without the hurdles they often confront elsewhere.
“There are several clusters of the Muslim community who are well off but could not get proper social and educational environment for their children,” the project’s publicity material explains. “We thought to bring those who can afford . . . buying flats/houses . . . into a better environment.”
But the plan has angered many rightwing Hindus, who have called on the authorities to block the proposed development. They say the 368-unit compound, with an accompanying mosque, will foment divisions between India’s Hindu majority and its Muslim minority, thought to account for 18 per cent of the population. Some have even called for the developer’s arrest.
Muslim academics and researchers say such protests ring hollow given the realities of most Indian cities, which are already highly segregated along religious lines. The majority of Muslims, whether affluent or poor, already live together cheek-by-jowl in crowded ghettos, usually without proper amenities or planning.
“Housing segregation on religious lines is India’s biggest open secret,” says author Basharat Peer, who is working on a book about Indian Muslims.
Some Muslims are able to rent or buy homes in Hindu-dominated areas or buildings. But the obstacles faced by many is encouraging housing developments specifically targeting well-off Muslims seeking to escape the overcrowding and squalor of older, neglected Muslim neighbourhoods.
“There is a middle class emerging among the Muslim community,” says economist Abusaleh Shariff, one of the authors of a landmark 2006 report on the socio-economic status of Indian Muslims. “They have money, and they have aspirations to be in the modern world. If they have difficulty purchasing houses in the mainstream market, they are developing their own enclaves. That is the reality.”
India has no law against discrimination in housing, and in fact protects people’s rights to form societies or associations for common purposes, including building houses exclusively for members of religious faiths. But housing discrimination in Indian cities takes many forms.
In Gujarat, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chief minister for 12 years, activists complain that the state’s Disturbed Areas Act is being used to block the sale of property by Hindus to Muslims.
Introduced in 1991 to prevent distress sales after incidences of communal violence, the act’s provisions ban people from selling their property to buyers of a different faith in areas designated as disturbed. But the law now covers 40 per cent of the state capital Ahmedabad, preventing Muslims from buying even in many seemingly tranquil neighbourhoods.
This year a Muslim businessman who bought a home in the Gujarati town of Bhavnagar was prevented from moving in by pickets from his prospective Hindu neighbours. Another Muslim family had been allowed to move into the middle-class area earlier but only after changing surname and undergoing Hindu “purification” rites.
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Mumbai is notorious for its “vegetarians-only” high-rise apartment buildings, which in effect means only upper-caste Hindus, or members of the affluent Jain minority, can live there, while Muslim families – or meat-eating lower-caste Hindus – are kept out.
In many middle-class Delhi neighbourhoods, where single family bungalows are giving way to four or five-storey apartment buildings, Muslims face extreme difficulties trying to rent, let alone buy.
“People will just not sell their property to Muslims, even if they pay more than the going rate,” says Ghazala Jamil, an associate fellow at the Council on Social Development, who has researched segregation in Delhi.
“Even homeowners who would not mind selling to Muslims face a lot of social pressure not to. It is not that everybody hates [Muslims] but they are afraid it will drive down the prices of their houses in the future.”
Many of the new large apartment complexes sprouting on Delhi’s outskirts have shrines with Hindu idols, softly discouraging prospective Muslim tenants or buyers in a country with a long history of lethal communal violence.
“You do not actually have to push somebody out,” says Mr Shariff. “You just have to make them feel unwelcome, and that is the strategy of property developers in India.”
In this climate, Ms Jamil says it is little surprise that affluent Muslims are attempting to retreat into their own comfortable enclaves, as so many Indians have already done.
“It was just waiting to happen,” she says. “There are many more upper-middle-class Muslims who have different aspirations. If you have the means, you would do something to get out of that situation. The processes that drive segregation have been going on for a long time.”