From lab to field

Print edition : February 24, 2012

Chief Minister Narendra Modi interacting with primary school children at a remote village in Banaskatha district on November 24, 2011. But he has not implemented a Central scholarship scheme for Muslim students.-PTI

The Gujarat government's amendment of an Act meant to prevent distress sale of property smacks of an attempt at communal polarisation.

GUJARAT, Hindutva's main laboratory, seems to have probed and dissected every possible policy that has a bearing on minority communities. Apparently, ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi began its reign in the State, there have been insidious attempts to deny minorities access to decent housing, employment or education.

In recent times, however, the Chief Minister has shifted to secular speak. Where once he taunted the Muslim community for its family planning ways, he now says he will offer them inclusive development with conditions, though. He has told the minority community in Gujarat on more than one occasion this past year to forget the past, minimise your demands for justice, integrate yourself with the larger populace and drop your religious identity then you will see progress and improvement.

Modi may have stopped spewing venom, but he has certainly not stopped furthering the Hindutva agenda, as is evident from his government's successful attempts at amending a law. The Gujarat Prohibition of Transfer of Immovable Property and Provisions for Protection of Tenants from Eviction from Premises in Disturbed Areas Act, 1991, introduced following communal riots, was intended to prevent distress sale of property between members of different communities. It was also ostensibly meant to deter ghettoisation. Most Disturbed Areas are those that witnessed riots or other forms of communal clashes. In Ahmedabad, there are 274 declared disturbed areas, which are largely comprised of Muslim populations. The Act aimed at preventing distress sale of property by a person whose house is in an area dominated by another community to a person of that community at a low rate to avoid living there.

Before the amended Act was implemented, transactions in real estate continued in sensitive areas where families of one community moved out of neighbourhoods because they were uncomfortable with another community's large presence. They reportedly sold their property at throwaway rates. Under the existing Act, if a member of one community wants to sell property to a member of another community in the specified areas, the deal has to be vetted by the District Collector. Earlier, to circumvent the law, many people officially showed they had either rented out the property or given power of attorney to manage it.

In July 2009, the government decided they would do the Muslims a favour and amend the Act so that they would not be taken for a ride by land sharks. The President signed the amended Act in May 2010.

While it may seem that the legislation is actually good for Muslims who live in disturbed areas, the Act in its new avatar gives the government the right to decide who should sell property to whom. It will be able to keep a tab on the movements of each community. It does not seem like an obviously bad thing. But it is not good either. It is one of those moves that proves how Modi keeps working on policy to keep furthering the polarisation agenda, says Achyut Yagnik of the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action, an Ahmedabad-based non-governmental organisation working for vulnerable communities in western India.

The long and short of it is that the government is very clear that it will make sure that Muslims sell property to Muslims, and Hindus to Hindus, or Dalits to Dalits. There is no question of selling between communities in Ahmedabad these days. This just furthers ghettoisation and, of course, polarisation in the State, says Yagnik.

The new Act does not allow the power-of-attorney route. Instead, it empowers the District Collector to hold an inquiry suo motu or on an application from any person in cases where the possession of immovable property is in contravention of the relevant provisions of the Act. The Act also provides a penalty for contravention of these provisions, and makes the offence cognisable. The Collector can essentially take such property into his custody temporarily, manage the property in case the transferer fails to take its possession back, and also restrain a person (transferee) from making any improvement to the property.

Earlier, the Act only applied to Ahmedabad and Vadodara. Now it is applicable to the entire State.

Housing in Ahmedabad is blatantly divided along communal lines. Nobody even makes any pretence of anything anymore, says Yagnik. In Ahmedabad west, within a five-kilometre radius of Ahmedabad University, there is not a single Muslim home. Nor can Muslims buy property in housing societies in the area.

THE CONGESTED DARIYAPUR in the walled city area of Ahmedabad. The Sabarmati river divides the city physically as well as communally. On one side of it is the old walled city, where Muslims live, and on the other is the spanking new city. After the 2002 riots the ghettoisation became complete.-SAM PANTHAKY/AFP

It is absolutely impossible for a Muslim to live anywhere but in certain areas of the city. Juhapura was earlier a small suburb. It now houses more than three lakh Muslims and is developing at a rapid rate as Muslims cannot find homes or establish enterprises in the city, says Yagnik.

Significantly, well-to-do or emerging middle-class Dalits, finding themselves discriminated against, have formed a housing society in the Chandkheda area of the city.

Divided housing

Ahmedabad's ghettos are material for global research. The Sabarmati river divides the city physically as well as communally. On one side of the river is the old walled city, where Muslims live, and on the other is the spanking new city, with wide roads, electricity, water, shopping malls, universities and offices. Yagnik says the division started taking place after the communal violence of 1991. After the 2002 riots the ghettoisation became complete.

While the government cannot legally allow cooperative housing societies and housing boards to discriminate against a community, there are subtle pressures which discourage Muslims or members of other minority communities from buying or renting houses in these buildings, says Father Cedric Prakash of Prashant, a human rights organisation in Gujarat. There are housing societies that clearly say they will not allow Muslims in, says Prakash. How else do you explain the fact that there are hardly any Muslims in the upmarket western parts of Ahmedabad? These are where all the housing colonies are set up.

Frontline learnt that some societies use the vegetarian/non-vegetarian clause to keep out certain communities. If they aren't obvious in their refusal, then they discourage [buyers from certain communities] by these subtle pressures, says Prakash.

The stark difference between the Muslim localities and the Hindu-dominated ones is obvious in Ahmedabad. Muslim neighbourhoods are poor. Juhapura, which was once a shanty town, has of late begun to resemble a middle-class suburb because even well-to-do Muslims or Muslim professionals who are unable to find good housing elsewhere in the city have found shelter in this locality. The influx of businessmen and traders has made Juhapura a livable area over time.

It was a struggle, says Rashida Ansari, a social worker with Aman Samudai, who managed to escape with her family to the area during the riots. When we first came electricity was erratic and water supply was only two times a day. There was no proper sanitation or civil amenities. Schools were in a terrible condition.

But I will not and cannot live anywhere else. I feel safe here, she says. Although neighbours in my old locality were people I grew up with, I cannot trust them anymore. We had to leave everything, and I count myself very lucky for being alive today. You have no idea what it feels like to have your neighbours turn on you.

However, livable' is not a term that can be used for Citizen Nagar, or Bombay Hotel as it is called, and Vatva. Both localities were created for riot-affected families, particularly those from Naroda Patiya, where a large number of Muslims were killed. Citizen Nagar can be identified by the city's largest garbage dump. Resembling a hillock, the garbage pile emanates polluting smoke throughout the day. The water in the area is unsafe to use. There are no roads, and no autorickshaw driver is willing to go beyond a certain point. Open sewers and stagnant swamps are part of the topography.

We have taken loans to build houses. There is absolutely no assistance from the government. The only thing they gave us was this area and it is like living in a rubbish dump, says Hafisa Bano, a resident of Citizen Nagar.

My five-year-old daughter has to walk for an hour every day to get to her school. This is our life now. But at least we are alive, says Bano, who lost her brother and father in the 2002 riots.

No to scholarship

Data gained from the Union Ministry of Minority Affairs show that the Modi government has in the past three years not spent an iota of the funds released by the Centre for scholarships for minority students. The State government defended itself by saying that the scheme was discriminatory and that the government did not want to allow special privileges to religious minorities. Its contention was that such programmes aimed at specific communities would only increase the divide in society. The Union Ministry started the scholarship scheme in 2008 after the Rajinder Sachar Committee report on the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community of India revealed that the dropout rate in schools was the highest among Muslims. Their mean years of schooling, at a little over three years, are lower than that of the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribe categories. According to the scheme, the Centre and the State are to pool resources in a 75: 25 ratio to encourage poor minority students to complete their education.

The State government questioned the scheme by saying the Ministry had calculated just 52,260 scholarships based on the population and income levels of minorities in Gujarat. According to it, this would cause heartburning among those who were left out of the programme.

Acting on a public interest litigation (PIL) petition filed on the matter, the Gujarat High Court, in April this year, upheld the Centre's scheme, saying it was constitutionally valid. But the Modi government again found an excuse for not implementing the scheme: it said there already was a scheme for minority students in the State, started in 1979.

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