Ahmedabad's ghettos

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

Last year's communal pogrom has polarised further an already communally divided Ahmedabad, pushing more people into ghettos.

in Ahmedabad

THEY tore down the gates. And built walls instead. Towering brick walls topped with shards of glass. We are at a `border' in Vejalpur, Ahmedabad. A road separates the Hindu ghetto from the Muslim one. Besides the road, it is fear that keeps them apart. Last year's communal pogrom has polarised Ahmedabad even further, pushing more people into ghettos.

"During the riots, they threw stones, bombs and gas cylinders across the gate. We abandoned our home for four months," says Rita Sathara from Venugopal Society, the Hindu side of the border. "My children were scared to come back here. My two-year-old son would scream at night. He would say: `Mummy, give me a gun and I'll kill Musalmans'." Rita wants to move out. But there's no money to pay the rent. "Earlier, we used to go across the road to shops in the Muslim basti. But now we are too scared. We've even put grills on our doors."

On the other side of the wall, the anxiety is as palpable. After his shop was destroyed during the violence, A.N. Ansari has made his home a fortress. A high wall lined with glass pieces hems his family in. "We had cordial relations with some Hindus. We used to celebrate festivals and weddings together. There was 100 per cent faith between us," says Ansari. "But Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) people from outside are creating trouble. They attacked us from the Hindu society. During any festival, people on both sides are scared that a riot will break out."

Divisions that started during the 1985 riots have become more pronounced after last year's communal violence. Several Muslim refugees have not returned to their homes. They seek safety in numbers. They feel safer living in Muslim ghettos like Juhapura on the outskirts of the city, or Shah Alam, closer to the heart of the city. Hindu families have moved to newer suburbs, on the western side of the Sabarmati river, like Naranpura and Satellite, or Maninagar in the eastern part of the city. After last year's communal carnage, Muslims - regardless of their social status - are being pushed further into ghettos.

Ahmedabad's residential areas have always been divided on caste lines. Within the old, walled city in central Ahmedabad, different communities lived in separate lanes called pols. Many Muslims and Dalits were denied housing in certain areas because they eat non-vegetarian food. As Ahmedabad expanded beyond the walled city, the communal divide became sharper in the suburbs. Hindus moved out of the walled city into areas like Naranpura, Satellite and Vejalpur, while Muslims shifted to Shah Alam, Juhapura and so on.

"Communities have always lived in groups. But they had friendly relations with each other. The idea of isolation didn't exist until 1985," says Prof. Abid Shamsi, a retired university professor. With each subsequent riot, more refugees started moving to ghettos. Last year's violence added new dimensions to the marginalisation of Muslims, economically and educationally.

Nawab Ali Sayyed is one of thousands of refugees who have been pushed into confinement in Juhapura. "We don't have the nerve to go back to our house in Rakhial (a mixed industrial area). It was the first time riots took place there. Our house was near the border. We are safer here. It is a totally Muslim area. No one will attack us," he says.

But, finding work is far more difficult in the ghetto. "Business is less here. I can't even get work for 10 days in a month. We are still living off loans from friends and relatives," says Nawab Ali. "Our old home was closer to the city. I was a car dealer. My business is totally destroyed. My old Hindu associates don't do business with me any longer. We are all Indians first. It's only political leaders who have made us `majority' and `minority'," he says.

Muslim businesses and workers are being edged out. Many small shops were burned. Owners had to shift operations from Hindu areas to Muslim localities. "I used to earn Rs.1,000 every day in my shop at Satellite. Now, I barely earn Rs.2,000 a month in Juhapura," says Ismailbhai Ajmeri, a mattress maker. His trauma has taken its toll on his health. He had two heart attacks after his shop was burned. But he cannot afford his medicines or bypass surgery.

A survey in Juhapura (a Muslim ghetto) and Rakhial by Samerth, a non-governmental organisation, found that riot-affected people's incomes fell by more than a third, on average. More than 20 per cent had to change their occupation because they lost their equipment in the riots. Six of ten migrations to ghettos took place after communal riots. Of those who shifted, 68 per cent were Muslim. The largest shift was during last year's riots. Of those who migrated to the ghettos since 1969, 43 per cent moved in 2002-03. "Communities live separately in several cities, towns and villages. But the difference here is that it is not out of choice. People are forced to move," says Bhabani Das of Samerth.

Segregation is not confined to the poor and middle classes. Even the elite areas of Ahmedabad are ghettoised. Muslims cannot buy an apartment in most middle-class or upper-class buildings. "There are only a few buildings in areas like Paldi or Navrangpura that will allow Muslims. But in most other places like Satellite, C.G. Road, Drive In or Vastrapur, no one will sell an apartment or a shop to a Muslim," says Prof. Shamsi. Property prices in elite areas are also higher for Muslims. "The price for my house is double that of a flat in a Hindu building just around the corner. Space for Muslims is very limited. So there is a premium on it," he says.

Every round of riots has sharpened the divisions. Pervin and Parul share a lot in common. They are friends who work in the same office. They live in the same part of Ahmedabad. But they refuse to visit each other's homes. "We live on either side of the border. Parul in Vejalpur, and I in Juhapura. We take the same bus to work. But Pervin won't come to my house. They call Juhapura mini-Pakistan. Actually, working people like me live here," says Pervin.

Parul's reason for not visiting her friend: the fear of a riot erupting at any point. "You can't be sure. Nowadays, the smallest argument can spark a riot. Then, Pervin's family may not be able to save me. I shall be the only Hindu there," she explains. "If I feel unsafe being in a minority in Juhapura, can you imagine how Muslims feel? They are a minority everywhere. But they have no choice. They have to go out to work." Segregation has heightened the fear of the unknown, Parul feels. "All these years, I've never stepped into Juhapura. I've always been told it is filled with criminals. That's before I met Pervin."

Another common prejudice amongst Hindus is: `Muslims have pushed Hindus out of the old, walled city and taken over their houses'. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad is fuelling this myth. It recently protested against the sale of two Hindu shops to a Muslim in the walled city. Actually, both Hindu and Muslim families have moved out of the old city. Many have shifted in search of larger houses in the suburbs. "Several Hindu houses haven't been bought over by Muslims. In fact, Hindu traders have taken them over for shops or warehouses," says Hassan Pathan, a municipal corporator. "More Hindus may have moved out of the walled city because they can afford to. Muslims are poorer, so they can't shift out."

Schools are also segregated. Some private schools did not want to grant admission to Muslim children. "My children studied at a school in Paldi. We got a phone call from the school informing us that the admission of all Muslim students was cancelled," says Sumaiya Mansoori, a resident of Juhapura. Many fearful parents have shifted their children to schools within ghettos. After the riots, children from riot-affected areas like Naroda Patiya were scared to go back to school. Many have dropped out.

Exclusion is breeding extremism on both sides. "The youth have strange misconceptions about `the other' community. Right now, the older generation still have warm relations with their Muslim friends and clients. During the past three riots, my Hindu friends protected me in their homes. But in 10 years, that person-to-person contact may no longer exist," says Prof. Shamsi.

As the walls get higher, it is becoming more difficult to see `the other side'.

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