Gujarat's Enduring Muslim Ghettoes: Laws like Disturbed Areas Act (1991) and amendments severely segregate the minority
Certain laws prevent the free intermingling of religious communities in living spaces in Gujarat. The political impact of such social arrangements on Muslim groups has been severe.
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Last week, the Gujarat Vidhansabha modified the Disturbed Areas Act (1991) — a law that prescribes the requirement of additional permission from the collectorate's office during property sale in riot-prone urban localities of Gujarat. This legislation, a successor of a similar act enacted in 1986, was meant to prohibit distress sale of properties in disturbed areas in the context of frequent episodes of Hindu-Muslim violence occurring in the 1980s and 1990s.
The law enables the state government to declare an urban locality as 'disturbed' if the law and order situation is “disturbed for a substantial period by reason of riot or violence of mob”.
Yet, almost two decades after the last major ethnic violence in 2002, this legislation not only remains in place but has been continually strengthened, in my view, thus encouraging religiously segregated living spaces in Gujarat.
Currently, over 40% of Ahmedabad comes under the purview of this law, in addition to Vadodara, Godhra, inter alia.
In fact, in 2017 and 2018, the state government notified parts of Ahmedabad, Surat — where no large-scale violence took place even during 2002 — and Bharuch as ‘disturbed’, reportedly on complaints of local MLAs.
The new amendments are not an aberration in this trajectory.
For instance, the collectorate’s office is now allowed to, in consultation with the concerned municipal commissioner and police commissioner, refuse permission to sell a property if an area's religious composition is considered under threat.
Home. Alone: Along with spatial differentiation, Muslim representation in the Vidhansabha is less than 2%. (Photo: Reuters)
Moreover, the modified law reportedly prescribes a punishment of up to six years and a fine of Rs 1 lakh or the ongoing jantri rate (government-authorised property prices for taxation purposes), whichever is higher, in cases of non-compliance with the Disturbed Areas Act.
The earlier provisions had led to a punishment of six months and a fine of Rs 10,000 when one broke the law.
These changes are apparently motivated by controversy in the Paldi area, an upscale locality dominated by the Jain community in Ahmedabad, in 2018, where Muslim owners of an old housing colony re-developed their buildings and, in turn, increased the number of Muslim residents in the locality.
Apparently to stymie such ‘imbalance in demographic composition', the law now mandates the collectorate's permission for redevelopment plans where new people would move into the housing colonies.
In practice, the impact of such laws has taken spatial segregation to an unparalleled scale in urban Gujarat — especially in Ahmedabad, which is home to India’s largest ghetto of Muslims, Juhapura, on its western periphery. Out of the 11 cities examined in Muslims in Indian Cities (Hurst, 2011) edited by Laurent Gayer and Christophe Jaffrelot, Ahmedabad and Mumbai emerge as clear cases of decline in the relevance of Muslims in the city, combined with ‘higher level of violence with political — and even sometimes cultural — obliteration’ (pgs 318-319).
Ahmedabad shows a stronger manifestation of ghettoisation compared to Mumbai according to the segregation index developed by Raphael Susewind. Ahmedabad’s municipal boundaries score 0.57 on this segregation index whereas the score of the conglomerate that includes areas beyond the municipal limits is 0.62 (0 being the least segregated zone; 1 being the most segregated place). This unmatched level of physical distance between Hindus and Muslims makes Ahmedabad the most segregated city of modern India on religious lines.
Although ghettoisation in urban Gujarat has found decent media and scholarly attention in recent times, an often-neglected aspect of segregation is the deliberate erasure of Muslim representation in electoral politics. Since the Muslim population has been restricted to ghettoes, their geographical spread remains limited — in turn, their political relevance as a major voting block does not acquire significance, allowing political parties to ignore their concerns, legitimate or otherwise.
The effect of the spatial stagnancy of urban Muslims is clearly visible on the representative aspect of democracy. With the rise of Hindutva politics in Gujarat, more than five Muslim MLAs have never entered the Gujarat Vidhansabha from the 1990s. In fact, it is exactly the accommodation of Muslims by the Congress party in Gujarat during the 1980s that provoked a motley of upper-caste groups and Patels to organise in the form of the BJP on the plank of Hindu unity.
Source: SPINPER (Social Profile of India’s National and Provincial Elected Representatives), CNRS, Sciences Po, TCPD, Ashoka University, Bordeaux University. (Data compiled by author)
In effect, Muslim representation in the Vidhansabha currently stands at less than 2% of the 182-seat strong Gujarat Vidhansabha vis-à-vis the Muslim population at 9% in Gujarat, according to the Census 2011. The last time that the ruling BJP put up a Muslim candidate in Vidhansabha was in the 1998 election. Similarly, Gujarat has not sent a single Muslim to the Lok Sabha since the 1989 General Election.
As their political representation continues to remain minuscule, the Gujarati Muslims — barring the rich, trading ashraf communities, such as Bohras, Khojas and Memons — have little appetite for optimism in their treatment by the state.