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An address in a ghetto

| Updated on: Jul 28, 2017
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A musholman para in Kolkata does not merely mean a locality where a majority of the population is Muslim. A culturally loaded term, it rather signifies a space of difference

When I first visited Park Circus in Kolkata in 2012, I was advised by many to avoid the place. “O musholman para, didi, beshi bhetorey jaben na (It is a Muslim neighbourhood, madam, do not venture far inside),” my taxi driver told me matter-of-factly as we took a right turn from Science City on the EM bypass, approaching the locality from its eastern fringe. I was on my way to meet the local councillor, to discuss existing State policies for minority development and their implementation, given the area’s predominantly Muslim population.

Back then, as an outsider, I could not have imagined the travails that the ‘musholman para’ tag entailed for its inhabitants. Later, during the 16-odd months of my fieldwork there, the implications of the term became increasingly, often appallingly, apparent to me.

A musholman para in Kolkata, as in many other cities in India, does not merely mean a locality where a majority of the population is Muslim. A culturally loaded term, it rather signifies a space of difference, an aberration within the known and homogeneous landscape of the city, often demarcated by boundaries both physical and social.

“The localities are unclean”, “the people have no civic sense”, “the place reeks of garlic”, “there is garbage everywhere”, are generally how the mild-natured, biryani-loving Bengali bhadralok describe these neighbourhoods. Shops “openly” selling beef and the periodic “blaring” of azan from the local mosques add to their disdain. To top it all, a culturally-rooted distrust of the “aggressive, deceitful, sword-wielding and communally conscious Muslim” makes these neighbourhoods the veritable ‘other’, the ‘little Pakistans’ replete with their ‘Lahore/Karachis’. The average middle-class Hindu typically avoids them as “unfamiliar and unsafe” entities.

Thus, one finds pockets of Muslim life dotted across the city, carefully marked out and segregated from the mainstream of urban life, often assuming a ‘ghetto-like’ quality.

Such discrete neighbourhoods identifiable on the basis of ethnicity or occupation are not new to many South Asian cities. In the old colonial centres such as Kolkata or Mumbai especially, neighbourhoods have traditionally had linguistic, religious, caste-based and occupational moorings. These reflected the migration patterns to the city, as families tried to hold their own in a rapidly changing social world in which the links between work and family/community were ruptured. Within these exclusive spaces they strove to recreate a bygone communal life far removed from the frenzied pace of urbanity. The fundamental difference between then and now is that such communally defined neighbourhoods are enforced rather than discretionary.

The fact that Muslims from varied ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds jostle for space in these overcrowded neighbourhoods bears out the apparent ghettoisation. This, in turn, results in the stereotyping of Muslims as community-bound, culturally inward-looking and unfit for a sanitised urban life. The residents cannot disagree more.

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Two steps backward

“No one likes living in dirt,” says an agitated Ahmed, a 59-year-old resident of Kasiabagan who owns a small leather business. He has two adult sons, one of whom is studying to become an accountant. “The State won’t do anything for us [referring to the general decrepitude of the locality], plus where else would I find a home. It is very difficult for Muslims to find homes in good localities.”

Ahmed’s neighbour, 26-year-old Sohel is from Patna and works as a software engineer in Kolkata’s IT hub Rajarhat. “I would have very much preferred to stay near my workplace, in one of the PGs (paying-guest accommodations) in Salt Lake, but they don’t easily allow Muslims,” he says. “And the worst part is hearing my colleagues say, ‘even an educated person like you had to go and live in Park Circus. Muslims just cannot live without their community’.”

The discrimination urban Muslims face during house-hunting is so pervasive that they find themselves forced to settle in communally profiled neighbourhoods.

Once confined to a musholman para, the residents — irrespective of their income levels or social status — find themselves painted into a corner. High-earning families live cheek-by-jowl with poverty-stricken ones, all of them sharing crammed spaces in slum-like surroundings. Their children might go to good schools but are deprived of the joys of playing in neighbourhood parks. Taxis do not ply readily to the inner recesses of the neighbourhood after dark, and even online sellers demur before agreeing to deliver to these areas.

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An identity in crisis

For the poor and the lower middle-classes, the reality of residing in a negatively defined space carries even more serious consequences. For starters, it is difficult to find a job if one is a Muslim from Park Circus, thanks to their labelling as “trouble-makers”.

Consequently, Muslim men and women looking for work as factory hands or domestic workers often assume common Hindu monikers to gain entry into the city’s informal labour market. Thus, 29-year-old Md Sarfy Alam Khan becomes ‘Raju Plumber’ as he tries to find work in Burrabazar, while ‘Karuna’ regularly adorns shankha/pola and sindoor — the traditional markers of a Hindu married woman, to find work in upwardly mobile Hindu households on Theatre Road.

The area is further blacklisted by banks, so getting credit becomes difficult, pushing the locals to rely on private agents who charge steep rates of interest. In recent times, as a growing number of Muslim youth across the country come under the scanner in the name of anti-terrorism crackdown, the poorer among them become more vulnerable to police surveillance and other harassment.

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A blot on urbanisation

Muslim ‘ghettos’ are fast becoming an inalienable feature of contemporary urban landscapes, especially in northern and western India. Juhapura and Citizen Nagar in Ahmedabad, Dharavi in Mumbai, pockets of old Bhopal, Zakir Nagar and Jamia Nagar in New Delhi come to mind readily. A few have tangible boundaries in the form of wire fencing or walling, but most others are ringed by an even more pernicious boundary, one that is invisible and cuts off the Muslim quarters from the mainstream.

It appears that in post-Partition India, the appeal of a ‘safe neighbourhood’ was the driving force behind Muslim ghettoisation, although entrenched prejudice against communal ‘mixing’ also contributed in no small measure. In the case of Park Circus, a collective memory of communal persecution at the time of Independence, frequent outbreaks of communal disturbance in other parts of the country, and a growing sense of insecurity fed by majoritarian distrust and disapproval have led Muslims to converge in culturally homogeneous and familiar environs, one that lends a sense of safety in numbers.

While ghettoisation of this sort is in itself a long-drawn social process, what threatens to accelerate it is the rapidly intensifying climate of intolerance in the country, which has received de facto political sanction owing to the rising hold of Hindutva forces on national politics. The excesses in the form of cow vigilantism, mob lynchings and communal face-offs at the smallest opportunity have deepened the fear psychosis among a large section of Muslims. It is time policymakers and urban planners take active note of this issue. Communal unmixing is detrimental to the ethos of a secular liberal democracy, as mutual suspicion and antagonism tear into the social fabric, leaving both communities bruised and estranged irrevocably.

Anasua Chatterjee is the author of Margins of Citizenship: Muslim Experiences in Urban India

Published on January 11, 2018

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