A House for Mr and Ms Khan

Increasingly Muslims have a hard time finding houses to rent or buy in Mumbai’s mixed neighbourhoods. Is cosmopolitan Mumbai a dream gone sour?

Text By Akshat Jain

When Misbah Quadri was thrown out of her rented apartment in central Mumbai for being a Muslim, the only support she got was from her two Hindu flatmates who left with her in solidarity. While some real estate brokers were polite enough to refuse to show her any flats because she was a “Muslim”, this particular broker took things up a notch by first getting  her the house and then evicting her within a week. In another case, Zeshan Khan, an MBA graduate was denied a job because he was a Muslim.  However unlike others before them, Misbah and Zeshan refused to stay quiet and took their individual stories to the media in May 2015.

Unfortunately, it’s a sad reality that increasingly many realtors and landlords in Mumbai deny houses to Muslim clients, especially in neighbourhoods and building complexes dominated by Hindu and Jain religious groups .  This religious discrimination is also not limited to the aam janta.  Actors like Saif Ali Khan and Emraan Hashmi  have spoken out about the difficulty of renting or buying a house due to their Muslim last name. Actress-turned-social activist and former Member of the Rajya Sabha, Shabana Azmi too faced problems getting a house in one of the most sought after areas in India. This news, while arguably a case of sensationalism, is useful in that it opens our eyes to the much deeper discrimination going on behind the aegis of the law. This was pointed out by Shabana Azmi herself in a television programme, “If Shabana and Javed Akhtar cannot find a house in the most cosmopolitan city, you can imagine what must be happening to ordinary Muslims elsewhere”.

Fatima Mirza*, a 24-year-old IAS aspirant, currently working with the customs department in Mumbai says that she has accepted this kind of discrimination as the norm. She grew up in Dubai where she had no such problems but her last six years in India have been an eye-opening experience. “I had to look in hundreds of places before I found a house,” she says. She used to live in Bandra but made a move to Chembur about a year ago. “My experience in Chembur was much worse than in Bandra,” she says adding that she had similar problems in New Delhi as well, where she was living before this, but not in Bangalore where she went to St. Josephs College.

The secretary of a housing society in Deonar, a self-confessed Shiv Sainik, says that people feel comfortable in their own cultures. “Muslims do things differently and cannot fit into a predominantly Hindu housing society. So I try to keep them away but if someone is adamant, I do not refuse,” he says.

She finally found an apartment in Saraga Co-operative Society*, after her friend, who had been living there for some time, vouched for her. “Even though this is farther than what I would have preferred, I feel like I cannot complain. I am just happy to have gotten a place to stay in after my harrowing experience over multiple weeks,” says Fatima. Mr Albert Pinto*, the owner of her flat, says, “One has to be careful with bachelors and especially bachelors from a minority community”. He says that Mirza was able to inspire confidence in him about her ability to not cause problems for others. Interestingly, Muslim couples often find it easier to find a house compared to single Muslims. This view is echoed by Pinto. “Housing societies that are predominantly Hindu are not able to trust the presence of a Muslim male in particular very easily,” he says.

On talking to the general secretary of a housing society in Deonar, one learns  that politics pervades these societies as well. The secretary, a self-confessed Shiv Sainik, says that people feel comfortable in their own cultures. “Muslims do things differently and cannot fit into a predominantly Hindu housing society. So I try to keep them away but if someone is adamant, I do not refuse,” he says.

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Denied housing in mixed neighbourhoods or buildings, Muslims are often forced to seek accommodation in older Muslim dominant mohallas such as Bhendi Bazaar. Photo By Sameera Khan.

Conversations with a few educated upwardly-mobile Muslims reveals that many of them do not want to live in Muslim dominated areas – for as one Muslim woman said, “When you live with different communities, you learn to not overly emphasise your religious identity and you learn to get along with everyone. Also you escape everyday policing by your own community members.”  While the law abets such discrimination, nothing deters civil society to practice it. A report in Scroll.in talked about a case related to the Zoroastrian Co-operative Housing Society Limited, when a Parsi owner of a bungalow wanted to sell the bungalow to non-Parsi developers but was challenged because society bylaw didn’t allow selling or renting plots to non-Parsis. The owner went to court but lost the case. The report said, “The court emphasised a particular group’s right to preserve its culture, but failed to balance this by acknowledging that such attempts at preservation also led to acts of prejudice. Further, the court ruled that because a society was a private body, it was exempt from having to honor constitutional tenets.”

I cold called a few brokers as Hamzah Iqbal, a young Muslim professional trying to look for a house in Chembur or Sion. The brokers were helpful and did not mention any problems that might occur due to my religious identity. Only when I prompted them saying that I had heard about the challenges that Muslims face regarding housing, did they mention that a few housing societies and owners preferred to have people of their own religion.

“All kinds of people live together in slums. The poor don’t care about religious identity. When there is no money in the pocket, who has the time to look at such things.”

Mazahir Hussain, a student of social work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Chembur said that he did not have much trouble finding a house. But he was not spared. He was the only one out of his flat-mates, who are all Hindus, whose identity was verified by the police at his permanent address. On asking other Muslims on the TISS campus about this, they related the same story. Even though there might not be overt discrimination, things like these are a sign of a much deeper mistrust that hounds Muslims in our society. Sunil Gupta*, another broker in Chembur says, “It is much easier to find houses for Muslims associated with TISS because of the institute’s reputation. The options for Muslims in Chembur are otherwise very limited, especially for bachelors.”

Shaukat Ali Khan, an old migrant from Darbhanga and a long-time resident of a slum in Panjarapole, Chembur said that he had never faced any problems because of his religious identity. “All kinds of people live together in slums. The poor don’t care about religious identity. When there is no money in the pocket, who has the time to look at such things,” he says. This was echoed by Rehman Bhai, a taxi driver I encountered while filming a documentary. He has lived in Dharavi for close to 30 years now and the only time he faced any problems due to his religious identity was during the 1992-93 riots, when his taxi was burnt down.

A lot can be attributed to the negative representation of Muslims and Islam in the media today.  We are so dependent on the stereotypes of Islam that we refuse to actually look at the person beneath the religion.

Evidently, the middle and upper classes are the ones discriminating more. While conversing with a Jain couple, Rajive and Shweta, who live in a posh housing colony in Jogeshwari East, about what they would like their building society to be like, they mentioned that they were okay with sharing their housing society with people of any religion. They did mention a reservation against meat eating but as long as people did that within their homes, they were okay with it. “India is a secular country and we should be able to live with everybody in peace,” they said. When asked how they would feel about their daughter dating a Muslim, they said they would not be comfortable with it because of the difference in culture between Jains and Muslims.

Islam in India has not always been so maligned, points out Javed Anand, general secretary of Muslims for Secular Democracy, “I have faced this problem myself in the early 1970s in the then ‘cosmopolitan Bombay’. And I know of a few others from back then who had a similar experience. It’s just that communalism was not so much in the air then as it is now while majoritarianism is today a new ‘common sense’,” he says.

A lot can be attributed to the negative representation of Muslims and Islam in the media today.  We are so dependent on the stereotypes of Islam that we refuse to actually look at the person beneath the religion. The result is that we have people like Misbah and Zeshan, homeless and jobless, only because they are Muslims. It’s time Mumbai evoked its cosmopolitan creed.

*Names changed on request

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