Category Archives: Discrimination

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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Atithi Devo Bhava?

The ‘Incredible India’ tourism campaign stresses on our guests being equivalent to God. But is that really how we treat foreigners who make Mumbai their home? Here, a Chinese visitor talks of humiliation, an American woman reports molestation and a Nigerian man speaks of repeated experiences of being thrown out of a house.

Text and photos by Vishal Langthasa

Cheng Wei has lived in Mumbai for more than two years. Enough time to give him a perspective on real estate brokers and landlords in the city. “I have now drawn the conclusion that to most Indian people, ‘foreigner’ equals ‘millionaire’,” says the 31-year-old single man from Beijing who works as a media correspondent in Mumbai.

Wei recently moved into a 2BHK rental apartment at Mahalakshmi. It wasn’t difficult for him to strike a deal for the South Mumbai apartment as he commanded a good budget. But the problem was in dealing with the landlord and the agent. He was told that the apartment was semi-furnished but on arriving there it was bare. After much deliberation, the landlord agreed to provide him with a dining table, curtains, chimney and so on. He thought the flat would be ready for him on the agreed date but nothing was in place when he moved in. “I feel like they are just waiting for me to lose patience and buy all these furnishings myself. I do not care about the money,” says Wei. “I just feel humiliated being treated like this. They even played little tricks with the rental agreement to save more money. All I want to do is continue with my work.”

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“I feel like they are just waiting for me to lose patience and buy all these furnishings myself. I do not care about the money,” says Wei.

Increasingly Mumbai is attracting more and more long-stay foreign guests from across the globe. Many of them now wish to stay long-term in the city for work, business or education. They expect differences and challenges in negotiating food, language and culture – but progressively it is finding a house to live in that is causing most foreign visitors much distress.
But it’s not just the initial struggle of locating a suitable place (in a suitable neighbourhood) and negotiating the rent and amenities with landlords that many foreigners find daunting. It’s also real experiences of being cheated by real estate brokers and harassed by building societies that dismays them.

Alex Tsakiridis, a 25-year-old student from Greece, however, had it easier. Pursuing a masters degree in Mumbai, he found a room through a broker who sat near the university premises. “I only think of it as something temporary because I don’t know where I will end up,” he says. Charlotte Smith*, a student from USA, took a month to find rental accommodation close to the school she was teaching at in the outskirts of Mumbai. While part of the difficulty was her being a foreigner, the other was “being unmarried”, she says. “I was about to move into a flat when the people in charge of the apartment complex suddenly said that they were uncomfortable renting to a single woman. But then my friend convinced them that since I was a teacher, I was a nice person,” says Charlotte with a giggle. Soon she was being called “Charlotte didi” in the area and her next-door neighbours almost adopted her “treating me like their daughter”.

How far can a woman go for her protection?
How far should a woman go to feel safe?

While life eventually got rosier, what did not change for her was the constant sexual harassment she faced on the streets and in public transport. Once in a shared autorickshaw from a local train station, a man in the auto started molesting her, egged on by his friends. She shouted at the driver to stop but the driver paid no mind. Worse was when she tried sharing her experiences she was told that it was her fault as she “gave off the demeanour of an easy prey.”

In comparison to the others, the struggles of a Black person with a slender budget seem more amplified. David Frank, a 33-year-old father of three, came to Mumbai from Nigeria in 2009. He has often had to move at short notice from rental apartments and several times he has been cheated by fraudsters. Before moving in to his current 1BHK flat in Thane, Frank, who left his family behind in order to do business in the apparel industry here, lived with his brother, already engaged in business here, and his three friends.

They were forced to move from one flat to another three times within a year on some excuse or the other. Once when he was staying on Yari road in a 1BHK flat with his brother and friends, they would pay the monthly rent through the agent. However, four months later the landlord appeared for the first time and claimed that no rent had been paid to him. Proper communication could not be established as the landlord did not understand English and they did not know how to speak Marathi or Hindi. Eventually the landlord gave them just two days to vacate the flat.

“Every time they give all kinds of reasons to make us move from the place. Sometimes they said, the police don’t want Black people in the building; sometimes they say the building society does not want Black people…”

Frank mentions the other time he was cheated while looking for a room in Koparkhairane, a place where a number of African people live and attend the Christ Embassy church run by a Black pastor. He went to see a flat with an agent recommended by a friend. The security guard handed them the keys to the room. After checking it out, Frank came down from the building, signed the agreement and handed Rs 70,000 in cash to the agent. The agent took the money and asked him to wait for a few days. “He never came back. My money vanished. I kept calling him but his phone was switched off. The security man who handed him the keys refused to recognise him too,” says Frank.

“Every time they give all kinds of reasons to make us move from the place. Sometimes they said, the police don’t want Black people in the building; sometimes they say the building society does not want Black people; one time they said they were giving the flat to their daughter who was getting married and most of the times, they asked us to vacate by telling us that the flat is sold,” he adds. What disturbs Frank the most is the blatant discrimination against Blacks. According to him, if “in a locality, one black guy is found making a mistake, then all the black people in that area are asked to vacate. We are asked not to drink, not to bring women into our rooms. I personally do not drink. But then I see Indian people drinking everywhere. Why doesn’t the same rule apply to them? They count every penny and make excuses to ask for more money but as foreigners we cannot afford to create any problem with them.”

Other long-stay foreign visitors mention problems in dealing with bureaucracy and paper work for something as simple as a cooking gas cyclinder. Still, people like Frank maintain that they like Mumbai because though it is challenging, “it has lots of opportunities.”

Finally Wei sums it up. He recalls an incident at the Mumbai airport when he had first arrived. His luggage went missing at the airport and he was politely soliciting help from the airport staff. “Two Taiwanese women heard of my predicament and told me that I should shout and force them to get my work done. I was astonished and told them, I cannot be rude to these people. Before they left, one of those women turned to me and said, ‘You have not lived in Mumbai long enough’,” says Wei. “Now, I understand what they meant.”

*Names changed on request.

Totally Fishy Business

The residents of Sion-Koliwada have waged a long battle against builders usurping their land under the guise of ‘slum’ redevelopment. But does anyone care about their fate?

Text by Priyamvada Jagia
Cover Photo by Javed Iqbal*

 “Why should I tell you anything, what will you do for us?” These are the first words flung at me by an old Koli woman in Sion-Koliwada. As I ask more questions about the recurrent demolitions in the area and the purported land grab by aggressive builders, I realize that the harshness in her tone is not entirely misplaced. It possibly stems from feeling repeatedly abandoned by those who came before to question and investigate. The Sion-Koliwada story is complicated and long. Behind the grave mush of its details lies bare the protracted struggle of the indigenous Koli community of Sion to protect the land that has been inhabited by them since 1939.

When the Slum Rehabilitation Act (SRA) came into being in 1995, private players got a big role to play in slum redevelopment. The Act, which was initiated to rehabilitate the slum dwellers living in adverse conditions, gave developers easy access to the land occupied by slum dwellers in various parts of Mumbai. The slum dwellers were to be shifted into vertical housing built on the same land as their slums but with better living conditions. The people of Sion-Koliwada allege that since their land is part of an original fishing village (Koliwada) of Mumbai, it does not fall under the purview and conditions of the SRA. Their contention is simple: we are not a ‘slum’. Unfortunately, private developers choose to interpret the law differently – reminding us of the arbitrariness of the definition of a slum given by the government.

Resident Prathamesh Shivkar, a student and an active participant of the protests in the area says that builder Sudhakar Shetty of Sahana Developers (who also owns the TV news channel Jai Maharashtra), who is interested in acquiring redevelopment rights for the land in the area, offered his community one-room apartments, in buildings. These buildings would be built on land that would be acquired after demolishing the existing chawls in which they live. As the SRA allows builders to make a profit out of the remaining, undeveloped land, Shetty would also get similar benefits in the open commercial market. In fact, activists feel that this is just one more attempt in the city to gentrify a poor neighbourhood by building over-priced housing units for the middle-class and marginalizing the original residents.

The people of Sion-Koliwada allege that since their land is part of an original fishing village (Koliwada) of Mumbai, it does not fall under the purview and conditions of the SRA. Their contention is simple: we are not a ‘slum’. Unfortunately, private developers choose to interpret the law differently – reminding us of the arbitrariness of the definition of a slum given by the government.

The residents of the Koliwada rejected the proposition for newly built homes at once. An elderly lady outside a temple in the area said, “The developer has been trying to fool us. We do not like the project and what is being offered to us in exchange. It is a trap.” She refused to be named.

An important condition under the SRA is for the builder to get the consent of 70% of the residents of the slum – a condition that deterred Shetty to acquire land in 1995. Prathamesh continues, “He failed then but he came back in 2006.” Despite people’s disagreement, the builder managed to get possession of the land. “This time he gained the consent of 70% of the people by forging signatures of residents or by threatening weak families. This was evident when the builder was discovered to have documents with the signature of Eknath Koli, who had died many years before,” says Mahesh, another resident. “Some people were forced to sign but when they demanded to read the agreement, they were denied that access,” adds Prathamesh.

These kinds of tactics of forgery are a common practice in various SRA projects across Mumbai but this community was not powerless and was not ready to throw away their livelihood into uncertainty and darkness. Soon members of the community filed an RTI case against the builder.

Kolis are believed to be the first inhabitants of the city and are spread across it.
Kolis are believed to be the first inhabitants of the city and are spread across it (click on image to enlarge).

Once the matter was in the court, the developer was ordered not to proceed with the project. But shockingly on May 29th 2012, the developer entered the premises with bulldozers and brought down a number of houses. In defiance, local people then attempted to rebuild one of the houses. “We then sat for the next two days outside our homes in a peaceful protest until 31st May when a police force interrupted our protest,” says Mahesh. The rebuilt house was demolished and 25 residents, mostly Koli women, were arrested for 14 days under various false charges.

“When the protests started being organized under the leadership of prominent activists like Medha Patkar, this struggle received full media coverage. After Medha Patkar’s meeting with the Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan, he ordered a stay on demolition drives on six rehabilitation projects across the city where residents like us had alleged fraud and forgery by the builders,” says Prathamesh.

But even after the intervention, the construction of buildings by Shetty has continued as have attempts to demolish more houses. Police harassment has also continued. The police patrols the area almost every day, restricts media organizations or any other activists from speaking to the residents. Local municipality officials hardly pay any attention to their pleas. No wonder then the people of Sion-Koliwada feel besieged and now trust few outsiders. Foolji Saroj, a paan-shop owner in the locality says, “The developer is breaking houses despite the stay order on the demolitions by the court. This is because the developer is a powerful man. He has probably bribed higher-ups involved and keeps getting the case extended or delayed.”

The rebuilt house was demolished and 25 residents, mostly Koli women, were arrested for 14 days under various false charges.

Presently, the Koliwada youth are fighting the battle through a legal process. They have formed the Shiv Koliwada Welfare Adivasi Association, which handles the legal documentation and paperwork of the case. They have started a web portal (flashnews.net.in) to gather support for their cause. With many media schools and channels documenting their struggle for interests of their own, this community decided to make a short video about their struggle. This allowed them to represent themselves not as powerless victims but as strong survivors who are protagonists in their own story.

Mumbai’s rapid surge towards unchecked development and urbanization has put the homes and livelihoods of the city’s oldest inhabitants at stake. Loopholes in the SRA, unaccountability on the part of the government and its distaste in even listening to its marginalized residents has created fissures not just in Sion-Koliwada but across the city. Unless, Mumbai hears the voices of its poor, marginalized and dispossessed citizens and recognizes their right to their homes, it cannot become the great city it so desires to become.

* Noted photographer Javed Iqbal, much of whose work has focused on the poor and the marginalized, took this photograph in mid-2012 when the residents of Sion-Koliwada faced severe police brutality for opposing the redevelopment project. 

Map by Vishal Langthasa