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Interfaith Dialogue ( 24 Jun 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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How Promoting Diversity can Stop Spatial Segregation

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

25 June, 2015

The recent incident in Moradabad, where a Muslim woman was threatened by a BJP councillor to leave a Brahmin neighbourhood is just another reminder of the hostility and discrimination that Muslims face when trying to move into a predominantly Hindu locality. Togadia was certainly not the first or the last to advise Hindus how to expel a Muslim family from their locality in Bhavnagar. Through a combination of Ram-Bhajans and insults, the Hindus were successful in intimidating a Muslim family who was left with no choice but to sell their house.   

Whether it’s buying a house or even renting one, the very name of a Muslim becomes a marker of exclusion. As this writer has faced many times, the polite ones would refuse you a house citing dietary habits; others would be more direct and tell you on your face that they don’t give houses to Muslims. You feel deeply offended and hurt, but there is little you can do. You move on and try your luck somewhere else. You need to be a bit thick skinned to survive as a Muslim in this country. 

With the BJP coming to power, incidents of denying houses to Muslims are being frequently reported in the media. In fact it has become so frequent that now it should not be understood as incidents rather it appears that they constitute a pattern. While it is true certain people might have got emboldened to openly proclaim that Muslims are not welcome in Hindu areas, this problem is much older than the BJP. Moreover, with some exceptions, this looks like a pan-Indian problem. We have heard stories from Gujarat, Delhi and Mumbai but Kolkata is no better. Just one look at the three so called metropolises is sufficient to tell us that these do not even qualify to be called cities as it is sociologically understood. Cities are supposed to offer anonymity, but our cities on the contrary make us aware of our caste, regional and religious identity all the time. Just look at Delhi: Muslims, Bengalis, Punjabis, and Poorvanchalis, all have their distinct locations. Is this a characteristic of a city or a huge urban village?

What also does not get mentioned is the other side of the picture: Muslims denying houses to Hindus in their own localities or apartments. One does not hear about them, possibly because they are not ‘newsworthy’ in the given political context, but it is also a problem which also needs to be talked about. To make matters worse, one of my Muslim friends told me when he approached for a rented accommodation in a Muslim apartment, the first question that he was asked was whether he was a Shia or a Sunni!

We often congratulated ourselves for being such a diverse religious and cultural landscape that such problems are understood more in terms of aberration. We do not realise that we are slowly but surely getting to a place where living in religious and communitarian ghettos will hardly be seen as a problem. It is true that India is an extremely diverse but to maintain this diversity, we need to take a political call. Hindu nationalism and Muslim revivalism both are tendencies with deep anti-pluralistic agendas. Giving the ascendancy of both these tendencies over the recent decades, we need to think in terms of a political strategy which would halt the march of these forces of anti-pluralism both from within Hinduism and Islam.    

The first thing that crosses the mind is to think in terms of an anti-discrimination law. Such a law should make exclusion of any kind based on religious identities an offence. But perhaps as we know, laws have means to be negotiated and bent. Moreover laws, in themselves would not achieve much without social support from the people. It is therefore imperative to create conditions within society for the acceptance of diversity as a positive value. This means that we should relook at what our educational system does in terms of inculcating diversity and pluralism. We could also think in terms of fostering and showcasing the value of diversity within the civic spaces which we inhabit. What this means is that I need not have to travel to Jama Masjid to experience the life world of Muslims; this experience should be available to me in my own locality. And this can only be possible if my locality was religiously diverse. The RWAs can be provided incentives of various kinds to make their housing societies as diverse as possible.

This isn’t going to be simple. It will involve a series of painful negotiations between groups within society including those who would think that this is an assault on the way they have lived for centuries. In a situation where living separately and demarcating religious boundaries is the new common sense, this refashioning of our lived spaces can only be effected through the state. But given the nature of the existing state, it looks impossible that such an idea would even be entertained. What is however certain is this: given the rate at which our society is descending into a state of mutual antipathy, incidents like denying houses to Muslims would not even merit a discussion.  

Arshad Alam is writer and commentator on contemporary Muslim issues.