As the urban landscape changes, distrust and intolerance between religious communities are on the rise. Omar Rashid reflects on how the arduous task of house hunting in cosmopolitan India becomes even more complicated if you don’t belong to the right religion.

Two summers ago, I found myself facing the prospect of living in a densely populated Muslim locality, a ghetto, in Uttar Pradesh’s old city of Allahabad. It was much against my will, as for about a year since moving to the land of the Sangam, I had resolutely resisted the possibility on multiple occasions. I am strictly opposed to the idea of religion-specific community living, especially when it’s forced upon you.

But now served a sudden ultimatum by the landlord of my present flat — a stone’s throw away from Anand Bhavan, the historic home of the Nehrus — I was house-hunting again. My present flat had come to me after a hard struggle, following dozens of rejections, much frustration and disgrace — to my claim, I was the sole non-Hindu in the building. A similar, unpleasant pattern ensued. Then one fine day, I received some hope. Surprisingly, it came from a Hindu Brahmin family. They were known to me through a reliable business friend, a distant relative of theirs. Without wasting time, we marched to the house. It was anything but up to mark; the ventilation was poor, for one. But I was desperate. We discussed the rent and other conditions. I accepted everything.

There were, unexpectedly, no questions about my food preferences or religion. I left satisfied and expressed gratitude to my friend. Three days later, carrying a new lock, I returned to seal the deal. And the landlord, a polite old man, mistakenly referred to me as “Amar ji.” I promptly corrected him. His face turned pale and he looked hopelessly at his wife. “Acha? … toh aap Musalman ho?” His voice grew distant. “Hum Musalmano ko nahi rakhte.” Since my friend was a Hindu, my potential landlord had perhaps assumed that he would only bring a Hindu tenant and never cared to ask. I was under the impression he knew of my identity but didn’t care. We were both wrong.

Back then, the old man’s words of rejection caused me much rage. Looking back, today I thank him for being as blatant as he was. In a perverse sense, we must pray for such brazen cases of intolerance to surface from time to time to remind us how deeply ingrained this malaise is.

“The codes of discrimination and prejudice in India are unwritten and veil themselves in ambiguity. It is often difficult for the victims to establish their case as it unfolds — sometimes it doesn’t at all — in a complex and obscure manner. ”

This was not the first time — and I am sure it won’t be the last — that I was dismissed for bearing a Muslim name. Not all instances were as dramatic or direct as the above. Usually, they are nasty and frustrating yet subtle and sophisticated. The codes of discrimination and prejudice in India are unwritten and veil themselves in ambiguity. It is often difficult for the victims to establish their case as it unfolds — sometimes it doesn’t at all — in a complex and obscure manner.

Most often the rejections and untimely evictions are shrouded with loose excuses; shameless telling of ‘out-of-bound’ (so-called secular) areas; blatant lies about occupancy (the most common ones are repair work, sudden marriage schedules or unexpected arrival of relatives); gastronomic preferences, often duplicitous. A Chaurasia landlord threw me out within a couple of months as he didn’t like me eating “meat machhi” in the house, though I often found his son eating chicken tandoori and drinking liquor on the terrace with his friends over a game of cards!

More generally, when a Hindu landlord rejects a Muslim for being non-vegetarian, does it mean the Muslim would have been treated better had he or she been a vegetarian? Unlikely.

Each time news breaks of a Muslim being denied a house in India, I am automatically tuned to reflect on my experiences. When it comes to housing matters, I tick all the wrong boxes possible: I am a non-vegetarian; bear a Muslim name and Kashmiri identity (a potential security threat); carry the stereotypes of a bachelor and a journalist; a tribe, along with advocates, not trusted by landlords for whatever reasons.

Due to this delicious mix, I can testify to some of the most outrageous experiences. Leave aside Hindus in Lucknow, the city of the Nawabs, Muslims refused to give me a flat. “We can’t give our house to a Kashmiri.” Their rejection was born out a fear that the police would hound them in case I was found complicit in a terror attack. A Muslim landlord, who accepted me after much reluctance, scrutinised my every habit and kept a keen tab on my activity. So, while I’m persona non grata for Hindus for bearing a Muslim name, some Muslims don’t give me a house for not acting like one.

On the whole, I was rejected by well-educated, well-earning, respected and refined people, not the naked savages we would have liked.

In an ever-urbanising India, house-hunting is an arduous task in itself regardless of identity. Non-vegetarian Hindus, bachelors, Dalits, homosexuals, people from the Northeast and women, to name a few clusters, are also subjected to comparable biases. Yet, as numerous reports and accounts have highlighted, it becomes next to impossible for Muslims to find a house of his/her liking. Various reasons are cited to explain this ‘No-Muslims’ climate.

Over the years, communal politics, communal profiling, media propaganda, stereotyping and de-humanising schemes have played a huge role in widening the rift between communities. In the present scene, many attribute it to a consequence of global Islamophobia post-9/11 and the perceived threats of terrorism. In Mumbai, India’s cosmopolitan city, the ghettoised landscape is attributed to the 1993 riots and the subsequent terror attacks. The venomous fangs of this segregation are taking new turns not only in India’s most urban spaces but also in its rural areas. In western Uttar Pradesh, rural ghettos have come up widely post the 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal violence. Last year, much furore was created after news broke of a “Muslim-only” colony coming up in Greater Noida. Detractors said it would lead to further ghettoisation and, ironically I feel, questioned how it even fit into India’s constitutional ethos.

Many also used the case to explain, and justify, the reverse ghettoisation perpetrated upon Muslims. However, what they fail to acknowledge is that while ghettoisation is indeed harming the minority’s growth and further fuelling distrust, this particular case should be looked upon as a practical reaction to the bias they faced in proper New Delhi. If not, where is the outrage over the forced ghettoisation of Muslims across Indian cities and towns? For instance in Gujarat, recently a Muslim scrap dealer was forced to sell off his new bungalow in a Hindu-dominated locality in Bhavnagar simply because the Vishwa Hindu Parishad wouldn’t let him move in.

So how do we deal with situations of housing bias and discrimination on grounds of religion in general? There’s very little that comes to mind. Urban planners and legal experts have been perplexed by it. Many say the solution lies in promulgating a Free Housing Law. Yes, a need for such a statute against discrimination is the minimum requirement. Yet, laws in themselves are insufficient. In absence of a quick redressal system, the victims will be exposed to an expensive litigation process. The logic of ‘prevention is better than cure’ would apply better in this scenario.

Other solutions include adapting housing policies and anti-discrimination laws of other countries. The Singapore model of inclusive housing, which mandates housing complexes with a fixed percentage of different communities, is often cited. However, our cultural sensibilities are yet to reach those levels of maturity. And, given our demographic imbalance where one community has more than 80 per cent of population, it sounds a little impractical.

The first task facing us, however, is to conceptualise the issue with clear data. A solution that does not take into consideration a systematic study of the biases, which surface in a myriad ways, would be tenuous. Despite facing the bias on numerous occasions, directly and indirectly, I have little data to report my case, especially when it was done slyly.

In the absence of a clear statutory law prohibiting discrimination, the housing societies in the country are legally entitled to decide who can or cannot live in them. In 2008, Pune resident Madhavi Kapur was prevented from selling her flat to a Muslim couple as the society would not allow minority members. Surprisingly, this was preceded by a Supreme Court decision in 2005 in the Zoroastrian Co-operative Housing Society case, where it allowed the housing society to rent and sell accommodation only to members of a particular religious community. The legal implications of this case on other societies are contested.

Perhaps the government could incorporate a non-discriminatory, inclusive housing programme in its much-touted Smart Cities scheme, or incentivise building schemes. Yet, not much can be achieved without political will. Take for example, Mumbai, where the issue of ‘only vegetarian’ housing zones have acquired political significance. Last November, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) passed a resolution seeking to deny key clearances to builders and housing societies that discriminate against buyers on the basis of caste, religion or food habits. There has been little action on the proposal as it still awaits the approval of the Urban Development Ministry. The BJP, in power in Maharashtra, interestingly, did not vote for the proposal in what appears to be appeasement of Gujarati voters, who are traditionally vegetarian.

It’s been a year since I moved to Maximum City. Walking through the all-vegetarian zones in South Mumbai, and the adjoining Muslim ghettos, reminds me of its segregated spaces. Fortunately, thanks to a colleague, I was saved the trauma of house hunting. The house-hunting regimes are torturous for any young professional. For a Muslim Kashmiri, like me, it is often a case of re-education; one that threatens to alienate the citizen in me.

Communal harmony/tension in India is gauged by the frequency of riots. No violence implies all is well. However, long-term consequences of communal discrimination, alienation and ghettoisation programmes to India’s harmony cannot be overstated. Can there be smart cities with regressive mindsets?