Shabana Azmi’s comment on Muslims not getting houses in Mumbai has exposed the chinks in the cosmopolitan culture of India’s most modern city. Shiv Kumar reports on the discrimination faced by the community

Ahmed and Halima Qazi's family is growing and they need a bigger house. They love the middle-class cosmopolitan locality they live in, but they have no choice but to stay put. No one is willing to sell them a flat in the neighborhood because of their religion — they are Muslims.

It doesn’t matter to brokers in the area that the family has been living there for ages. Nor the fact that they are no different from the scores of Hindu and Catholic families in this upwardly mobile area and are as much a part of the city’s cosmopolitan culture of parties, gyms, hangout places, coffee shops etc.

"When brokers come to know that we are Muslims, they immediately tell us no flats are available," says Halima.

Despite its reputation as India’s most liberal city, segregation on the basis of religion is one of the city's open secrets. Much of Mumbai is divided into enclaves dominated by one community or the other. For instance, Central Mumbai comprising the neighbourhoods of Dadar, Parel and Mumbai Central is dominated by Maharashtrians. The downtown areas from Kalbadevi to the neighbourhoods of Walkeshwar and Napean Sea Road are the strongholds of affluent Gujarati and Jain merchants.

Catholic Christian families dominate areas like Bandra, Borivli and certain pockets around various churches.

Parts of Matunga and King’s Circle appear to have been transported from Chennai or Madurai, complete with south Indian-style temples and eateries dishing out dosas and kaapi. Certain neighbourhoods like Bhendi Bazaar and Mohammad Ali Road in the city, Kurla in the suburbs and Mira Road and Mumbra on Mumbai’s outskirts are known as 'Muslim areas', and sometimes also referred to as ‘Chhota Pakistan’.

As people move northwards into the city from the old settled areas near Mumbai city, they tend to form clusters and live among people of their own community or state. "Many of our customers are moving from areas like Vile Parle and Santa Cruz, where they have lived among vegetarian Gujaratis. They would not feel comfortable living among people who cook non-vegetarian food in the building," says Pradeep Hansodia, a broker at Borivli in north Mumbai. Never mind the fact that the neighbourhood in question is dominated by Catholic Christians. The building Hansodia speaks of houses mainly Gujaratis and Jains.

Developers themselves are coming up with various methods to play upon the insularity of their clientele. Some builders have constructed small Hindu or Jain temples within the building compounds on the plea that such buildings will automatically command a premium. This trend, however, is not restricted to Hindus and Jains alone. Developers in neighbourhoods like Jogeshwari in north-central Mumbai that are Muslim-dominated, are coming up with buildings that promise Islamic lifestyle, including prayer rooms facing the direction of Mecca.

Such stratification of housing would, however, leave non-conformists out in the cold. Television actor Aamir Ali, who clearly does not conform to the image of a stereotype Muslim, moved the Bombay High Court after failing to find a house of his choice in the upmarket Andheri area.

"After we agreed on the terms, the broker said the owners no longer wanted to sell the place to me because I was a Muslim," Ali said, while preparing for his legal battle. Ali lost after the court ruled that no one could be forced to sell a flat. However, the court said should anyone be willing to sell a flat to Ali, then he was free to move the Maharashtra Registrar of Cooperative Societies for redressal if the housing society prevented him from buying the property. Shortly after the incident, Ali managed to find a house of his choice. The Maharashtra Cooperative Societies Act prohibits discrimination against people on the basis of caste, creed, religion or language. But legal loopholes in the Act, some of which have been upheld by the Supreme Court, ensure that members of certain sections of society are not able to buy homes in a locality of their choice.

The apex court had ruled that under the Gujarat Cooperative Societies Act, 2002, members of the Zoroastrian community could restrict people of other communities from moving into buildings constructed by Parsi charitable trusts. However, in Mumbai the Registrar of Cooperative Societies has ruled that such rulings would not apply to buildings constructed for sale to the public, in general.

There is, however, a ray of hope at present. According to the trade buzz, there is a slump in the housing market in Mumbai. Builders talk of slackening demand even as the construction frenzy continues unabated.

Cold calls by the writer, posing as a Muslim buyer, to several major builders, who had advertised in the property supplement of a major Mumbai newspaper, indicated signs of interest in spite of being told that a person from a particular religion would be moving in. Not one of the eight builders, contacted on telephone, said Muslims were barred from buying properties in their societies.

Only last year, when the real estate boom was at its peak, a sting operation conducted by a television channel showed representatives of builders refusing to give a house to reporters who were posing as a Muslim couple.

The Maharashtra Government has mooted a proposal to have a quota for members of the minority communities in housing schemes undertaken by the Maharashtra Housing Development Authority (MHDA). Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh recently said the state government would institute a quota for Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and others. The MHDA builds houses for people of low, middle and high income groups. These houses are allotted on a lottery basis.

Some 16,000 houses are presently under construction by the MHDA. A quota for the minorities will improve their chances in government-sponsored housing. At present, Maharashtra allows quotas for Scheduled Castes (11 per cent), Scheduled Tribes (6 per cent) and physically challenged persons (2 per cent) in the housing projects undertaken by the MHDA. Muslims comprise 15 per cent of Mumbai’s 13 million population. So government sops will barely make a difference.

Even this measure has predictably drawn opposition from parties like the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Shortly after Vilasrao announced the move, the Shiv Sena threatened to hit the streets to oppose the plan, saying the government was trying to appease Muslims. Its ally, the BJP, also threatened to move court in order to scuttle the move.

Home truths

Shabana Azmi's statement regarding the problems faced by Mumbai's Muslims in buying or renting flats in the city’s cooperative housing societies, kicked up a storm.

Though the media has played up the issue for years, the whole country sat up and took notice of the issue after the actress-turned social activist and former Member of the Rajya Sabha spoke out 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 the ordinary Muslims elsewhere,: she said.

In the same programme, the actress hit out at the negative image of Islam that is prevalent across the country. Azmi said she was pained by the portrayal of Islam in media. “The fact is that Islam is not a monolith. It is prevalent in more than 53 countries of the world and it takes on the culture of the country in which it resides. So it is moderate in some, liberal in others, and extremist in the rest… You know there's a whole range of Islam that's available according to culture,” Azmi said. She went on to say the Muslims in India were a lot safer than those in several other places “because the Indian Muslim has a stake and space in India's democracy. It’s a big thing that we are a part of the democracy.”

But it was Shabana’s statement that she and her husband couldn’t find proper accommodation in Mumbai that sparked off an immediate debate.

While the average middle-class Muslim empathised with her, Hindutva hardliners hit out at the actress.

BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu was among the first to react insisting that the actress was unfair to the people of the country where Muslims have achieved high office, including that of the President, Supreme Court judges, Captain of the Indian cricket team and top names in the film industry.

Fellow filmmaker and Panun Kashmir activist Ashok Pandit teamed up with director Shashi Ranjan and music composer Aadesh Srivastava to call a press conference to hit out at Shabana. Calling her statement false and irresponsible, Pandit insisted that she would not have problem in finding a house in Mumbai. “She has umpteen... houses so I don't know how she can say this. If she hasn't got a flat, then where does she stay?” Pandit said. “If it was true, then most Muslims would be living on the streets, which is not the case.”

Shabana responded by writing in a local newspaper that she and her husband were denied houses of their choice twice on the ground of being Muslims. The building she chose to buy a flat in was occupied by a filmstar and had non-vegetarian families living in. “I am being called ungrateful, wretched and even a liar. But these are the same people who applauded me and called me a hero when I took on Imam Bukhari,” she wrote.

The actress' exchanges with the Imam of the Jama Masjid are well known. After the Imam issued a fatwa asking Indian Muslims to fight in Afghanistan in 2002, she publicly asked the, then, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to airdrop the Imam in Kandhar. For her efforts, Shabana was reviled and abused and called a kafir.

Justifying her controversial interview, the actress said her remarks about ordinary Muslims being able to aspire for the highest office in the country were ignored. “Would it not be fair to assume that implicit in this hue and cry is the desire to shut up the liberal voice and demand of Muslims who are successful, to be good Uncle Toms?” Shabana wrote in her piece. — S.K.

Other Muslim celebrities who were denied houses
Saif Ali Khan 
Saif Ali Khan

Amidst reports that Khan was not allowed to buy a house of his choice, the actor admitted that he chose to buy a house from a Muslim builder to avoid complications.”"I know there are localities and building societies that won't sell real estate to a Muslim. I went to a Muslim builder to avoid complications,” Khan told a city tabloid. 
Zeenat Aman 
Zeenat Aman

The heartthrob of the 1970s said she had been looking for a new house in the city for more than three months and several brokers had refused to sell her a flat. 
Emraan Hashmi 
Emraan Hashmi

The “kissing star” managed to purchase a flat of his own after uncle Mahesh Bhatt kicked up a storm when builders refused to sell property to Emraan.
Sophie Chaudhary 
Sophie Chaudhary

The svelte VJ, who hit big time on music television, said she was denied the chance to buy a house because of her faith. “Everything goes well until the time I reveal my Muslim lineage,” Sophie told a tabloid.