The wretched of the city; Indian Muslims of the metropolis

The overall effect of generations of Muslim families being pushed to ghettoes has resulted in a loss of a say in the matters of larger political activities of the city. Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob

Fragmented Indian metropolis

Over the last few decades, rapid urbanisation has tremendously changed the nature and functioning of Indian cities. On dissecting the Indian metropolis, one finds that the city’s geography is fragmented on numerous lines of caste, class, and religion. While mass migrations from rural areas and rising urbanisation is expected to dilute the rigid boundaries of caste and religion, the city somehow still seems to retain the divisions intact in its tissue.

Indian Muslims are one of the most rapidly urbanising communities in India compared to other religious groups. According to the Sachar Committee report, this gap is perhaps so, as the Muslim population in India is less linked to land than the overall Indian population.

Regardless of being historically more urbanised (in terms of the degree of urbanisation) than the Hindus, Muslims are generally living in poorer settlements in urban areas and form huge a percentage of the urban poor. Lower-class Muslims form a sizable chunk of the unorganised, daily wage workers, doing the dirtiest and worst paying jobs in the city.

Indian cities and Muslims

As per Gayer and Jaffrelot, “The Muslim-dominated neighborhoods which have been emerging or expanding in this process of regrouping are increasingly being referred to as ‘Muslim ghettos’ by India’s media, political class and academics alike.” In the everyday life, there is a degree of normalisation associated with the way segregation works in the urban domains.

A repeated narrative exists in the debates around Muslim neighborhoods that Muslims go into their ghettoes out of their own free will and that the cause of their self-segregation is rooted in their choice of living within their own kind, pointing to the conservative and unsociable lifestyles essential to Muslims. Although majority of the social groups in India have had a history of living separately with some degrees of porosity in their borders, the causes of self-segregation among Indian Muslims are not straightforward and cannot be reduced to their social/cultural differences or economic status. In many Indian cities, the trajectory of Indian Muslims seems to be informed by a memory of violence, the effects of which continue to direct the spaces that are occupied by generations of Muslims. 

Historically, ghettoisation as a phenomenon has been a symptom of a society that is deeply polarised on ethnic or racial lines. Ghettoes were used to segregate Jewish communities from the rest of the population across Europe. The Nazis also introduced ghettos due to their false theories that Jews spread diseases and therefore should be segregated to protect the rest of the population.

Spatial ghettoisation

Post economic liberalisation of 1991 which coincides with the insurgence of Hindu Nationalism or Hindu Identity politics, there has been a rise in social stigmatisation of Muslims, an increase in Islamophobic sentiment among masses, communal tensions and political violence. The larger significant events have been the Ram Janmabhoomi movement followed by the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the Mumbai riots of 1992–93, the 2002 Gujarat genocide or more recently the 2013 Muzaffar Nagar anti-Muslim violence and 2020 North East Delhi pogrom. As a result of which spatial segregation has intensified and the Muslim community has been pushed further and further into the ghettoes where the residents feel safe in numbers. This has resulted in reorganizing of the urban spaces on communal lines. During what is reported as “riots”, the minority Muslim population is cornered and subsequently, forced to migrate in large numbers, to mohallas in older and poorer parts of the city.

Mumbra in Mumbai, for example, has 85% of its residents as Muslims, most of whom migrated there during the anti-Muslim violence that followed the Babri Masjid attack in other parts of the city. Similarly, in Hyderabad, Meerut, and Ahmedabad, recurrent incidents of targeted violence have forced Muslims to abandon property and business, and move to Muslim-dominated ghettoes.

The most prominent feature of the modern Muslim ghetto is the presence of a Muslim middle class who can afford to live in posh upper-caste Hindu areas. This section of Muslims moves to the ghettoes as a result of an environment of terror that stays in the city long after the communal carnage is over. Ghettoization is also promoted by the fact that Hindu landlords simply refuse to rent out their houses to Muslim tenants.

Ahmedabad has become the most segregated Indian city on communal lines. With about 3 lakh Muslim residents, Juhapura (often ridiculed as “mini-Pakistan”) represents approximately half of the Muslim population of Ahmedabad. The area really began to grow after the 1985 riots. After each subsequent riot, Hindus left and more Muslims fled for safety to Juhapura and could not return to their original homes, a process fueled by the Disturbed Areas Act. Juhapura has become a full-fledged ghetto with economic heterogeneity but ethnic homogeneity. The borders of Juhapura have a housing colony of police officers near Makarba – an indirect way to keep an eye on the “suspicious” community.

Economic Ghettoization

The Sachar report noted that Muslims lagged far behind in their access to education, infrastructure, credit and employment in both public and private sectors. There have been multiple studies that indicate a clear bias that Muslims and Dalits go through in the formal Urban Labour Market. One such study by Sumeet Mhaskar conducted in 2008, in his paper named “Ghettoization of Economic Choices in a Global City” elaborates on this by thoroughly studying and interviewing workers who lost their jobs as a result of closing down of the Mills.

On studying the ex-mill workers of various religions and caste backgrounds, a clear case of bias was observed towards Muslims who were pushed out of the job market. The results of the surveys suggested that the discrimination Muslims face in the labor market compels them to work in a ghettoised economy. Muslims, therefore, are forced to opt for occupations that have low social status and meagre economic earnings.

The fixed positionality of workers in the city and relatively lower capacity of commuting to farther areas restricts their chances of negotiating their wages and makes them even vulnerable to economic exploitation as they have no choice but to find work in the limited radius of their movement.

Psychological ghettoization

As a result of spatial and economic ghettoisation, the possibility of interaction and friendship between communities extensively decreases. The third kind of relational segregation practice is further brought into the picture by demonising intermarriage relationships. Recent Laws like “love Jihad” further solidify these exclusionary practices.

Generations of Muslims and Hindus now growing up together in segregated islands in the same city whose only contact with each other is through uncertain glances on the street or through a state-controlled media that actively distorts the reality and does its bit to promote the stereotypical image of the unsociable and criminally profiled Muslim. The segregation of communities, the roots of which lay in institutionalised discrimination, came to be perceived as ‘self-segregation’ – the attempt by Muslims to create their own exclusive areas or ‘no-go areas’ because they did not want to mix with non-Muslims. Marginalised economically and cut off from the access to facilities of the city, generations of Muslims have grown who were not even given the opportunity to understand their place in a highly biased system or the tools to understand their own history.

The overall effect of generations of Muslim families being pushed to ghettoes has resulted in a loss of a say in the matters of larger political activities of the city. The alienation that the Indian Muslim experiences in the wider scheme of things is written into the very fabric of the city. The dominant ideology reproduces itself as borders and as divisions of the urban fabric, as possibilities and impossibilities of occupying spaces in physicality and consequently in politics.


1, Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalisation, Laurent Gayer  (Editor), Christophe Jaffrelot (Editor)

2, Accumulation by Segregation: Muslim Localities in Delhi, Ghazala Jamil

3,Ghetto and within: (Class, Identity, State and Political Mobilization), Ravi Kumar