Public relations professional Misbah Quadri, 25, uncovered Mumbai’s worst-kept secret of two decades when she approached the National Human Rights Commission this week with a complaint that she had been forced to vacate a legitimately leased apartment because she is Muslim. It certainly isn’t the first case of its kind in the place that is usually touted as India’s most cosmopolitan metropolis.

A few years ago, legendary actor Shabana Azmi lamented that she and husband, lyricist Javed Akhtar, were refused the opportunity to buy upmarket apartments because they were Muslim. Once every few months, such a case causes outrage for a few days before life settles down. Coming within a week of a young graduate named Zeeshan Ali being refused a job in a city diamond export firm because he was Muslim, Quadri’s complaint has reignited the debate on the strength – or frailty – of Mumbai’s cosmopolitanism.

There are fierce arguments on both sides of the debate. One side champions the city’s multi-religious and multi-cultural fabric as proof that it encourages a melding of people from all communities, while the others point to the Mumbai’s age-old reality of community-specific housing complexes. But Mumbai’s truth is complex, to put it mildly.

Long-standing divisions

There were always communal and religious divides in the city’s housing arrangements, with certain areas pre-dominantly occupied by people of a specific religion or community or caste. People of other communities did not venture here or were quietly discouraged from doing so. Think Girgaum in the southern part of the city, with its Hindu-Maharashtrian dominance; Bhendi Bazar and surrounding commercial-residential areas with Muslim majorities; Mazgaon with its Christians; Matunga with its Hindu-Tamilian-Malayali-Gujarati mix; more recently, Malabar Hill with its pre-dominance of Jains. People from other groups were not welcome in these areas.

But – this is important – simultaneously, there existed large swathes of the city, both old and new, where religious or community affiliations did not matter in the realm of real estate. Apartments were sold and rented out if the price was right; transactions smoothened out by brokers. In these non-descript cooperative housing societies and stand-alone buildings was to be found the city’s secular and multicultural spirit, which helped to reinforce its cosmopolitan character.

These are the new theatres of conflict. In these spaces, people are actively discouraged because they do not carry the right names or do not belong to the right religion. The onerous task of finding and securing a suitable home in India’s most densely-packed city is complicated by the factor of religion.

Contemporary India’s battles over religious identity are playing out in Mumbai’s real-estate sector, with brokers playing the roles of foot soldiers and unit commanders. There are unspoken understandings all around that prospective buyers or tenants of a so-called undesirable religion or community will not be allowed into a housing society, no matter what their levels of education, their profession, income or lifestyle. Quadri called out this subterfuge among brokers, owners and builders. But she is unlikely to be the last person to be denied accommodation on grounds of her religion.

Aftermath of riots

It would be a mistake to see this kind of discrimination as new. In its current form, this open display of bias was a result of the profound forces of transformation unleashed in Mumbai by the communal riots of 1992-’93 after the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Those horrific weeks saw both Hindu and Muslim families living in cosmopolitan housing societies marked out as targets, irrespective of class and income. Doors were marked with chalk, and nameboards in building lobbies were hurriedly removed in an attempt to confuse potential attacks. Muslim families in affluent areas such as Peddar Road were not spared, busting the myth that wealth and class could buy insurance in the city.

More than two decades later, Mumbai’s pluralism has not been restored. Far from it, the schisms have widened. The discrimination in housing and jobs, to name only two sectors, is a part of the subtle but unrelenting alienation that began during the Bombay riots and continues.

A decade after the violence, a young man from the Kashmir valley thought he would start anew in Mumbai, armed with a college degree and a job with a national daily where I was the city editor. He turned out to be a brilliant reporter, enthusiastically explored the city, and fell in love with it. He narrated stories of how the insurgency back home seemed a mirage here in Mumbai and why he would never return home. In about a year, he did.

“I’m unable to find a decent house on rent here,” he said, seething within. “No one wants to lease to me because I am a Muslim.” He had tried every opportunity to find accommodation. Mumbai failed him and broke his spirit. Another journalist married to a Muslim recounted similar experiences less than three years ago trying to find a home for themselves.

Over the last two decades, the communal divides on the Mumbai map have hardened. The riots created new Muslim ghettos such as Mira-Bhayander on the city's western shoreline and Mumbra in the far eastern suburbs, with flimsy infrastructure and poor health and education facilities.

Institutional bias

Here’s the nub. The alienation or discrimination is not episodic: it is institutional. It runs across sectors and runs so deep that it appears normal to those who do not know better. The Sachar Committee report of 2006 mentioned that “the condition of Muslims in Maharashtra deserves special attention”. A series of studies since then have reinforced this conclusion. The Socio Economic Profile of Muslims in Maharashtra, a depth study report by feminist-economist Vibhuti Patel and her team of researchers in 2013-’14 shows how deep the institutional bias is and how it has affected the community across the board ‒ from agricultural holdings in rural areas to housing, employment and access to credit in urban Maharashtra.

Muslim men are twice as likely to be unemployed as Hindu men, the number of Muslim households living in slums in cities is far greater than Hindu or Christian households, the study showed. Muslim access to bank credit is “low and inadequate” with respondents citing bias and prejudice against them; their employment pattern is highly skewed towards the lower end of the tertiary sector.

In Mumbai, where Muslims comprise 15% to 18% of the population, the community's socio-economic situation is just as bad as it is in the rest of Maharashtra. Communal disturbances and violence have had a role to play in this, according to the study. “A major reason for the socio-economic deprivation of Muslims is the high incidence of communal riots,” Dr Patel observed. “The absence of civic ties due to ghettoisation creates an insular feeling.” From 1908 to 2009, Mumbai was battered by 83 communal riots, more than in any other part of Maharashtra. The report identified “political economy of communal conflicts” as a major threat to both Maharashtra’s syncretic culture and the socio-economic progress of Muslims.

In this dismal situation, professionals like Quadri are the exceptions. Her relative success should have made her a welcome citizen of Mumbai. But she remains a Muslim citizen of Mumbai. For the city, it is one more gash in the multi-cultural mosaic that was never repaired after 1992-’93.

Smruti Koppikar, senior journalist and columnist, writes on urban affairs with a special focus on Mumbai. She tweets as @urjourno.