“How can we share our neighbourhood with a Muslim?” asked Keshav Goswami, as he parked his scooter and joined his neighbours in a huddle outside a house in Chahashor mohalla, a neighbourhood in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, on Wednesday afternoon.

On Sunday evening, Goswami and others in this Hindu-dominated neighbourhood had held a protest outside this very house when its new owner came to take possession of it.

The previous owner, Sanjay Rastogi, had sold it for Rs 28.30 lakhs to a Muslim man called Nauman Ahmad. The deal was finalised in January, but Ahmad paid the last instalment only on December 8, and turned up to claim his property a few days later.

The protest was led by members of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Later, the police intervened and claimed it had settled the situation. Rastogi was asked to pay the entire amount back to the buyer within two months.

“In the past few months, Muslims have managed to buy three houses in the neighbouring lanes and we Hindus could not do anything about it,” said another neighbour, Sushil Goswami, a saffron clad, self-described social worker. “This time we did not let that happen. This part of the lane, right outside the disputed property, is Holika Chowk. This is where the entire colony gathers to celebrate Holi, cook meals during the festival and hire a DJ to play music all day. A Muslim man will surely object to all that and that can lead to communal tensions.”

As the saffron-clad Goswami moved away, the others whispered that he had actually helped Rastogi strike the deal with Ahmad for a commission. Sushil Goswami quickly returned. Thumping his chest, he denied all the allegations, only to disappear again looking out for journalists who could interview him.

Anupam Soni, another resident of Chahashor Mohalla who also joined the protest on Sunday, fished out a bundle of papers from his bag. They were photocopies of the agreement pertaining to the sale of the 120 square-yard property. They showed that the deal was finalised in January. Rastogi, a jeweller, had agreed to the price of Rs 28.30 lakhs. The buyer, Ahmad, had paid his first instalment in September and the final instalment was paid on December 8.

“The owner of the house [Rastogi] has not even lived here for the past year,” said Lalit Rastogi, who lives in the house adjoining the property in question. “He was in debt and he tried to cheat his neighbours by not disclosing that he had made a deal with a Muslim man. Muslims easily entrapped him for land jihad.”

Nauman Ahmad could not be contacted. The police said it did not have any details about him because, according to them, the matter had been “settled” on the spot.

Deepak Sharma (left) and other members of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

Now, land jihad

Land jihad – an adaptation of the term “love jihad”, a conspiracy theory suggested by Hindutva groups to accuse Muslim men of entrapping Hindu women on the pretext of marriage to convert them to Islam – is a relatively new term that has been doing the rounds in Meerut. While all the protesters of Chahashor mohalla were aware of it, nobody knew who coined it.

“We have started a state-wide campaign against land jihad,” said Balraj Doongar, the western Uttar Pradesh convener of the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, part of the network of organisations called the Sangh Parivar to which the ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party belongs. “The campaign is about reaching out to Hindus in all villages and towns and making them aware of what Muslims are up to.”

Explaining what he meant, Doongar said: “Land jihad can be seen in two ways. First, Muslims encroaching on government lands and then building mosques there. Second, Muslims buying homes in Hindu-dominated localities and then turning them into Muslim-dominated localities in a few years. That has to be stopped. The protesters in Meerut were Hindus who were aware of the phenomenon.”

Doongar said that the term “land jihad” had gained popularity among ordinary people. “The term could be new but the phenomenon is old,” he said.

Residents of Chahashor mohalla who say they had demonstrated against the sale said that no member of the Bajrang Dal had been present during Sunday’s protest.

Deepak Sharma, secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, claimed that the events that followed Sunday’s protest was only his latest victory. “In five years, I have stopped 25 such Hindu-Muslim property transactions in many areas, mostly those under the jurisdiction of the Kotwali Police Station,” he said.

He added: “On Sunday, local volunteers told me about an agitation in Chahashor mohalla and I reached there before the police. We made sure that the Muslim man did not take possession of the house. We also assured the owner [Rastogi] that we would help him find a Hindu buyer if he gave us some time.”

But Naseem Saifi, a Meerut-based builder and real estate agent, dismissed Sharma’s claims that he could help find Hindu buyers. “Several such incidents [of Hindutva groups and locals intervening in cases of property sold to Muslims] have happened in the past few years, and in most of them, the seller has not been able to get a Hindu buyer to agree to pay a decent price. The people who promise to help sellers get Hindu buyers are the first to disappear.”

The sale of this house to a Muslim led to a protest in Meerut. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

A changing Meerut

Many of the Hindu residents of Chahashor mohalla, as well as Sharma and Doongar, said that the sale of property to Muslims had to be stopped because Meerut has undergone a massive transformation in the past 20 years, during which, they alleged, Muslims have “taken over” Hindu-dominated localities. They cited Patel Nagar, Baniyapura, Tiwari Colony and Bank Colony as examples.

Gaffar Saifi, a municipal councillor from Manjoor Nagar area of Meerut, agreed that several areas in the city had seen demographic changes in terms of religion in past years, but added that the version propagated by Hindutva groups was only half of the story.

After Meerut saw riots in 1982 (which came after riots in 1961, 1968 and 1973), the city started experiencing a process of ghettoisation, in which both Hindus and Muslims chose to live among people from their own community, said Shafeeq-ur-Rahman Qasmi, president of a minority educational society in Meerut.

“During that period, a reshuffle took place,” he said. “Many Hindus occupied houses in localities where Muslims were a minority, and many Muslims occupied houses in localities where Hindus were a minority. The Hindu-dominated Shastri Nagar area and the Muslim-dominated Zakir Colony are two such examples. The objective was to attain a ghetto-like set up and one has to understand the process of such transformation.”

Meerut expanded with time. But, its expansion excluded Muslims, as builders of the many new colonies and apartment blocks that have sprung up on the city’s periphery over the past few years have refused to sell homes to members of the minority community, said Naseem Saifi, the builder. He identified five upmarket societies that were constructed on the city’s outskirts in the last five years, and explained how builders prevented Muslims from buying property there. They did this, he said, by simply saying “no” or telling them that apartments were not available.

Gaffar Saifi concurred. He said: “This is why till today Muslims have to look for houses in the old part of the city, and subject themselves to many possible risks, including hooliganism by Hindutva groups.”

Qasmi of the minority educational society added: “Hindu-dominated areas around old mosques are prone to more conflict as many Muslims try to get accommodation close to such mosques, and the Hindu residents, often led by members of Hindutva groups, object to that.”

Congested Chahashor mohalla is among the areas in which there is a mosque. There are many such Hindu-dominated areas that have mosques, including Guzri Bazar, Khair Nagar and Jagtiwada, said Qasmi.

“The ghettoisation in Meerut, which began in 1982, got intense after the city witnessed communal riots again in 1987,” he said. “But the environment had settled until the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the Centre. The BJP coming to power in Uttar Pradesh [earlier this year] has made it worse. Now the divide among Hindus and Muslims is visible not only in residential areas but also in office spaces.”

Copy of the sale agreement.

Cost concerns

The other bone of contention at Chahashor mohalla is the price at which the Rastogi-Ahmad deal was struck.

“If it was not a conspiracy by Muslims, tell us how could Rastogi get more than Rs 28 lakh for a property whose value – going by the current market rate of Rs 10,000 per square yard for this area – would definitely not exceed Rs 12 lakh?” asked Sant Kumar Garg, another resident of the mohalla, while the others nodded in agreement.

His neighbour, Keshav Goswami, elaborated on the conspiracy angle further. “Under land jihad, one Muslim family first buys a home in a Hindu-dominated area, paying an exorbitant amount to make sure that they get the property,” he said. “Their presence leads to communal tension following which property rates drop in the area. That is when they get other Muslims to buy property there.”

Gaffar Saifi dismissed this theory. “All property owners in Hindu-dominated areas charge exorbitant rates from Muslims because they know about their [housing] crisis,” he said. “The rates only go up when more and more Muslims start buying houses in the locality because the sellers overcharge them, saying that they are taking a risk by going against the wishes of their neighbours and local hooligans who object to the sale of property to Muslims.”