“Call me Shaikh, not Shubham” ran a headline in the Kashmir Monitor (2016). Intrigued, I started reading the story of 21-year-old Ansar Ahmed Shaikh, who, defying steep odds, had cleared the civil services examination and was all set to get into IAS. Shaikh, hailing from Jalna’s Shedgaon village in Maharashtra, had a story more gripping than his success tale to reveal. Until his selection for the civil services, Shaikh lived a life of absolute anonymity – in many ways, an uncomfortably double life.
In Pune’s Fergusson College, where he studied political science, he was Ansar Shaikh. Only a few knew that his father was an auto-rickshaw driver, and that his two sisters were married by the age of 15. His brother worked in a garage and financed young Shaikh’s academic dreams. But there was another facet of his life which remained largely unknown. As he looked around for a house in Pune, he realised most doors were shut on Muslims. All of his Hindu batchmates got accommodation, but Shaikh was refused. Until Shaikh decided to introduce himself as Shubham to his to-be landlord! Then, he got a room on rent.
Day time, he was Shaikh, by dusk, at home, for his landlord and neighbours, he was Shubham; helped, of course, by the fact that he was not obviously a Muslim.
He sported no beard, no skullcap. But it was Shaikh’s reaction when he first heard of his selection for bureaucracy that was revealing. “Call me Ansar Shaikh, not Shubham. Now, I do not have to hide my identity”, he put an end to his double life with a finality. With the selection, he had reached the upper echelons of our society, where religious identity is not always paramount.
Shaikh’s incident brought back memories of my own experience of looking for a house around 2004 in Noida, a cosmopolitan township to the east of Delhi. After looking for an accommodation matching my budget and needs, I settled on a second floor flat in an upmarket sector. All was agreed upon with the landlord and the real estate agent who asked me to give advance money within 24 hours. It was when I reached the pre-decided spot to hand over the cash that things started unravelling. After having kept me waiting for more than a couple of hours, they finally showed up with an apology, not for being very late but for their inability to sell the house to me. But why, I insisted on knowing. They had agreed less than 24 hours earlier.
After a lot of dilly-dallying, the owner conceded, “Aap log maas-machchi khate ho na (You eat meat and fish).” “But, what’s your problem? You are selling the house. You are not going to be living here,” I said. “But still...” he said, his words tapering off. “Still what,” I demanded. The real estate agent whose office had a lofty name, Kargil and Tiger Hill Properties – an obvious throwback to the Kargil war with Pakistan – chipped in with “Aap samajh jao na... aap Mohammedan ho na (Please understand...you are Muslim).” He reminded me that I was a Muslim. And hence, by some inscrutable logic, disqualified from buying the house!
Shaikh’s experience is fairly common, except that not many change their name for the purpose of renting a room.
And my experience is not so unusual either in modern India’s urban living spaces. Supposedly cosmopolitan, almost every city lives in ghettoes; there are pockets of Bengalis and South Indians just conveniently dubbed as Madrasis in Delhi just as there are pockets of UP bhaiyas in Mumbai and those of Madrasis too. And there are clusters of Muslims. Everybody lives in the same city but occupies different geographical and mind space.
Amidst all this, I was reminded of a book I last read in 2012. Called Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalisation, it is edited by Laurent Gayer and Christophe Jaffrelot (2012). The work is remarkable for its clarity of thought and the doubtless ability to go beyond the surface. At first glance, it is yet another take on marginalisation of Muslims in Indian cities. But there is more to it. Gayer and Jaffrelot look out, they look within too, in the process they discover the keys to ghettoisation that has dogged Muslims in India.
I remember in the wake of Mohammed Kaif’s match-winning knock in the NatWest trophy in the summer of 2002, overeager media had gone to town about how a Muslim had played a crucial role in a victory at a game of cricket – the religion of the masses. Of course, one had pointed out that it was not Kaif or Zaheer Khan the cricketers who stood as guarantees of India’s secularism, but a Kaif the carpenter. Would the society open its doors to Kaif the carpenter, as easily? Would a Zaheer with an MNC job under his belt get a house on rent in Mumbai or New Delhi?
The answers were not exactly easy to find until Jaffrelot and his co-editor put everything to rest with clinching arguments. They analyse in an instructive manner and refuse to paint all Muslims with one stroke. From Delhi’s Abul Fazl Enclave, a self-help almost exclusively Muslim colony developed by a local real estate developer Abul Fazl Farooqi – “They (Hindus) call it Next to Pakistan here”, Faznullah, brother of Farooqi, is quoted as saying – to Bhopal’s Muslim elite who, after the trauma of Partition withdrew into a shell, “besieged in the Old City”, the authors track various trajectories of marginalisation.
In Delhi, it was a desire to find economic opportunities in Old Delhi after the Walled City reached a saturation point that drove the Muslims to a place such as Abul Fazl Enclave; in Bhopal, it was the opposite. The community retreated inwards to the Old City as the last resort, as Bhopal marched forward without the traditional elite. In Mumbai’s Shivaji Nagar, it was always a cloistered existence, ignorance of the world outside, fear of the police inside, a throwback to the days following the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992.
Noting the decline of the Muslims in North India in socio-economic and political terms, they explain that the Muslim elite never recovered from the loss of power they experienced in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Then they point to the absence of business-oriented traditions in the community. Pointing to the Bohras and Khojas, they feel they have never been fully integrated with the community, always like a little stream within the bigger stream. Quite different has been the deliberate marginalisation of the Muslims by the state, they say in the conclusion.
While Nehru tried to endow them with all the attributes of a fully-fledged citizenship, the Hindu nationalists who ruled over North India never implemented the policies that had been designed by the government, such as the promotion of Urdu. The impact of discrimination by the state is well reflected in the minimal presence of Muslims among the salary earners of the public sector and within the civil services. Since the early 1980s, the percentage of Muslims among the successful candidates in the civil services examination has oscillated between 1.2 and 1.17 per cent. (It has since risen to a little under 3 per cent). And in 2000, the percentage of Muslims among central government employees varied from 5.12 per cent in the least qualified positions to only 1.61 per cent in the highest posts. (Gayer and Jaffrelot 2012)
Yes, the impact of discrimination is not faced only in the percentage of Muslims in government service but at the ground level when an Ansar Shaikh has to become a Shubham to get accommodation, when Kaif, a carpenter, fails to get a room on rent in Ahmedabad beyond the Old City. Results? The community draws inwards, towards their own.
Excerpted with permission from Of Saffron Flags and Skull Caps: Hindutva, Muslim Identity and the Idea of India, Ziya Us Salam, Sage Publishing.