What Juhapura Tells Us About Being Muslim in Modi's India

Juhapura is perhaps India's only Muslim ghetto, a place where involuntary resettlement, spatial confinement and the denial of public services have produced a unique economy and culture of exclusion and disenfranchisement.

Sarkhei Road, the four-lane axis crossing the Juhapura ghetto of Ahmedabad (Noria Research)

Sarkhei Road, the four-lane axis crossing the Juhapura ghetto of Ahmedabad (Noria Research)

This article is based on research conducted for a doctoral thesis in Ahmedabad, mainly in Juhapura, between 2009 and 2014. All quotes are from interviews conducted during this period.

May 26 marked the end of Narendra Modi’s first year at the head of the Indian government. Since India is now governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist political formation ideologically based on hindutva, which promotes the “Hinduness” of India, regardless of the country’s religious minorities, Modi’s election raised fears about an increased threat to the rights of non-Hindu minorities, particularly the 145 million Indian Muslims. This fear is shared by the entire community across the country, although with specificities in local contexts.

My article focuses on the singular case of Muslims in Gujarat. It offers a journey into the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura, situated seven kilometres away from the city centre of Ahmedabad, the economic capital of the state. In several ways, looking at what is happening in Juhapura is paramount to passing a magnifying glass over the current situation of Muslims in the north.

Gujarat is the state in which Narendra Modi built his political career, and of which he has praised the economic results during the 2014 electoral campaign as a proof of his good governance. It is also the state in which the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 took place, and Modi was considered as their instigator, although he was cleared of all accusations by investigators and a lower court. I use the term ‘pogrom’ instead of ‘riot’ as the attackers were supported by public power, and faced exclusively Muslim victims. The modalities of this violence also need to be associated with population massacres, as they demonstrate a will to kill both the physical and the symbolic bodies of the minority. According to NGO estimates, the pogrom caused two thousand deaths, a thousand of which took place only in Ahmedabad, and 150 000 internally displaced persons. Official estimates put the overall death toll at a little over 1,000. The violent events of 2002 thus constitute one of the most violent attacks against Indian Muslims in their country, whether in terms of the number of victims or of the modalities of murder.

Rise of a ghetto

One of the medium-term consequences of these violent events was the formation of a ghetto in Juhapura. Before 2002, the locality was a simple Muslim neighbourhood which was economically disadvantaged and had approximately 50,000 inhabitants. However, the pogrom transformed this space by attracting a mass influx of Muslims seeking an ethnic entre-soi  — a space ‘between onself’ – perceived as protective. This is particularly true for the Muslim upper-classes, which, for the first time, were also victims of violence, something they had been spared until then. Their arrival transformed the locality into a ghetto.

Juhapura is distinct from a simple ethnic neighbourhood because of four characteristics: forced resettlement, confinement, consubstantial identity stigma, and the duplication of institutions by private actors in the absence of public provision. The ghetto is thus characterised not so much by the degradation of habitat as is commonly expected, but by these four dispositions which come hand in hand, amongst other factors, with economic heterogeneity and ethnic homogeneity. Although there are many Muslim neighbourhoods in India, Juhapura seems to be, to this day, the only Muslim ghetto of the sub-continent. In 2015, it is home to an estimated 500,000 inhabitants.

The exercise of ‘daily’ domination

The strictly defined spatial dispositions that qualify Juhapura as a ghetto are constituted by many acts of domination by the state authorities against the (Muslim) inhabitants of the locality. By instituting this power relationship through the means of habitat, the ghetto has become a spatialized device of power. It exercises a “daily” domination on the inhabitants and has been central to the governance of Ahmedabad’s Muslim minority by the (local) Modi government from 2002 to 2014, and since then by Anandiben Patel. The tangible living conditions of Juhapura’s inhabitants, and their difficulty in accessing an affective form of citizenship, has led to their considering themselves “second-class citizens”. The domination exercised there by the authorities is as protean as it is pernicious. It infiltrates the daily activities of inhabitants and touches every aspect of their lives. It is tempting to speak here of the ethnicisation of citizenship. In formal terms, Muslim citizens have the same rights as their Hindu counterparts. But in Ahmedabad and even more in Juhapura, their ethnicity/religion disqualifies them from an effective form of citizenship.

Each characteristic of the ghetto constitutes a mode of domination. The first has been, alongside the ghetto’s formation, the purification of the urban territories of Ahmedabad from their Muslim presence, and the implementation of an ethnic entre-soi, super-imposed with an economic entre-soi for the Hindus. This governance modality has relied on involuntary resettlement in the ghetto. Many inhabitants shared with me their desire to live in other neighbourhoods in the city and the impossibility to do so without putting their lives in danger “in case problems come up”.

The second governance modality of the domination strategy consists of confining the inhabitants of Juhapura, so that they cannot expand their locality. To the east, the ghetto is surrounded by an extremely busy junction, and is separated from neighbouring Hindu dwellings by no man’s lands or ‘borders’. Barbed wire and ditches were built after 2002 to separate Hindus from Muslims. To the north, Juhapura is encased by buildings built by the authorities and finished in 2013: they house the city’s police and public servants. To the south, water treatment facilities ensnare the ghetto as well as pollute the soil and bring a plethora of diseases since they have been built at non-regulatory distances from the habitats. Finally, to the west, Juhapura opens on a four-lane road axis that crosses it, leading to the Saurashtra region.

The daily domination of inhabitants is also manifested by the absence of public infrastructure and services present in other neighbourhoods of Ahmedabad. In Juhapura, there is no street lighting, gardens or parks, no asphalt roads beyond the four-lane axis crossing the ghetto; one has to imagine the dust carried from Saurashtra, everyday a part of the inhabitants’ lives, as there are no sealed roads. The inhabitants are all victims of what local doctors call the “Juhapura cough”, a consequence of the dust. More serious problems come from the water delivered each day, which is almost unfit for consumption. The doctors I interviewed spoke of the many respiratory and digestive illnesses stemming from this problem, as well as from the infiltration of toxic solutions in the soil by the water treatment facilities. Public hospitals are also nonexistent, and the four public schools here barely cover 10% of the educational needs of the ghetto’s inhabitants. The latter tell of the administrative “harassment” that they suffer from police forces, the only representatives of public power visibly present in the ghetto. Arbitrary arrests are a frequent sight, notably of young men, or frequent car searches, a fortiori as Eid draws near – in order to find meat that was illegally introduced in the ghetto.

Channels of resistance

Faced with these strategies of domination, the inhabitants of the ghetto have implemented resistance tactics. They all stem from initiatives led by private actors (“self-help”) and scarcely involve political activism, considered as inefficient. The main channel for this resistance is “business”. The economic sphere is perceived as an integrating matrix to the majoritarian society for the Muslims of Juhapura, and appears to them as the best defence against violence. By analysing their discourse, two reasons seem to explain this perception, each grounded in the memories of the pogrom of 2002, which thus appears clearly as an event in the full sense of the term, as a rupture. Economically integrated, participating in national enrichment, the Muslims see themselves as “useful” to Indian society, and notably to their Hindu partners, as they have ties through a relationship of economic interdependency. There would, therefore, be no benefit in eliminating them. The second reason is linked to the fact that in case of renewed violence, economic affluence would enable Juhapura’s residents to face the events better — if their economic activities ceased, if they were forced to resettle elsewhere, etc.

For the inhabitants of Juhapura, salvation thus comes through themselves; as they now like to say, “we are self-made angels”. Hence, the absence of public infrastructure has been replaced by private initiatives; the development of Juhapura is thus the fruit of a privatisation of public action. These actions were carried out by affluent Muslims of superior jamaats who arrived in Juhapura after the 2002 pogrom. Notably through the zakat, they have financed two hospitals, dispensaries, schools, libraries, support/training courses for public service exams, etc. Education has been at the core of preoccupations for the inhabitants of Juhapura, from all jamaats. It is directly linked to the aforementioned economic integration imperative. Beyond instruction in itself, education is seen as the means to accessing a stable or higher paying job, and from there, the stepping-stone towards good economic integration. Girls and women are at the centre of a specific schooling effort, which is, as recognised by the interviewees (men or women), unheard of. It is also interesting to note that beyond entrepreneurship and/or commerce – the more or less traditional occupations of Gujarati Muslims – people increasingly mention the importance of obtaining public jobs, stable and higher paying, to which the Muslims have traditionally had less access. In parallel with locality planning, the inhabitants have also managed to get branches of Indian banks to open locally, or even to equip their own society (residency) by asphalting paths, bringing water and electricity.

‘Gulf’ reduces the gulf

Since 2013, references to the culture “of the Gulf” in the discourse on the importance of economic integration have been multiplying in Juhapura. This is also a long-term consequence of the pogroms, as the paralysis of the local economy in 2002 pushed Muslims entrepreneurs to seek other markets, the first of which were the Gulf countries. People I spoke with notably mention Doha and Dubai, which appear as the most attractive cities for migrants; Saudi Arabia is also mentioned for its Muslim credentials but the racism suffered by Asian migrants is often brought up to explain the preference for other destinations. Finally, Oman is the object of a particular representation in local discourse because of historic Indian ties with the sultanate. The inhabitants mention their growing attraction and admiration for the Gulf countries, as much for the possible economic opportunities there, as for the “Muslim atmosphere” of these countries. Economic flows between the entrepreneurs of Juhapura and the Gulf countries have multiplied, allowing the former to make profits that they cannot make locally, and then reinject them in the ghetto. The luxurious residential compounds, built with money earned in the Gulf countries and based on their architectural models, are multiplying. They thus feed into the increase in house prices within the ghetto. But the attraction for the Gulf goes beyond the mere economic sphere: cultural elements are equally present in the ghetto, as visible in the names of the residential compound such as “al-Bhurooj” or the Aladdin restaurant.

The economic integration of certain Juhapura inhabitants with the Gulf is thus associated with an identity revaluation which resists the consubstantial stigma of the ghetto form. Paradoxically – though this is speculative – the Gulf appears to be, at least for now, a transnational dynamic allowing for the better integration of prosperous Muslims in the Gujarat context. The affluent entrepreneurs of Juhapura were as courted by Modi as they are today by Anandiben Patel. Certain entrepreneurs based in Juhapura thus form the link between the minority and the authorities, facilitating the presence of Gulf businesses at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit or during the Business Conclave of February 2014, specifically targeting the Muslim entrepreneurs of Gujarat. The bridge with the Gulf must not be understood as a mimetic fascination leading, for example, to the Wahhabisation of local religious practices. On the contrary, the Gulf connection seems to allow inhabitants (who participate in these migrations) to acquire a certain recognition, and thus to revalue their individual identity, their (notably economic) “usefulness” to local society, and thus their integration.

Citizenship imperilled

The question raised by this mode of governance, and the effects it has led to, is that of the progressive disaggregation of intra-ethnic solidarities in Ahmedabad, after the break-up of the inter-ethnic ones in 2002. By basing their salvation on their individual situation only, and notably economically, and hence distancing themselves from all use of public power, the Muslims of Juhapura have aligned themselves with one of the elements of the national narrative offered by Narendra Modi, for whom economic growth outshines every other social metric. Moreover, they contribute to widening the increasingly visible gap in Indian society between a part of the population that stays at the margins of the project offered by Modi, and the categories which fully take part in it.

From this point of view, the options given to the Muslims of Juhapura are not so different from those offered to the Indian population as a whole. However, there remains a large difference: economic integration is not first and foremost seen as a means to satisfy personal enrichment needs, but rather, in reality, as the insurance needed to stay alive. This feeling is a challenge to the very foundations of the Indian state as the ‘ethnicisation’ of citizenship involves assigning a greater value to economic integration than to the formal rights supposedly guaranteed by the fact of being an Indian citizen.

This article is an edited version of a paper originally published on Noria Research. The original article (including footnotes) can be read here.