In the far suburb of Vasai, residents of Happy Jivan Housing Society have been anything but happy. The housing society had earlier this month denied the no-objection certificate to one of its members, Kantaben Patel, to sell her first floor flat to Vikarahmed Khan, a trader. As many as 11 of 16 members of the modest society had signed a letter in which they had objected to the sale on the grounds of Khan’s religion. It is a pre-dominantly Gujarati society; Muslims own two flats in it.
Khan approached the police last week. Nine signatories of the letter were arrested and released on bail. Eventually, the society issued the no-objection certificate to Patel as well as a letter of apology to Khan. The case reignited the sensitive and complex debate about discrimination in Mumbai’s housing market. Did the cops go too far in arresting the offenders? Will the arrest be a sobering example to those who restrict home buyers and tenants on the basis of religion, caste, gender, food preferences and profession?
The local police appear to have acted in consonance with the law. The offenders were booked under Section 295 (A) of the Indian Penal Code for “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings…” It is a non-bailable offence. In this case, the police invoked the full force of the law and cannot be faulted for making the arrests. Cops aren’t usually this prompt in housing discrimination cases, but this application of law and alacrity is welcome.
However, the stern action is unlikely to make Mumbai’s housing market less discriminatory for buyers and tenants. If anything, sellers and owners who practise discrimination on many grounds – the latest heard is about age; senior citizens are unwelcome as tenants – will be more careful now to not commit the “mistake” that members of Happy Jivan society did in writing that letter. For, they created evidence to back up the charges under Section 295 (A).
The discrimination that home owners and real estate brokers have been practising is a great deal more subtle and covert than this. It is designed to convey the negative message without putting it into words. Negotiations are laced with euphemisms but leave the buyer or tenant in no doubt about the message – the denial of the apartment and the grounds for it. Few, if any, of those refused approach the police. If they do, the police rarely act. So, while discrimination is rampant especially after the 1992-93 riots, it is anecdotal and difficult to pin down in law.
To many, the law itself is confusing. The Maharashtra Cooperative Housing Societies Act, 1960, advises “open membership” without discrimination. But, according to the by-laws for housing societies, while the basic principles for membership are non-discriminatory, individual societies can frame additional guidelines. Article 19 (1)(c) of the Constitution gives citizens the fundamental right to form an association of their choice. And the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Zoroastrian Co-operative Housing Society, Ahmedabad, allowed it to restrict membership to Parsis.
This goes beyond law. The issue is about the multicultural character of Mumbai. In the gentler olden days too, Bombay had exclusive housing enclaves for different communities. But there is a vital difference. Those housing societies were formed by members of a single community with land bought or leased by influential person of that community. Think Parsi, Pathare Prabhu, Saraswat Brahmin, Bohri, Catholic, East Indian enclaves that are now 70-80 years old. In a strange new city, migrants preferred their own. Cultural affinity and identity provided comfort.
Housing societies are now rarely formed by people with a common ethnic identity. Instead, builders construct and sell flats. What used to be community housing endeavours are now non-community-based commercial projects on which discriminatory regulations of religion, caste, gender, age, food preferences and professions are later super-imposed -- and discrimination becomes the norm. This cannot be.