Muslims in Mumbra, south Indians in Matunga, Catholics in Bandra, Gujaratis in Kalbadevi, Jains at Malabar Hill – Mumbai’s landscape is dotted with exclusive community enclaves. If Mazgaon and Reay Road have many Muslim-only buildings, Gujaratis and Jains live in exclusive apartments in Vile Parle and Juhu, and Bandra has societies where only Catholics can buy flats. Dadar has exclusive Parsi colonies, Talmikiwadi has one only for Saraswats, Millat Nagar in Andheri (West) is only for Muslims, and Bandra’s Salsette Catholic Cooperative Society is only for Catholics.
Some experts say the reason for this is that city has historically grown around – and according to – its religious sites. For instance, Hindus dominate the area around Siddhivinayak, Christians around Mahim church, and Muslims around Mahim dargah.
Chartered accountant Ismail Sonawala, who works with the Aga Khan Development Trust, said, “Many community members buy flats in bulk and negotiate with the owner to provide them a place of worship. The building, by default, becomes exclusive,” he said.
While some say this exclusivity is natural, some say it leads to ‘ghettoisation’ and threatens the city’s cosmopolitan nature.
Historian and author Aroon Tikekar said that about 50 years ago, areas such as Vile Parle had clear lines of demarcation between their Marathi and Gujarati communities. “The leaders of these communities would get together to discuss and resolve issues, maintaining a certain level of harmony within each society,” he said.
Tikekar said while all of the city’s myriad communities have always had exclusive colonies, major changes started to take place in the 1940s, when migrants began to arrive in Mumbai in large numbers, leading to a scarcity of living space. “Slowly but steadily, conflicts began within many communities as their younger members, more modern in their outlook, started to take on their community leaders and challenge their belief in exclusive housing.
Slowly, various communities began intermingling,” said Tikekar. He said that things remained largely peaceful for the next 50 years, until the riots in 1993. “The riots created a rift between communities that still exists today,” he said.
An experienced real estate broker, who did not wish to be named, also said that while community-specific housing was an age-old practice, it became widespread only after the riots. Commenting on the various reasons for discrimination, he said food habits were a growing source of bias. “Many Jain societies such as Mahavir Darshan in Lower Parel do not allow non-vegetarians, saying they have a Jain temple on the premises. Walkeshwar residents prohibit non-vegetarians from living there. Breach Candy, Grant road, Nana Chowk and August Kranti Maidan are all areas where non-vegetarian aren’t welcome,” he said.
The broker added that most flat owners express their preference discreetly. “If there are three tenants asking after a flat, they choose the one from their community, without giving any reason for rejecting the others,” he said.
Others, however, refute this theory. “I don’t think exclusivity has anything to do with the riots. It is a natural phenomenon, and nothing to be abhorred. Even in villages, different lanes house people of different castes and communities. One feels comfortable in one’s own culture. It does no harm to the city’s cosmopolitan nature,” said Ramesh Prabhu, a chartered accountant and chairman of Maharashtra Societies Welfare Association.
A lawyer, who did not wish to be named, said, “Cases such as that of of Misbah Qadri, who she claimed she was denied housing because of her religion, are rare.”
Prahlad Jogdand, sociology professor and dean of the faculty of arts at Mumbai University, however, said such cases – and community-specific areas in general – do real harm to a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai. “Ghettoisation changes the character of the city for the worse and should not be welcomed,” he said.