Muslim middle class and the ‘ghetto’


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A major fallout of communal riots in cities in northern and western India in the last few decades has been the sharp reorganization of urban space along the lines of religious community.1 This, in most cases, has resulted in the creation of closed and restricted neighbourhoods for the city’s Muslims that are often identified as ‘Muslim ghettos’. Such neighbourhoods are usually set apart from the city’s Hindu quarters by various physical and metaphorical boundaries and generally lack the civic and social amenities otherwise taken for granted in the more mainstream parts of the city. They are also congested and squalid owing to an acute space crunch engendered by the overcrowding of diverse Muslim groups who have gathered there in search of safety that a preponderance of numbers supposedly provide. Juhapura and Citizen Nagar in Ahmedabad, Mumbra and the ‘walled’ Muslim localities of Dharavi in Mumbai, Zakir Nagar in Delhi, are all instances of such Muslim neighbourhoods in Indian cities.

This aspect of ‘spatiality’ deserves particular attention since a large part of Muslim experiences in India’s urban centres, in recent times, seems to be mediated through the spatial experiences of being kept apart and confined to their own communally defined neighbourhoods that are found to bear an entrenched negative characterization, a stigma,2 which revolves around their categorization as communally defined spaces of difference.3


One feature of the popular understanding of Muslim ‘ghettos’ is that these spaces are taken to be internally homogenous – home to a unified ‘Muslim’ community – all of whose members bear similar views and attitudes, aspirations and sensibilities. In other words, one dimension of identity, notably that of religious identity, is taken to rule supreme in the ‘ghetto’. This becomes the principal marker of identity for all its residents and is understood to explain all of the latter’s aspirations and actions. That Muslim communities are internally differentiated by a number of parameters, such as caste, class, sect, and ethnic origin, and that such corporate categorization often draws from very intricate processes of identity ascription generally tends to get overlooked in these discourses.

In the context of neighbourhoods of the kind pointed to above, which are formed largely as a consequence of communal clustering of heterogeneous Muslim groups either due to ‘insecurity’ or the prejudice of dominant communities, such internal differentiation is often reflected in the sharp fragmentation of physical and social space within the neighbourhood and in the meticulous ordering of social interaction between the differently placed Muslim groups who reside in it. Using data drawn from qualitative fieldwork in Park Circus, a Muslim neighbourhood in Kolkata, this paper draws attention to the predicament of the Muslim middle classes who remain caught within the twin realities of being members of a rapidly expanding, upwardly mobile Indian middle class, but who, nevertheless, are forced to remain confined within excluded territorialities that carry deep-rooted socio-cultural stigma and have but meagre civic amenities.


For most of the Muslim middle classes living in Park Circus,4 the experiences of urban living are not the same as those of their Hindu counterparts. Viewed as the territory of the ‘other’, the neighbourhood represents a space that is as much avoidable as its tainted residents. While this works upon a set of stereotypes around Muslims and their ways of life, it also ensures that residents of the neighbourhood remain, in a way, ‘confined’ within the boundaries of the space allotted to them, a fact that influences their experiences in more ways than one perceives.

Notwithstanding their differences in social standing, all Muslims residing in Park Circus immediately get identified as possessing a heightened consciousness of communal identity that has led them to choose a ‘Muslim area’ as their place of residence. The fact they routinely face difficulty in finding accommodation in the more conventional neighbourhoods of the city, or that they might want to live in a cultural space more desirable to them, are issues that get easily overlooked in such formulations. One of my respondents, Shahid, a 26 year old software engineer, pointed out that the saddest part was that even though Muslims often have no option but to relocate to ‘Muslim areas’ of the city, the same step gets perceived as a matter of personal choice of the inherently rigid, narrow-minded and inward-looking Muslim who unlike Hindus, shares a particular affinity to his community and lacks the open-mindedness required to move out of familiar settings and intermingle with other groups who live in the city.


Again, cultural preconceptions about Muslim neighbourhoods harboured by the dominant communities get naturally extended to those who reside in them. Hence, all Muslims from the neighbourhood are seen to lack basic civic sensibilities, are aggressive and hostile, and definitely not ones who could be trusted in regular social intercourse. As many among my respondents pointed out, differences in social class are often ignored in such narratives. For them, living in squalor and filth were realities for most of the city’s poor, religious membership notwithstanding, and hence were not qualities generalizable to an entire neighbourhood. Instead, they attributed the prevailing state of disrepair to the presence of a large number of migrant, slum dwelling Muslims who lived in the vicinity and the general apathy of the state towards their plight.

Forced to live in closely bounded spaces with meagre civic amenities, the middle classes among the Muslims lead lives in settings they would hardly aspire to be in. For most among the upwardly mobile, life in the close vicinity of large slum settlements carried its own anxieties especially in the context of bringing up children who were exposed to the ‘lumpen’ elements from the streets. Professor Karim, one of my respondents, for example explained that even though his son studied in a good English medium school, the neighbourhood association remained very bad. He had to compensate by enrolling his son in various extracurricular activities to keep him engaged during post-school hours.

Abdul, a student at a reputed university in New Delhi, also recounted similar fears felt by his parents when he was growing up in the neighbourhood in the 1990s. He and his brother were never allowed to play with the local boys. Instead, they would be sent off to sports coaching centres on weekends, a far cry from the reality of most neighbourhood children.


The restrictive effects of social confinement become relevant here. In spite of equivalent occupations or income, the Muslim middle classes are hardly able to lead the life that a Hindu bhadralok (roughly translatable as the Hindu middle classes of Bengal who have over the years instituted themselves as the cultural majority of Kolkata) in similar situations usually can. Differences in capabilities become immediately evident. A typical middle class Muslim from Park Circus, holding a respectable government position might, in terms of income and taste, be easily at par with any Hindu bhadralok in the city. However, in several aspects of everyday life, they would not be able to enjoy the comforts and possibilities their Hindu counterparts can. Normally forced to live in buildings close to or at the fringe of the many slum settlements in the neighbourhood, they would have to put up with the inconveniences that living in an overtly congested locality entails, make peace with the visibly low civic amenities available and so on. Children from such families might attend good schools, but would normally not have the kind of playmates a child from a Hindu middle class family living in a more mainstream neighbourhood could.

Again, middle class Muslim parents would place restrictions on the movement of their children and confine them indoors, since public spaces available for outdoor activities in the ghettos are usually taken over by the lower classes, especially the slum dwellers and their children. There is little one can do to overcome these, and the most pragmatic way of coping seems to lie in maintaining a careful distance from the former while ensuring that this does not, in any way, lead to animosity between the two groups. The Muslim middle classes of Park Circus, therefore, seem to lead separate lives from their less fortunate co-religionists within an enclosure which has, for the larger part, been forced upon them, an attribute which reflects in the sharp fragmentation of social space in the neighbourhood.


In spite of the many tribulations of confinement and the tensions that invariably arise from living in a highly socially heterogeneous space, where the one apparently unifying feature is common religious identity, Muslim middle classes residing in Park Circus do not cast their neighbourhood in entirely negative terms. A number of factors are cited by the middle class residents to explain, paradoxically, the reasons as to why the neighbourhood appears tolerable, indeed, at times even ‘desirable’.

Given the memory of communal riots in the city, the most horrendous of which had unfolded first in 1946, preceding the days of Partition and Independence, and later once again in 1992 in the aftermath of the Babri demolition, not to forget the horror tales of Muslim persecution across Indian cities in recent years, there has been an increasing propensity on the part of Muslims to relocate to spaces where there is an ‘assumed’ safety in numbers.


For a long time the Muslim middle classes had felt that ‘riots’ threatened primarily the poorer sections of the community, those who usually took to the streets or were vulnerable in their unguarded slum homes. But this perception received a major jolt with the events of 2002 during the Gujarat carnage when Congress Member of Parliament, Ehsan Jafri, was murdered after being dragged out of his affluent residence in Ahmedabad’s Gulbarg Society in broad daylight. Such an incident convinced many among the Muslim middle classes that staying in close proximity of one’s co-religionists, in ‘safe spaces’,5 was perhaps a better option than opting for better, well maintained urban neighbourhoods. There is a pervading realization that the middle classes are ill-equipped to protect themselves and would desperately need the protection of the street fighting slum dwellers for survival in case a riot breaks out. This is also an important reason why the local Muslim middle classes live peacefully alongside slum dwellers without being too affected by their otherwise uncalled for proximity.

Issues of safety apart, there are other factors that make Park Circus a favoured place for middle class Muslims in the city. As an Islamic cultural space, with a rich heritage and distinctive ‘Muslim mahaul’, Park Circus is generally preferred by the middle classes, who, while wanting to participate in the mainstream of urban life also harbour a desire to be in touch with their roots. Thus, despite the fact that the neighbourhood has lost much of its traditional aura, it remains a promising space for many among the culturally inclined Muslims in a context which otherwise has seen a steady contraction of physical and symbolic space originally available to the community.6

The widespread presence of mosques, madrasas, khanquahs and mazars, the vivacity of religious and cultural festivals, availability of institutions of Islamic cultural reproduction are of a kind completely unthinkable in other, more mainstream, neighbourhoods of the city. For many among the middle classes, the neighbourhood provides a culturally familiar space, where children can grow up without being totally cut-off from the traditional ways of life.


Even though a large segment of the Muslim middle classes residing in ‘ghettos’ aspire to a mainstream urban living, one finds that the continued framing of Muslims within an idiom of identity has kept them largely removed from the city’s social life. It has worked to impress a pre-given identity, which is mostly in conflict with the perceptions and images that they carry of themselves. Thus, in Park Circus, whereas a young software engineer prefers to view himself as a modern youth in urban India, the fact that he lives in a Muslim area immediately renders him as a religious, narrow-minded Muslim who prefers the comfort of a communal space rather than the liberating anonymity provided by a cosmopolitan cityscape. Again, while a highly educated middle class Muslim would prefer a liberal milieu for his children to grow up in, he is forced to reside in a negatively defined ‘communal’ space which once again holds the potential of perpetuating among their peers the reality of their Muslim-ness. On the other hand, given the concerns of ‘safety’ and cultural familiarity, many among the Muslim middle classes may actually prefer to reside in such spaces, as a response to the imminent realities of insecurity and everyday prejudice than as a matter of free choice.


One finds that Muslim middle classes residing in communally defined, ghetto-like spaces across Indian cities are increasingly getting trapped in a deep ambivalence. On the one hand, as members of an aspirationally undifferentiated Indian middle class, they would prefer facilities of the sort common to the more homogeneous middle class urban localities, whereas, on the other, owing to the resilient communal dynamic that has persisted since the days of Partition and Independence, they might want to live in culturally familiar and communally ‘safe’ spaces, even at the cost of losing out on the aforesaid advantages of a more mainstream urban living.

The fact of confinement imposed directly or indirectly from the outside also raises apprehensions as to whether they will now frame differences in the language of identity, a reverse assertion which has the potential to further deepen already existing fissures between the Muslims and the majority communities of India. Whether middle class Muslims – and indeed all Muslims – across India’s cities can become part of the mainstream or are destined to live separately in excluded spaces of their own depends on the extent to which the latter are able to accept them and facilitate their smooth transition to the mainstream of the city’s social life.



1. A. Varshney, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002; R. Chatterji, and D. Mehta, ‘Boundaries, Names and Alterities: A Case Study of a ‘Communal Riot’ in Dharavi, Bombay’, in Veena Das, Arthur Kleinman and Margaret Lock (eds.), Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering and Recovery. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001; D. Gupta, Justice Before Reconciliation. Routledge, New Delhi, 2011; C. Jaffrelot, et al., Muslims in Indian Cities. Harper Collins, New Delhi, 2012.

2. E. Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoilt Identity. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1963.

3. Gyanendra Pandey in his seminal essay ‘Can a Muslim be an Indian?’ (1999) describes the processes by which Muslims who stayed behind in India after Independence got classified as the proverbial ‘other’, the diametrical opposite of the mainstream Indian Hindu self in the everyday processes of democracy, outside of the official discourse of secularism.

4. The neighbourhood of Park Circus has a very heterogeneous Muslim population ranging from the highly affluent to the very poor, migrant slum dwelling Muslims. Even though the latter constitutes a greater part of its population, a considerable middle class which is educated, progressive and upwardly mobile is noticeable among them.

5. The idea of ‘safe’ neighbourhoods for Muslims in Indian cities has been explored by Nida Kirmani, ‘History, Memory and Localized Constructions of Insecurity’, Economic and Political Weekly 43(10), 2008, pp. 57-64; Nida Kirmani, Interrogating the Muslim Woman. Routledge, New Delhi, 2013; Laurent Gayer, ‘Safe and Sound: Searching for a "Good Environment" in Abul Fazl Enclave, Delhi’, in Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurent Gayer (eds.), Muslims in Indian Cities. Harper Collins, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 213-236.

6. J. Chatterji, The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947-1967. Cambridge University Press. New Delhi, 2007.