Living in Jamia, coping with ghettoization


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LIVING in the Jamia neighborhood has always been tough. The police ‘encounter’ of September 2008, dubbed the Battle of Batla House by the press, only made it tougher in the terrible days of its immediate aftermath. Biases got sharper; discrimination more covert; and the gloves were well and truly off. While the sharp edge of public perception about this neighbourhood may have blunted somewhat as Batla House receded in the shadows of its everyday existence, far from the glare of the media, living in the Jamia area continues to be an exercise in fortitude. For, coping with a ghettoization that is not entirely of one’s own choice is no easy matter.

Some years ago, when I had moved from Gulmohar Park, a tiny locality in South Delhi, to the Jamia neighbourhood, little was I to know that I would be changing not merely a postal address and a landline telephone number but virtually exchanging one way of life for another.

The first rude shock came when I arranged my daughter’s birthday party at our home. I sent detailed directions along with hand-made cards. My daughter, then nine, came home in tears because most of her friends had said they couldn’t come. Perplexed by this sudden about-face, I called all the mommies only to be told by most that they wouldn’t be able to come ‘there’. Gulmohar Park ki baat alag thi; Jamia side ka hame koi idea nahi hai. (‘It was different in Gulmohar Park; we have no idea about the Jamia side.’) I persevered by offering to draw maps, even volunteering to picking the kids from the nearest big landmark, the Holy Family Hospital. Yet, attendance slumped hugely from previous years and the number of ‘no-shows’ far outnumbered the few hardy souls who agreed to venture so far into this neck of the woods. Thereafter, I learnt my lesson by organizing all such events at a conveniently located McDonalds. Needless to say, a fair number of little boys and girls showed up without any more ado.

That Delhi is ridiculously snobbish about addresses is a well known fact. In social interactions of the more superficial kind, where you live defines, if not dictates, who you are. But I have seen another colour creep into run-of-the-mill, idiosyncratic snobbery when I disclose where I live. There is an imperceptible change. Some wonder aloud, ‘Oh, isn’t it far?’ as though anything in Delhi is not far from somewhere or the other! Others look blank, ‘Jamia? Okhla? As in Industrial Area?’ Still others walk away, wanting to have very little to do with someone who lives ‘out there’.

And out there where I live, several basic amenities are missing that others in other parts of the city take for granted. Delivery boys from restaurants in the nearby New Friends Colony (NFC) do not venture out there. You can go blue in the face arguing that Jamia Nagar is closer to NFC as the crow flies than the most far-flung pocket of Sukhdev Vihar, but they stick to their ‘rule’. Nor will dry-cleaners, who promise free home delivery to the furthest block in Maharani Bagh, come to your doorstep. The same applies to an assortment of chemists, florists and grocers. Believe me, I have argued, pleaded and threatened. Nothing works. They won’t go ‘out there’.


When I decided to spend less time commuting and move closer to my then place of work, the Jamia Millia Islamia, I spent ten tortuous months looking for a house in nearby New Friends Colony, Sukhdev Vihar, and Sarita Vihar. Perfectly decent people in their perfectly middle class drawing rooms froze us off when they saw our business card or heard our name. Others reneged on deals worked out through property dealers saying they wanted ‘vegetarian tenants’!

So, while a great many Muslims no doubt prefer to live in the Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods of Shaheen Bagh, Ghaffar Manzil, Noor Nagar, Zakir Nagar, Batla House, Abul Fazal Enclave, et. al. for reasons of ‘security’, many, I suspect, do so because they are left with no choice. They come in droves to live in some of these over-congested ill-equipped localities that are no better than urban slums because landlords in mixed neighbourhoods look upon them with suspicion and mistrust.


And what do the civic authorities do to tackle the chaos that unspools from these densely packed warrens? They turn a blind eye. They drop an invisible cordon sanitaire between ‘here’ and ‘out there’, thus, for all practical purposes demarcating civil administration into two clearly defined spaces: one neatly labeled ‘organized’, the other falling under the clamorous category of ‘unorganized’. Other epithets can be used for these two categories: authorized/unauthorized, clean/filthy, orderly/chaotic, spacious/cramped, cared for/uncared for, and so on. In the case of the outer fringes of Zakir Nagar that skirt the A Block of New Friends Colony, this contrast is especially stark: pockets of abysmal neglect exist cheek-by-jowl with oases of privilege. Yet this ugly disparity seldom causes so much as a raised eyebrow let alone any real degree of concern or introspection, either among the duly elected people’s representatives or on the part of the bureaucrats who head our civic bodies.

While all of Delhi has a population of 11.72% Muslims, the Jamia Nagar neighbourhood is almost 98% Muslim; the Okhla ward alone has a population of 1,25,935. For this large body of people, there are branches of only three nationalized banks; the area having been declared a ‘Red Area’, i.e. populated by ‘defaulters’, few private banks even dream of venturing out here. The 8-km radius bogey for school admissions (mandated by the Delhi High Court) applies far more rigorously here than elsewhere, the mere address being enough to invoke the rulebook.

There is no functioning MCD dispensary; local doctors refer all emergency cases to the nearby Holy Family Hospital (the nearest government hospital is several km away). What is more, there are no Mother Dairy or Safal outlets (franchised by the Delhi Government and ubiquitous all over the city and even in distant Gurgaon for their moderately priced fruits, vegetables and assorted perishables) for this sprawling area; a small booth vending milk products was installed on the Jamia campus in 2008 on the then vice-chancellor’s personal initiative but that can barely cater to the students from nearby hostels.


Repeated requests to the manager of Mother Dairy has resulted in empty promises and earnest hand-wringing and little more. There are no Fair Price Shops, no government-funded training institutes to provide vocational training or any sort of facility to absorb the huge mass of school dropouts. In certain colonies such as Shaheen Bagh and Abul Fazal there is no drinking water either; people buy water just as they would buy vegetables or groceries. Every morning you can see rickshaw pullers do a brisk business selling water of dubious vintage by the can-full.

What is happening in the Jamia neighbourhood can provide several useful lessons in urban morphology: (a) No community can take everything upon itself; it cannot be the provider and user of civic amenities, be it schools, universities, hospitals, ration shops, roads, electricity, water, group housing, sewage disposal or what-have-you; (b) While one cannot reverse the process of ghettoization, one can certainly do much to integrate those who live in communally charged ghettoes; and (c) If one fails or is seen to fail at all attempts at integration, one is creating conditions of urban unrest that have the potential to spill over.

While terrorism in any form – urban or rural, rightwing or leftwing, jihadist or hindutva brand – has no place in civil society and must be unequivocally condemned, the fact is that it finds fertile ground wherever there is large-scale discontent.

Equally, while the great majority of those who live in the Jamia neighbourhood belong to the aspirational middle class, that is, those who have the same aspirations as the middle class the world over, namely all the tools that equip them for upward mobility and an affluent lifestyle, there may well be a minuscule minority that chafes at the ghettoization and seclusion.

And while the residents of Batla House displayed commendable restraint in the immediate aftermath of the police encounter, who is to say whether they will continue to display such stoicism as the gulf between them and others continues to grow, and the ‘terror’ tag is added to the many others they are forced to endure: unauthorized, marginalized and ghettoized.

The arrival of the Metro – in phase III of its expansion – may well go a long way in mitigating the sense of exclusion. Better connectivity might mean better access to jobs and sources of livelihood in other parts of the city. The Metro might, also, introduce the residents to the Jamia neighbourhood to the ‘other’ Delhi, to the Delhi of parks and well-lit streets and open spaces. Possibly, the metro might even penetrate the cordon sanitaire that separates this part of Delhi from its affluent neighbours.

Postscript: Since writing this article, I have crossed the invisible cordon sanitaire yet again and moved back into ‘NDMC’ Delhi. I do believe I am more qualified than ever to talk about the ‘two Delhis’: the Delhi of privilege and the one of paucity.


* Extract from But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim, by Rakhshanda Jalil, Harper Collins, 2019.