On a recent afternoon, after a two-hour drive out of Mumbai, I followed a highway hugging the low hills of Mumbra, north-east of the city, near the Thane creek. As the road forked downhill, hundreds of grimy, teetering buildings stacked like tattered books in a neglected public library were the first glimpse intimation of Mumbra, India’s largest Muslim ghetto. Despite the heat, young boys played cricket in a clearing by a graveyard. A chaotic medley of vehicles choked the main street leading into the Kausa area of the ghetto.
Mumbra expanded with great velocity in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The Bombay riots of December 1992, which overwhelmingly killed Bombay Muslims, and the retaliatory bomb blasts in January 1993 by the Muslim underworld, reconfigured the social geography of the city. Bombay Muslims from riot-hit areas sought safety in numbers and found it in Mumbra, where Muslims from the Konkani coast had a long-standing presence. Through a combination of the desire for safety among Muslims, the relatively cheaper price of apartments, and continued rural-urban migration, Mumbra’s population grew 20 times from about 45,000 before the 1992 riots to more than 9,00,000 in the 2011 Census — possibly one of the fastest expansions of an urban area in India.
“Not Bombay, a village”
Assadullah Khan, an electrical engineer in his late 40s, was among the first groups of people who moved to Mumbra from Mumbai after the 1992-1993 violence. Mr. Khan was living in Kannua Nagar in the suburb of Vikhroli, a mixed neighborhood, where Hindus and a smaller number of Muslims lived together without incident. Mr. Khan, who also gave part-time tuitions to students, was the only Muslim in his building. After the riots, most of his Muslim neighbors began to migrate to areas with a heavier concentration of their co-religionists. Mr. Khan was weighing his options.
A female neighbor warned him. “You should leave now,” she said. “Things are going to get worse.” He moved his wife and children to his in-laws’ house overnight. “A little later, I sold my apartment for much less than it would fetch on the market,” Mr. Khan told me. The market for distress sales was booming.
Mr. Khan found shelter in his brother-in-law’s apartment in Mumbra. “We then bought an apartment of our own and have lived here since,” he said. Thousands followed him, from Bhandup, Vikhroli, Ghatkopar, Behram Baug, and Walkeshwar. Uprooted from the charred geography of the city, they converted a semi-rural backwater into a promised land.
The Maharashtra and central governments, which had watched impassively through the riots, left the migrants to their own devices, but Mumbra grew. Power and water supply was feeble. There was little public infrastructure. The crisis provided a business opportunity for Mumbra builders; they set out to build illegal and substandard apartment blocks, which were (and still are) a lot cheaper by Mumbai standards. In the early 90s, an illegally built two-bedroom apartment in Mumbra would sell for around Rs. 2 lakh. “Most of the buildings are illegal,” a builder told me. “Today, an illegally built three bedroom costs Rs. 8-10 lakh. If I built that legally, it would cost Rs. 25-30 lakh.” Mumbra is a mixture of middle, lower-middle, and working class Muslims, but the majority are from the lower-middle and working classes. “Most people here couldn’t afford the legal market prices,” he said.
The poor building quality exacted a terrible cost in 2013 when a building collapse killed more than 70 people. It did not deter new arrivals. Rafiuddin Khan, a retired teacher in his 70s, lived most of his life in a tenement near Mohammad Ali Road — one of the oldest Muslim majority areas in Mumbai. “Our area was safe but I was tired of living with a growing family in two rooms,” he said. He sold his chawl; it fetched enough money to buy an apartment in a Mumbra apartment block. “It is a lot more space than we had in Bombay,” he said. He paused for a while, as if reimagining the vistas of his earlier life in the middle of the bustling metropolis. The ease of travel and the proximity to major public hospitals, schools, and colleges was missing in Mumbra. A journey to the city in a sardined local train took about an hour and half. “It is not Bombay, it is a village.”
Desire for upward mobility
The signs of aspiration are seen in the names of apartment blocks: Shimla Park, M.M. Valley, and Wafa Park. The impatience with the status quo and the desire for upward mobility screams from roadside billboards advertising the achievements of Mumbra boys and girls in coaching classes and private schools. A higher secondary level school, Al Hidayah School, has advertised with a collage of smiling student photographs and the percentages of their Senior Secondary School marks. There was pride in that data: Out of 24 students, 9 have secured above 75 per cent and 14 between 60 per cent and 70 per cent. Meanwhile, Shoeb Junior College simply said: 89.16 per cent success.
“When we moved here, we clearly felt the absence of things we were used to in the city,” said Mr. Khan, the engineer. The ghetto had a few government schools, which were abysmally overcrowded and lacked infrastructure. Mr. Khan gave up engineering and set up a tuition center, Unique Classes. When an old Sikh family, which had run a private high school in Mumbra decided to sell the school, Mr. Khan bought it, renaming it Assadullah Khan English High School and Junior College. It already has 1,400 students. “We are trying to fill the gaps ourselves,” he said. Despite having around a million residents, the Maharashtra government has not set up a single public college in Mumbra.
Beyond the doors of the ghetto, a Mumbra address often carries a degree of prejudice and suspicion. A lawyer spoke of trying to buy an Idea Internet dongle at a Thane shop and being turned away; an Urdu publisher spoke of waiting months to get a landline and broadband connection from BSNL. A few weeks ago, a private school in Panvel, a suburb 24 kilometers from Mumbra, decided to ban admissions of students from the ghetto, claiming that they behave badly. Waris Pathan, the Byculla area legislator from Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, led a protest against the school administration, which eventually revoked its decision.
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