Field Notes: Their God, Our Ghetto


Mumbai: “In India, there cannot be an area designated to a particular religion. #MiraRoad.”

On the morning of 25 January, the embers of a quick and chaotic bout of communal violence were still burning in the northern Mumbai suburb of Mira-Bhayander when @abhiandniyu, a husband-wife social media influencer duo, wrote the post on X.

Most responses on X pointed out the obvious—that India’s Muslims are forced to  wage frustrating battles to find apartments in India (see here, here and here); and that Hindu-only societies are another name for forced segregation, a central reason for the continuing ghettoisation of the minority community. 

The post anyway received 13,000 likes, and 1.9 million views.   

Abhi and Niyu have an enviable reach—305,000 followers on X, 5.62 million subscribers on YouTube, many of them perhaps  looking for the “real India that the mainstream media ignores” that their YouTube channel promises to reveal. The couple was featured among the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, voted among GQ magazine’s most influential young Indians in 2023, among other accolades.        

Theirs was one among dozens of similar tweets, many by obvious Hindu nationalist handles, that I was mulling as I rode a fast train to Mira Road station on 28 January. On the station overbridge, the railway signage was stark: Exit left for Naya Nagar, home to hundreds of almost entirely Muslim-owned apartments, the site of the riot on 21 January, and called the town of “jihadis (a slur to present all Muslims as terrorists waging a holy war for Islam) by hate speech-accused Kajal Shingala, a Hindu nationalist social media influencer.  

To head instead  to the more cosmopolitan and more upscale Shanti Nagar, railway users exit to their right.  

I asked wary Naya Nagar residents if they’d been turned away by brokers and flat-owners before they arrived here. It wasn’t a straightforward response.

A few had, indeed, tried in vain to rent or buy real estate in the so-called cosmopolitan parts of the city. Others said it was “safer” here. One younger person said it was easier to offer congregational prayers, considered an essential spiritual practice in Islam, in townships where there are more places of worship available. (See our report here on Muslims in Noida being stopped from offering prayers together during Ramzan in 2023.)  

Many  answers appeared to suggest that the ghetto was a self-perpetuating system of segregation, where Muslims felt safe and could continue their cultural and religious practices, surrounded by their own, a spatial confinement they seemed to elect.

In fact, public services are restricted or denied in ghettoised neighbourhoods—not only does one in every four Muslims live in a neighbourhood that is over 80% Muslim, but Muslim localities are also 10% less likely to have piped water, 50% less likely to have a secondary school than a neighbourhood without Muslim residents, and a child growing up in a 100% Muslim neighbourhood can also expect to obtain two fewer years of education than a child in a 0% Muslim neighbourhood. 

In July 2023, I reported these findings from a study by scholars based in London, Chicago, Hanover and Delhi who built a pan-India dataset to arrive at the conclusion that Indian Muslims were systematically segregated—and disadvantaged—in a manner comparable to the current situation of blacks in the United States (US).  

It must be said, I wrote in my notes that night, that Naya Nagar, and other Muslim ghetto towns, were not built by choice, even if many have thrived and grown since. Abhi and Niyu toed a line floated by local Bharatiya Janata Party legislator Geeta Jain and Kankavli legislator Nitesh Rane, that Naya Nagar’s residents attacked a Hindu motorcade for entering “their” area. 

The truth, as I would report the following week, was that Mira Road was a tinderbox built on mistruths, hate speech targeting Muslims, and calls for an economic boycott of the community, all wilful polarisation in view of the coming elections. 

Residents told me there are two temples inside Naya Nagar, hardly “their” area as the social media influencers would like us to believe. 

Early in February, a middle-aged Muslim cab driver offered me another take on India’s ghettos. He lives in Chirag Nagar in central Mumbai’s Ghatkopar where, days earlier, a 3,000-strong mob of Muslims gathered on an arterial road to protest the arrest of a local maulana (Islamic preacher) for a hate speech case registered in Gujarat. 

The driver, Naeem, from a “100% Muslim village” in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, roundly criticised the speech made by the preacher. Then, to my question on whether there were many Muslims in Chirag Nagar, he said there were, scores of them, neighbours in a sprawling mixed population slum .

Ghettos are useful places for politicians, Naeem bhai told me. “Goad a few thousand angry Muslims who live in close enough proximity that they will gather immediately,” he said. “Your election is won.”

You can read Kavitha Iyer's full story here.

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