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Being Muslim in Narendra Modi’s India: Ghetto Life, Between Domination and Resistance

South Asia

This upcoming May 26 will mark the end of the first year of the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi’s mandate at the head of the Indian government. To underline this anniversary, this article aims at delving on the situation of the Muslim minority in a country governed by the Bharatyia Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, BJP), a Hindu nationalist political formation ideologically based on hindutva, which promotes the “Hinduness” of India, regardless of the other ethnic minorities of the country1 – notably the 14% of Muslims and 3% of Christians. During this year, the election of Narendra Modi has increased risks of threats on freedom and religious practices of non-Hindu minorities, the first of which are the 145 millions of Indian Muslims2 . This situation is shared by the entire community across the country, although with specificities in local contexts. For this reason this article focuses on the singular case of the Muslims from Gujarat. It offers a journey into the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura, situated seven kilometres away from the city centre of Ahmedabad, the economic capital of the state3 . In several ways, looking at what is happening in Juhapura is paramount to passing a magnifying glass over the current situation of the Indian Muslims of the north.

First of all, the Gujarat is the state in which Narendra Modi built his political career, and of which he has praised the economic results during the 2014 electoral campaign as a proof of his good governance. It is also the state in which the anti-Muslim pogroms of 2002 took place, and Narendra Modi was considered as their instigator, although he was repeatedly cleared of all accusations by justice4 . Here the term pogroms is used instead of riots as the attackers were exclusively Hindu and supported by public power, and faced exclusively Muslim victims. The modalities of this violence also need to be associated with population massacres, as they demonstrate a will to kill both the physical and the symbolic bodies of the minority5 . According to NGO estimates, the pogroms caused two thousand deaths, a thousand of which took place only in Ahmedabad, and 150 000 internally displaced persons. The violent events of 2002 thus constitute the most violent attack against Indian Muslims in their country, whether in terms of the number of victims or of the modalities of murder.

The ghetto or the exercise of “daily” domination

One of the middle term consequences of these violent events was the formation of a ghetto in Juhapura. Before 2002, the locality was a simple Muslim neighbourhood which was economically disadvantaged and counted approximatively 50 000 inhabitants. However, the pogrom transformed this space by attracting the mass influx of Muslims seeking an ethnic entre-soi, perceived as protective. This is particularly true for the Muslim upper-classes, which, for the first time, were also victims of violence, while they had been spared until then. Their arrival transformed the locality into a ghetto. It can be distinguished from a simple ethnic neighbourhood by four characteristics: forced installation, confinement, consubstantial identity stigma and the duplication of institutions by private actors in the absence of a public presence6 . The ghetto is thus not so much characterised by the degradation of habitat as is commonly expected, but by these four dispositions which come hand in hand, amongst other factors, with economic heterogeneity and ethnic homogeneity. Although there are many Muslim neighbourhoods in India, Juhapura seems to be, to this day, the only Muslim ghetto of the sub-continent. In 2015, it holds an estimated 500 000 inhabitants7 .

The strictly defined spatial dispositions that qualify Juhapura as a ghetto constitute as many acts of domination from the state authorities against the (thus Muslim) inhabitants of the locality. By instituting this power relationship through the means of habitat, the ghetto has become a spatialized device of power. It exercises a “daily” domination on the inhabitants and, from there, has been a modality of the governance of Ahmedabad’s Muslim minority mobilised by the (local) Modi government from 2002 to 2014, and since by Anandiben Patel’s. Tangibly, the life conditions of the inhabitants of Juhapura, and their difficulties in accessing an affective form of citizenship, brings them to considering themselves as “second-class citizens”. The domination exercised there by the authorities is as protean as it is pernicious. It infiltrates the daily activities of inhabitants and touches every aspect of their lives. Hence, it could be associated, although with caution, with a form of ethnicisation of Indian citizenship. Although formally Muslim citizens have the same rights as their Hindu counterparts, in Ahmedabad and even more in Juhapura, their ethnicity disqualifies them from an effective form of citizenship.

Each characteristic of the ghetto constitutes a modality of this domination. The first has been, alongside the ghetto’s formation, the purification of the urban territories of Ahmedabad from their Muslim presence, and the implementation of an ethnic entre-soi, superposed with an economic entre-soi for the Hindus. This governance modality has relied on the forced installation in the ghetto. Many inhabitants have shared their desire to live in other neighbourhoods in the city and the impossibility to do so without putting their lives in danger “in case problems come up”. The second governance modality of the minority and domination strategy has consisted in confining the inhabitants of Juhapura, as they cannot expand their locality. Indeed, to the east, the ghetto is surrounded by an extremely busy junction, and is separated from neighbouring Hindu dwellings by no man’s lands or borders. Barbed wire and ditches were built after 2002 to separate Hindus from Muslims. To the north, Juhapura is encased by buildings built by the authorities and finished in 2013: they house the city’s police public servants. To the south, used water treatment facilities ensnare the ghetto, as well as pollute the deep soils and bring a plethora of diseases since they have been built at non-regulatory distances from the habitats. Finally, to the west, Juhapura opens on a four-lane road axis which crosses it, leading to the Saurashtra region.

The daily domination of inhabitants is also translated by the absence of public infrastructures and services present in other neighbourhoods of Ahmedabad. In Juhapura, there are no street lighting, gardens or parks, no asphalt roads beyond the four-lane axis crossing the ghetto; one has to imagine the dust carried from the Saurashtra, everyday a part of the inhabitants’ lives as there are no sealed roads. The inhabitants are all victims of what the doctors call the “Juhapura cough”, a consequence of the dust. More serious problems come from the water delivered each day, which is almost unfit for consumption. The doctors interviewed reveal many respiratory and digestive illnesses stemming from this problem, as well as from the infiltration of toxic solutions in the soil by the used water treatment facilities. Public hospitals are also inexistent, and the four public schools only barely cover 10% of the educational needs of the ghetto’s inhabitants. The latter tell of the administrative “harassment” that they suffer from police forces, the only representatives of public power visibly present in the ghetto. Arbitrary arrests are frequent sights, notably of young men, or frequent car searches, a fortiori as Eid draws near – in order to find meat that was illegally introduced in the ghetto.

The channels of resistance: “self-help” and view of the Gulf

Faced with these strategies of domination, the inhabitants of the ghetto have implemented resistance tactics8 . They all stem from initiatives led by private actors (“self-help”) and scarcely use the political activist way, considered as inefficient9 . The main channel for this resistance is “business”. The economic sphere is hence perceived as the integrating matrix to the majoritarian society for the Muslims of Juhapura, and appears to them as the best defence against violence. By analysing their discourse, two reasons seem to explain this perception, each grounded in the memories of the pogroms of 2002, which thus appear clearly as an event in the full sense of the term; as a rupture. Economically integrated, participating to national enrichment, the Muslims see themselves as “useful” to Indian society, and notably to their Hindu partners; as they have ties through an economic interdependency relationship. There would therefore be no benefit in eliminating them. The second reason is linked to the fact that in case of renewed violence, economic affluence would enable them to face the events better, if they were to cease their activity, if they were reinstalled by force, etc.

For the inhabitants of Juhapura, salvation thus comes through themselves; as they now like to say, “we are self-made angels”. Hence, the absence of public infrastructures has been replaced by private initiatives; the development of Juhapura is thus the fruit of a privatisation of public action. These actions were carried out by affluent Muslims of superior jamaats10  who arrived in Juhapura after the pogroms. Notably through the zakat11, they have financed two hospitals, dispensaries, schools, libraries, support/training courses for public service exams, etc. Education has been at the core of preoccupations for the inhabitants of Juhapura, from all jamaats. It is directly linked to the aforementioned economic integration imperative. Beyond instruction in itself, education is seen as the means to access a stable or higher paying job, and from there, the stepping stone towards a good economic integration. The girls and women are at the centre of a specific schooling effort, which is, as recognised by the interviewees (men or women), unheard of. It is also interesting to note that beyond entrepreneurship and/or commerce, the more or less traditional occupations of Gujarati Muslims, more and more mention the importance of obtaining public jobs, more stable and higher paying, to which the Muslims have traditionally had less access. In parallel with locality planning, the inhabitants have also managed to get branches of Indian banks to open locally, the multiplication of businesses, or even to equip their own society (residency) by asphalting the paths, bringing water, electricity, etc.

Following the discourse on the importance of economic integration, since 2013, the references to the culture said “of the Gulf” are multiplying in Juhapura. This is also a long term consequence of the pogroms, as the paralysis of the local economy in 2002 pushed the Muslims entrepreneurs to seek other markets, the first of which were the Gulf countries. The actors notably mention Doha and Dubai, which appear as the most attractive cities for migrants; Saudi Arabia is also mentioned for its Muslim credentials but the racism suffered by  Asian migrants is often brought up to explain the preference for other destinations. Finally, Oman is the object of a particular representation in the discourses, because of the historic ties with the sultanate. The inhabitants mention their growing attraction and admiration for the Gulf countries, as much for the possible economic perspectives over there, as for the “Muslim atmosphere” of these countries. The economic flows between the entrepreneurs of Juhapura and the Gulf countries have multiplied, allowing the former to make profits over there that they cannot make locally, and then reinject them in the ghetto. The luxurious residential compounds, built with money earned in the Gulf and based on their model, are multiplying. They thus feed into the increase of housing prices in the ghetto. But the attraction for the Gulf goes beyond the mere economic sphere: cultural elements are equally present in the ghetto, as visible in the names of the residential compound “al-Bhurooj” or the Aladdin restaurant. The economic integration by the Gulf of certain inhabitants of Juhapura is thus associated with an identity revaluation which resists the consubstantial stigma of the ghetto form. From there, and although this observation should be taken with a certain measure, this view of the Gulf appears, for now, as a transnational dynamic allowing for a better integration of actors in the local context. The affluent entrepreneurs of Juhapura were as courted by Modi as they are today by A. Patel. Certain entrepreneurs based in Juhapura thus form the link between the minority and the authorities, facilitating the presence of Gulf businesses at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit or during the Business Conclave of February 2014, specifically targeting the Muslim entrepreneurs of Gujarat. The bridge with the Gulf must not be understood as a mimetic fascination leading, for example, to the wahhabisation of local religious practices. At the contrary, with a desire for elsewhere, this view of the Gulf seems to allow inhabitants (who participate in these migrations) to acquire a certain recognition, and thus to revalue their individual identity, their (notably economic) “usefulness” to local society, and thus their integration.

Ethnicisation and economic integration: a form of citizenship in question

The question raised by this mode of governance, and the effects it has led to, is that of the progressive disaggregation of intra-ethnic solidarities in Ahmedabad, after the break-up of the inter-ethnic ones in 2002. By basing their salvation on their individual situation only, and notably economically, and hence distancing themselves from all use of public power, the Muslims have aligned themselves with one of the elements of the national narrative offered by Narendra Modi, for whom economic growth outshines every other societal stake. Moreover, they contribute to widening the increasingly visible gap in Indian society between a part of the population which stays at the margins of the project offered by Modi, and the categories which fully take part in it. From this point of view, the options given to the Muslim of Juhapura are not so different from those offered to the Indian population as a whole. However there remains a large difference; economic integration is not first and foremost seen as a means to satisfy personal enrichment needs, but rather, in reality, as the insurance to stay alive. This point thus questions the very foundations of the Indian State and the issue of citizenship aforementioned between its ethnicisation and the overvaluation of economic integration over formal rights supposedly guaranteed by the fact of being an Indian citizen.

Furthermore, it should be noted that for the Muslims from the most disadvantaged jamaats, the non-integration is nowadays double: economic and ethnic. From there, the question of the most disadvantaged Muslims can be asked again more clearly, as well as the issue of the real efficiency of this economic integration against violence. For the poorer, victims of ethnic and economic exclusion, what is their future in Modi’s India? What are the perspectives for the non-educated and increasingly marginalised youths, including within a no longer protective ghetto? Indeed, the religious organisations are there to help this captive clientele, but this aid is based on charity, and does not allow for human development. Moreover, this aid quite often comes with the express recommendation to adopt the forms of Islam practiced by the benevolent associations, which are much more rigorous.


  1. For the Hindu nationalists, India is seen as essentially Hindu. This goes beyond the mere practice of religion and includes daily practices such as vegetarianism. The Christian and Muslim religious minorities are thought of as supported by other countries. They must thus leave India, convert to Hinduism or constrain their religious practices to the strictly private sphere. ↩︎
  2. Rewriting of history manuals hindering the Moghols, “Ghar Wapsi” (return home) Hinduism conversion campaign, will to impose a uniform civil code replacing personal laws (in other words types of civil codes governing over each religious minority), etc. See on this point the contribution by Aminah Mohammed-Arif forthcoming in June. ↩︎
  3. The political capital is Gandhinagar, a city created during the separation of the state of Gujarat from the Mumbai province in the 1960s. Gandhinagar is situated 30 kilometres away from Ahmedabad. ↩︎
  4. He was, amongst other accusations, directly accused by a superior police officer in office in 2002 (who has since quit his job). N. Modi was nevertheless cleared by the commission of enquiry implemented to investigate his involvement. As all the members of this commission were from Gujarat, questions can be raised on the supposed independence of said commission. ↩︎
  5. The authorities have published their own victim count but it only stated 850 deaths, 223 wounded and 2500 displaced. Faced with the lack of credibility of these figures, the analyses all refer to the data provided by the Human Rights Watch NGO report: “We Have no Order to Save You” , 2002. ↩︎
  6. On these characteristics, see Loïc Wacquant (2007). ↩︎
  7. This figure is the product of personal estimations since there is no public data available, as the authorities have administratively broken up the zone in order to avoid the constitution of a homogenous Muslim zone. ↩︎
  8. Resistance here was not necessarily intentionally perceived as such by the actors. ↩︎
  9. In relation to the former influence of Hindu nationalism in Gujarat, the Muslims of Juhapura “do not see the difference between the Congress and the BJP”, as the former practices a “soft Hindutva” and a number of riots have taken place under Congress mandates. Thus, although the three locally elected representatives of Juhapura are effectively members of the Congress, the inhabitants no longer use these local means to move a particular personal case forward, as the Congress is clearly not considered as a credible political alternative. ↩︎
  10. Grosso modo ethnic communities within the Muslim minority, the latter being organised in casts, as for the Hindus (Ahmad, 1973). ↩︎
  11. Charity, one of the five pillars of Islam, each Muslim is supposed to give away a part of his/her income to the poorest. ↩︎