Muslim Marginalization and Politics in Gujarat: LSPR In Conversation With Mr. Sharik Laliwala

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The following is an edited transcript of an interview conducted by Prannv Dhawan (Founding Editor, LSPR) with Mr. Sharik Laliwala, an independent researcher, over Zoom.

Prannv: Hi Sharik! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview with us. It’d be great if you could introduce yourself to our readers. I understand that you are an independent researcher based in Gujarat, who has worked on Gujarati politics, history and society, and that you have published in prominent media and academic platforms. But please do share some more about yourself.

Sharik: Hi, I’m Sharik Laliwala! I work on issues of ethnic identity and religion. And I’ve been specifically working on political representation and Muslim marginalization, in particular Muslims in Gujarat. Now, I am slowly trying to expand my purview and looking at Muslims in Northern India. I have researched issues concerning Muslims, such as political representation, political and socio-economic marginalization. I have been writing about these issues in an academic manner as well as in popular writing. I am also collaborating with Ashoka University and Sciences Po’s project on mapping India’s political landscape by collecting data on Gujarat’s legislators, parliamentarians and ministers since the state’s formation in 1960 till now.

Prannv: That is a great introduction, Sharik. I’ve been reading your work and the one thing that you’ve done recently is research the ghettoization of Muslims in Ahmedabad and how it’s impacted by communal violence and the caste-class dynamics in the Muslim community, their access to various opportunities within that context. So, why don’t you explain and elaborate upon your work on ghettoization and housing discrimination? How do you think it has impacted the economic prospects of the community? And, maybe, how has it changed the nature of economic development in a state like Gujarat?

Sharik: This is the work I did with Professor Christophe Jaffrelot, Priyal Thakkar, and Abida Desai recently for the India Exclusion Report and we looked at Muslim ghettoization in Ahmedabad in Juhapura at the periphery of the city. Around 4 to 5 lakh Muslims, that’s about half of the city’s Muslim population, live there. It’s a ghetto not just because there’s a religious ethnic minority living there but also because infrastructure is substandard. Public infrastructure and basic services are inadequate and there is stigmatization. We were not so much interested in the causes of ghettoization, which are quite clear to people who have studied Gujarat such as Muslim marginalization in the state and India, including communal violence, the rise of the Hindu right, so on.

We were interested in the dynamics that play out inside a ghetto. Inside the ghetto, the elites and the non-elites, i.e., the rich and the poor, or the Ashraf and the non-Ashraf caste Muslims are completely focused on different kinds of issues. This, kind of, leads to a division in the unity amongst the gated community. Generally, people perceive that the community living in a ghetto is quite homogenous but that’s not accurate. In fact, a ghetto is not a slum or poor area. There are judges, doctors, NGO activists, traders and businesspersons living there. There is a lower-middle class and slum dwelling population as well. So, we found that these elites are able to avail basic services, sometimes in the form of government-provided services but sometimes in the form of private-sector services. These elites distance themselves from the poor and the non-Ashraf (lower) caste Muslims so as to gentrify their residential locality and to seek some assurance of their real estate prices. So, we looked at the socio-economic differences in land prices, etc. and concluded that these caste-class divisions within the Muslim committee have shaped the discourse surrounding ghettoization. The discourse amongst the elites has revolved around standard of living concerns, such as infrastructure and the like. However, the non-elite discourse revolves around basic sustenance.

So, that’s broadly what we looked at and found: the socio-economic differentiation in the ghettos. In terms of Gujarat’s economic development, of course Muslims, barring the elite class, have not been participants in the so called “Vibrant Gujarat” development story. Their participation in elite institutions is also very low. Socio-economic inequality is also high in Gujarat amongst the Muslims, who are on par with the lower OBCs. It’s a very uneven economic story in Gujarat for the non-elite Muslims. The elites have been able to get their share of socio-economic capital but for the poor and non-Ashraf community, the story has been drastically different. They (poor Muslims) were also victims of gentrification through projects such as the Sabarmati riverfront.

Prannv: That’s actually very insightful and I have a lot of questions about Muslim politics  emerge out of it.  As you’ve written earlier last year, the CAA protests have led to a situation where the whole idea of Indian secularism is being redefined. How is this churning impacting the cleavages between the elite and backward Muslim communities. And, do you think that it’s affecting Muslim politics at the broader national level and, more specifically, in Gujarat?

Sharik: In terms of Gujarat’s Muslim politics, not much has happened precisely because, first of all, even at a larger community level, there’s a lack of representation. Overall, there’s very little in terms of democratization that has happened. And, a lot of internal democratization on caste or gender lines within the Muslims can take place only when there is a certain level of trust in the state, where there are some kinds of welfare measures and so on. But a lot of that is missing in Gujarat, which is why there is excessive marginalization. I don’t think internal democratization can happen on a large scale; it may happen in bits and pieces. I don’t see that emerging much in Gujarat except, maybe, on gender lines as after the riots in the nineties and 2002, a lot of the women who suffered through that massacre took to activism at a very local, grassroots level.

During the CAA-NRC protests, most of the activism came from lower caste, lower class Muslim men and women. But it wasn’t consolidated assertion of the kind that has been  visible  in Bihar or Maharashtra, where there has been an organized lower caste political movement within the framework of Muslim politics. The churning that took place there amongst the lower caste communities, like Dalit and Backward Muslims, happened precisely because there was an environment of safety, which isn’t there elsewhere. So, I think that kind of trust building exercises, providing safety to minorities, etc. is very crucial to facilitate internal democratization. You don’t see this in Gujarat. So, that’s there.

Prannv: I think that’s an important insight because often times these things are perceived in binary terms: that because there is this elite secular politics, you cannot have internal democratization. The idea that elite secular politics could create an atmosphere for internal democratization is ignored. In that light, I have another question which is about Gujarati history and politics: how do you think vegetarianism has come to represent the dominant legal and social norms in Gujarat and in Ahmedabad particularly? How does it precisely impact social division, ghettoization and economic disenfranchisement? And, do you see forced vegetarianism as poverty discrimination or culinary apartheid?

Sharik: Gujarat’s dominant culture, particularly Ahmedabad, has seen an ethic of vegetarianism that was very much enforced because the Jains, Baniyas, etc. who were patronized by the Mughals and also by the British and of course, the INC.

Prannv: But that is the elite ‘minority’, right?

Sharik: They might have been a minority but that’s also true for the entire upper caste strata. So, in that sense, the capturing of the culture by dominant upper caste groups always relied on some kind of vegetarianism, which later on Gandhi came to represent and it took shape in a very different manner after K.M. Munshi wrote his very famous novels that shaped Gujarati identity; novels which always portrayed Muslims as outsiders or “enemies” and sketched an us-versus-them narrative. This cultural project came to represent the Bhartiya Jana Sangh, the Swatantra Party and then the BJP. This was largely in the making over two centuries. Gujarat is probably a state with some of the highest levels of vegetarian population but it’s still a fact that around 40%-45% of the people do consume non-vegetarian food as 15% of Gujarat is tribal, which is way higher than the rest of India, 7%-8% is Dalits along with the sizeable Muslim population and a lot of OBCs. These communities do have a non-vegetarian diet.

The upper or dominant castes rely on vegetarianism to promote this idea of Gujarati culture which categorizes them separately from Muslims, tribal communities or lower caste communities. In fact, it was promoted by Gandhi, Sardar Patel and, of course, now the BJP. How does it shape the spatial boundaries? It’s an unwritten rule or open secret that non-vegetarians don’t get a house. Muslims are, of course, affected by the Disturbed Areas Act. But even non-vegetarian upper caste Hindus, such as non-Gujarati Brahmins or Punjabis or Sindhis, don’t get housing outside, maybe, of some localities they predominantly inhabit. So, that has really come to represent the Gujarati dominant culture. Even when Modi was the Chief Minister, and later on Rupani, a narrative was promoted which purported that vegetarianism was the reason why Gujarati people were so “powerful”.

Prannv: Thank you so much for that. I have another question for you. You touched upon the Disturbed Areas Act so, do you think the housing problem is just limited to this law? When civil society scholars like you think about this problem, what are the solutions that you think about? Do you think of a solution where you just allow people to live where they want to? Or, do you think of a situation where an active effort is made to ensure socially inclusive housing, like we see in the United States where they incentivize people to rent/sell houses to Black Americans or ethnic minorities? Or, in situations like Singapore where they have a very mandating, command-control model of ethnic integration in housing where you don’t get a property license if you don’t have a particular percentage of ethnic minorities living in your housing units? When you think about this problem, especially considering the colonial and the post-colonial context of division and festering division what solutions do you think about?

Sharik: The Disturbed Areas Act was enacted to stop distress sales as 1980s was a period Gujarat witnessed immense communal violence between Hindus and Muslims. A lot of times, the minority of a particular area would sell the property at lower than market price, i.e., a distressed sale. To prevent that, the Disturbed Areas Act was enacted. However, its implementation has had the opposite effect. Now it’s being used to promote ghettoization and stop cosmopolitan living.

Also, despite the law, the socio-political landscape of Gujarat is festered with Hindu right-wing politics. When even the attempt to buy a property being sold by a Muslim is being labelled “land jihad”, you don’t even need the Disturbed Areas Act to feed into that narrative of “land jihad” and the greater ghettoization problem. Even in cities where such an act doesn’t exist, like Delhi, the segregation problem is only slightly lesser in degree. So, this problem would exist even without the law. In terms of solution, that’s probably best left to policymakers but you could have some kind of incentives or a proactive state which actively works against housing discrimination. There needs to be a law against housing discrimination. There could also be some productive state and civil society engagement to promote cosmopolitanism.

Prannv: Thank you very much for that. I will come to the last question which is about this article you wrote about the superficial democratization for the OBC community in Gujarat. I want to ask, how do you see this play out at the national-level? We see a narrative coming out of decent scholarship that the current BJP is a modern entity which exists because of its majoritarian politics but is also inclusive in terms of it being based on deep Hindu nationalist impulse or desire to include marginalized communities. I’ve always been very skeptical of that narrative of how marginalized communities are now voting for the BJP. How do you think your research is analyzing that narrative and what are its implications for social justice politics going forward?

Sharik: The BJP does use a policy of “controlled emancipation” vis-à-vis women, OBCs and Dalits; it’s a term that Thomas Blom Hansen used in the 1990s. You will see these groups rising and expressing their identity but always under a paternalistic and condescending control. What I call “superficial democratization” in the Gujarat context is precisely that: you can take part as an OBC in the Hindu nationalist discourse as long as you don’t assert yourself as an identity outside of that fold. And, you may get included as an MLA or MP but you don’t get ministerial positions. Those are reserved for upper or dominant caste individuals. You are, basically, accommodated at the lower levels and some jatis don’t even get that. The upper echelons of power, which really matter, are mainly with the dominant castes. Even the portfolios that OBCs do get, they’re not very important. This a model that Narendra Modi took from Gujarat to the national level. The BJP exploits the social cleavages between the Dalits and the OBCs but won’t give them any representation at the top level. For example, in U.P., BJP united the non-Yadav OBCs, the non-Yadav Dalits but when they came to power, the a Thakur was appointed as the chief minister.

This is what Modi did with his Cabinet. Over half of his ministers are upper castes. Even though Modi claims to be OBC, he only began to assert that identity from 2013. His caste background has historical links with trading castes. Previously, he’d never spoken about his OBC identity. So, you may say that some Dalits have started to vote for the BJP, which is definitely true. OBCs have started to vote for them. But that doesn’t mean they have meaningful political representation within the party. You may say the voting is becoming more inclusive.

Secondly, the cultural project that the BJP or the larger Sangh parivar subscribe to – such as the P.M. doing the Ram Mandir shilanyas and quoting Hindu literature – that is predominantly upper caste. The larger cultural project is upper caste. Even the RSS may have some OBCs or some Dalits, but they don’t occupy top leadership positions in it; the top leadership of the RSS has always been upper caste. It’s a false claim to say that the BJP is democratized. I don’t buy this argument. It’s like seeing a Hindu and Muslim walking by together and saying Hindus and Muslims live peacefully together. But you know that’s not true. It betrays an understanding of power and dominance in society.

Prannv: Thank you so much for bringing in that important nuance and insight.

Shreyas Sinha (1st Year, B.A. LL. B., National Law School of India University) provided excellent research and editorial assistance for this interview.