Bigotry At Home: How Delhi, Mumbai Keep Muslim Tenants Out

11 Feb 2021 13 min read  Share

Exclusion, segregation of Muslim tenants are the norm even in India’s most diverse, cosmopolitan cities, reveal findings of a three-year study on discrimination in housing. From owners to brokers, from flat-mates to social media, a web of factors limits Muslims to Muslim-only localities

  • Conceding that he “avoids Muslims”, a real estate broker in South Delhi’s Khirki locality said, “I am not saying every Muslim is a terrorist. But who can take a risk? Having Muslims is a problem. Hundreds of questions emerge during verification. I do not want such problems.”

  • In the Nizamuddin area, another broker had similar concerns. “The police always have their eyes on our area because of its closeness to the (Nizamuddin) basti,” he said, referring to the congested Muslim-concentrated quarter. “We have to be very careful. There are threats of tenants being terrorists.”

  • A broker in East Delhi said he is never contacted by Muslim families. Tenants, he said, do their “prep work” and “know what area to go to.” If prospective Muslim clients do approach him, he collects copies of their identity cards, for police verification. “Hum dekhte hain banda genuine hai ya ugarwadi hai. (We verify if he is genuine, or if he is a terrorist.)”

Updated: Apr 14

New Delhi: In India’s most diverse and ostensibly cosmopolitan cities, neighbourhoods continue to keep Muslims and Dalits out. Home owners and cooperative housing societies refuse to rent them apartments. Discrimination in housing has become so commonplace that it is practically hidden in plain sight.

Recognising the enduring nature of everyday discrimination on the lines of religion, including commonplace segregation practised by otherwise liberal-minded Indians, the Housing Discrimination Project was launched three years ago to collect empirical information on the religious biases in urban India’s rental housing market.

Recent anecdotal and quantitative studies have found a considerable degree of religious discrimination against Muslims in rental housing. The Housing Discrimination Project seeks to dig deeper. It tries to understand how various players in the rental market behave when they discriminate, and how Muslims access the rental market. It also evaluates how rental discrimination shapes our cities.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers, their backgrounds ranging from law to psychology, conducted the field research in three phases from mid-2017 to the end of 2019. We spread out our work across 14 neighbourhood clusters, seven each in New Delhi and Mumbai, to capture the diversity of class, land tenure, and geography. Our researchers spent time in the neighbourhoods to observe the housing market.

We conducted 340 detailed interviews in the two cities, including 199 brokers (154 in Delhi and 55 in Mumbai), and 31 owners and housing society members (16 in Delhi and 15 in Mumbai). We also interviewed 97 Muslim tenants, including many who had faced discrimination. Almost all the interviews were conducted in person.

In a two-part series, Article 14 will present the findings of the Housing Discrimination Project, beginning with an exploration of the widespread nature of religion-based discrimination in rental housing and its impact on Muslim tenants. The second essay will focus on the impact of such segregation on India’s biggest cities.

Bias Among Brokers, Gatekeepers Of The Rental Market

For all prospective tenants lacking a wide network of personal acquaintances to help locate a rental home, it is the broker who opens the doors of the city, functioning as the gatekeeper of the rental home market. A disinclined broker is thus an often insurmountable barrier for a person looking to find a home. Brokers also have a vantage point view of discrimination in housing, as they are intimately acquainted with landlords and their neighbourhoods.

In Delhi and Mumbai, brokers consistently conceded that they refuse certain prospective tenants, especially Muslims. In some cases, they revealed their own biases during interviews. In numerous instances, they said they felt Muslim tenants could be a “liability”.

Rental agents collaborate across different localities but religion divides these broker networks too.

East Delhi’s Laxmi Nagar has an active brokerage market that serves the young students of the accountancy and computer coaching centres here. But our researchers found that Hindu and Muslim brokers do not work together.

“Why don’t you go and ask them, why do they not want to work with us?”a Muslim broker from Laxmi Nagar’s Ramesh Park area asked. “They consider us to be Pakistanis or Bangladeshis,” said another broker in Laxmi Nagar, a sense shared by many Muslim brokers. “Those brokers refuse (to work with) us in the daytime,” another said, “and in the evening they eat biryani and kebabs here like everyone else.”

A few streets away, closer to the Hindu-dominated Mangal Bazar area, a Hindu broker with 15 years of experience said he did not discriminate among Muslims—he simply refuses all Muslim clients. “No landlord will agree to keep them,” he claimed, “so why should I waste time?”

Brokers operate on the basis of unwritten rules that have over the years become the commonsense of rental activity. As one Hindu broker from South Delhi’s Malviya Nagar put it, “Only a few landlords say (anything) directly.” Some may candidly object when brokers suggest a Muslim, Sardar or Afghan tenant. “Others,” he continued, “show their hesitation by causing delays or not responding.”

Things are not very different in Mumbai where the sectarian violence of 1992-1993 wove religion-based segregation into the city’s fabric. Brokers consistently said religion—much like a tenant’s budget—was a fundamental constraint. They invest time in finding a house for clients only in areas understood to be “open” to them.

“We do not discriminate between our clients,” said a Hindu-Muslim broker duo in Andheri, a suburb along the city’s western flank. But there is an understanding about which client will get a house in which area, and so they look for “a Muslim landlord for a Muslim tenant, then a Christian, and finally a samajhdaar (sensible) Hindu”. “Even in cosmo neighbourhoods”—cosmopolitan areas being a common reference to mixed localities—“where a Muslim is willing pay, landlords are unwilling to rent.”

Exclusion, Prejudice Transcend Class

A broker in South Delhi’s middle-class colonies of Malviya Nagar and Saket DDA (Delhi Development Authority) said he was the only Muslim broker in his locality. His clients belong to all communities, and many are Muslims desperate to find a home after being rejected by other brokers.

“Ninety per cent (of brokers) do not deal with Muslims,” he said. “Once, a landlord told me that he would never rent his house to a Muslim. I felt humiliated–he said this in front of a tenant.” On being asked if he still tries to locate a home for prospective Muslim tenants who want to live in a non-Muslim neighbourhood, he answered in the affirmative. “Mujhe bahut ladna padta hai, phir bhi baat nahi ban paati zyaadatar,” he said. “I have to fight a lot, and most of the time there is still no success.”

Do Muslims ever find a house in such localities? “They need a very good profile,” he replied. “They usually have to pay two or three thousand rupees more. They pay whatever the landlord asks as it is already difficult to find a house.”

But greater rent-paying capacity also does not guarantee a house. One broker active in the tony part of Delhi’s Nizamuddin East and West neighbourhoods said incidents of religious discrimination are higher in areas with richer and more educated people. He recalled “a very well-educated Muslim, son of an Indian Administrative Services officer” who had liked a flat in Nizamuddin East. The rent was very high and the house had been vacant for a long time. “But it still took me three months of nudging and questioning to get the deal closed,” he recalled. “I could not understand the reason for an educated man to refuse another rich, educated professional from a good family only on the basis of his religion.” Prejudice appeared to transcend class.

There is evidence of discrimination even in neighbourhoods commonly described as mixed or multicultural. Take the case of Inderlok, a typical locality in northwest Delhi. Temples and mosques crisscross its bylanes. Hindu and Muslim names are sprinkled across the addresses. From a distance, the area appears to be a diverse and inclusive locality. But from close quarters, the discrete lines of religious segregation begin to appear.

One broker said homeowners do not give him instructions, but owners in Anand Nagar, the small neighbourhood on the eastern corner of Inderlok, “give clear instructions that they do not want Muslims”. There are “unwritten rules” in that locality, he said, that no one must ever rent or sell to Muslims.

Some select colonies may allow Muslim renters, he said, but this was rare. He said he knew of Muslim doctors and engineers forced to live in DDA blocks where other residents are labourers.

“Only Hindus,” responded a Hindu broker a few streets away in Trinagar. If an owner rented his house to a Muslim, “the neighbours will get angry, frustrated and create issues”. The reason for such a steadfast rejection of Muslims was a history of rivalry between young men of the two communities in the area. “Young Muslim boys from the surrounding areas tease girls in Trinagar,” he said. “So they do not prefer Muslim families.”

No Explicit Law Against Segregated Rentals, Discrimination Insidious

India does not have a comprehensive law against discrimination in private markets, including in private housing markets. Some states, for instance Maharashtra, have codified rules that prohibit developers from discriminating while selling flats.

But these laws do not directly cover the private rental market. In a 2005 case, the Supreme Court controversially upheld the power of housing societies to restrict sale to members of other communities.

This is despite proposals for prohibiting private housing discrimination, including recently the 2017 recommendation of the United Nations’s Special Rapporteur on adequate housing in 2017. Government committees including the Sachar Committee Report (2006) and the Expert Group on Equal Opportunity Commission (2008) have also recommended legal measures to address discrimination in the private housing market.

In the absence of a law that explicitly prohibits discrimination in the rental housing space, there are very rare instances of buyers or tenants filing police complaints against housing societies for discrimination. These instances are enough to make brokers and owners wary of making their prejudice known.

“The right way to refuse people,” said an experienced broker in Mumbai’s Chembur, a suburb to the city’s north-east, “is by bringing the question down to vegetarian and non-vegetarian.” He simply tells tenants that he only has houses for “veg families”. He said this approach is required thanks to social media. “You can be held responsible for what you say.”

Discrimination then stays hidden. Owners need not explicitly instruct the brokers. Brokers need not explicitly ask the landlords. They may not even explicitly refuse the tenant. They just direct them to a Muslim-concentrated locality. As one broker in Khirki said, “I refer Muslims to Hauz Rani. They feel safe there. You know what they call it? Mini Pakistan!”

Rejection, Segregation As Lived Reality

In interviews with Muslim tenants, the most profound theme was their continual struggle to find a house.

When Irfan moved from Patna to New Delhi in 2016 to study engineering, he heard one response repeatedly from home-owners he approached: “Humein Mohameddan ko nahi dena hai. (We do not want to rent to a Muslim.)”

Despite the fact that housing is the first stop for the 9.9 million migrants in New Delhi and Mumbai, India’s biggest urban agglomerations and magnets for those seeking employment or education, the rental housing market is notoriously difficult in both cities. And in the case of Irfan, and thousands like him, the identity of the tenant becomes an additional barrier in the search for a home.

After weeks, he managed to get a paying guest accommodation near his college. But a few months later, when he decided to move to East Delhi’s Laxmi Nagar, the same process was initiated again. A Hindu friend recommended a suitable flat and the deal was nearly finalised. Before he was to move, the owner reportedly remarked to his friend, “Inka naam to Mohameddan hai. Ram Ram. (His name is that of a Muslim. Goodbye).” Irfan’s search continued.

A 25-year old entrepreneur, Sahil has lived all his life in Mumbai and told researchers that he had no idea about discrimination in housing. This was until he started helping a female friend find a house in the western suburb of Andheri West. Sahil had almost closed the deal when the broker suddenly said, “Pehle bolna chahiye tha na ki Muslim ke liye chahiye. (You should have told me earlier that she is a Muslim.)” The deal fell through.

Amna, a 33-year-old social activist who came to Delhi from Kolkata in 2012, spent years interacting with brokers in the capital city. She overheard them talking about other Muslim tenants who would not get a house. Amna—who does not conform to the visual stereotype of a Muslim woman—always seemed to surprise brokers when she revealed her religion.

“Among the 15 brokers I met,” Amna told researchers, “at least six stopped returning my calls after I told them I am a Muslim.”

The new avenues provided by social media do not resolve the problem. Saher, a young lawyer from Mumbai, said she found that every time she responded to an advertisement on Facebook’s Flat And Flatmates page, she would get a rejection. “I would message the flatmates,” Saher said, “and they would ask me, I see your name is Saher, are you a Muslim?” The moment she replied in the affirmative, their reply would be that they do not let out their space to Muslims.

Muslims Dread The Last-Minute Rejection

Ateya, who moved to Delhi in 2015, wanted a place in South Delhi that was close to her place of work and within her budget. A broker helped her find a room in a building near the Hauz Khas post office. It was an ideal space. The room stood within the bungalow’s compound, but stood separate from the main home. It was small, but private.

Most importantly, she appeared to get along with the couple who owned the house. “They were very welcoming,”Ateya said. “The woman even told me that I would be like her daughter.”

Ateya made an advance payment, and handed over a copy of her passport for the paperwork. Soon, the broker asked her to take her payment back because the room was suddenly unavailable. She was taken aback. The broker would not give her a clear reason though she pressed for one. She decided to directly call the owners.

The landlady told her that her mother-in-law would soon be moving into the room. Ateya found this unlikely, as this was a room outside the house and next to the driver’s quarters. It was later when she approached the broker again to find another accommodation that the broker told her, “the kind of people I know in this area, will not give you a place”. When she asked him why, the broker told her that his clients would never rent to Muslims. “This was a woman who right until that day had likened me to her daughter,” she recalled.

In some instances, Muslim tenants were asked to pay a higher rent. Sumaya recalled a broker telling her that the rent for a rundown ‘MHADA apartment’, built by Maharashtra’s state housing agency, was Rs 19,000 per month. When she told the broker that this seemed unreasonable, he replied, “Minorities ko nahi milta hai na, iske liye madam. (Minorities do not get homes here, that’s the reason madam.)

Silent Segregation In Gated Housing Societies

Beyond owners and brokers, other forces in the housing market also discriminate and maintain segregation. In Mumbai, cooperative housing societies play a significant role in keeping some tenants and buyers out. They set the rules, explicitly or implicitly, and the owners and brokers fall in line. As one broker put it, “No bachelors, no spinsters, no party animals and no pets.” All communities participate in this exclusionary practice.

A property agent with 27 years of experience in Mumbai’s Bandra West, a suburb widely seen as a melting pot of cultures and religions, revealed the faultlines in the area’s housing market. “The Roman Catholic community owns most of the property in Pali Hill, Leo Road, St Cyril Road, St Andrews Road. They do not entertain transactions with anyone except Roman Catholics,” he said.

Similarly, there are some areas where only Khoja Muslims live, and others where only Bohra Muslims stay. Then there are Gujarati and Marwari pockets where non-vegetarians are kept out. “And there is an unsaid barrier for non-Muslims in Muslim areas,” he continued, “because they would not want to go there anyway.”

These invisible boundary markers are drawn when builders sell the apartments. Developers often reserve buildings for a specific community and risk losing buyers if they sell one or two units to someone outside that community.

For builders, the assessment of which community has the resources to buy apartments and is willing to settle in that neighbourhood is a hard-nosed economic decision.

In the suburb of Jogeshwari West, another agent said, “Sometimes even Muslim builders do not give to their own community.” Once the residents move in and form cooperative housing societies, it becomes clear which communities the society is “closed” to, and brokers pick up the cues. “Hume samajhna padhta hai (we have to understand),”he said. Much of the exclusion is never stated verbally.

Making Their Muslim Identity Invisible

In these circumstances, Muslim tenants have to go to extreme lengths to find a place to live in Delhi or Mumbai, the Housing Discrimination Project’s researchers found. The simplest way, apparently, is to share the house with Hindu friends.

Hanif, who now lives in the Abu Fazl neighbourhood near Jamia Millia Islamia university and provides coaching to school students, said he never faced a problem so long as he was living with his Hindu friends. “We just had to put Sourav, and sometimes Kapil and Jitesh, in the front while searching for a home,”he said.

Hanif moved from Deogarh, Jharkhand, to join his friends in 2006, and since then has lived in different Delhi localities including Munirka, Laxmi Nagar, Faridabad and Mayur Vihar. “Whenever we went to any landlord, Armaan and I would just step out,” he said. “If anyone got to know our names, they would invariably tell us that another renter has already paid an advance.”

Haaris, a 28-year old masters graduate from Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, faced the same problem when he arrived in Delhi to start a policy and research centre with his friends. “I searched for houses using Kapil’s name,” he told us. Ultimately, the agreement only named Kapil and Mahima, but that was the only way he could find a place in South Delhi’s Jungpura Extension.

This too is not a fail-safe option. Saima, a young lawyer in Mumbai, was hunting for a two-bedroom house with two Hindu friends. She was keen to have the agreement in her name so that she would have an address to apply for a passport. Her friends found a place they loved. The owner also took a liking to the two of them. But on finding out that the third tenant was a Muslim, she refused.

Saima realised that her friends were having problems because of her. “So I said—and I really hated that moment—please take the place. I do not want you to be stuck just because I am a Muslim.” She felt it was her battle to fight. Her friends apologised, but they parted ways nevertheless.

All this makes the ordinary task of finding a house unending, exhausting and deeply humiliating. “I felt reduced to my immediate identity,”Ateya said, “despite not even being very religious.” She laughs it off now, for there is no other way to deal with it. “But every time I cross Hauz Khas and the house where I was rejected, I wonder. Why?”

Interviewees’ names have been changed for confidentiality.

(Mohsin Alam Bhat is on the editorial board of Article-14. He teaches at the Jindal Global Law School and heads its Center for Public Interest Law.)

Next In The 2-Part Series:

Cities Divided: How Exclusion Of Muslims Sharpens Inequality