THE BLOG

In Modi's Gujarat, Muslims Struggle to be respected by Hindus

Twenty-five-year-old Nida Yamin had just moved from Delhi to Ahmedabad, Gujarat to work at the prestigious Indian Institute of Management (IIM) as a research associate. Her grandmother was married at a young age and her mother was never allowed to pursue a career. This was the first time any woman in her family had worked or lived on their own before marriage.

"I feel like I took this step for them," Nida says.

At IIM, she met another research associate, a Hindu girl from the eastern state of Bihar named Shwetambera, and the two found a two-bedroom apartment near the Vastrapur Lake in Ahmedabad. When Nida negotiated the rent, the apartment owner found her voice so sweet that she gave her a discount.

"She actually advertised for 11,500 rupees ($210). But then she said it is 11,000 now ($201) because she liked my voice."

Nida and Shwetambera filled out the deposit forms and sent them to the apartment owner in Hyderabad. They were all ready to move in. A few hours later Nida received a call.

The owner's) tone had completely changed. She asked me about the veg/non-veg thing but we had already discussed that and I agreed not to eat non-veg in the apartment or to cook non-veg. But then she said, 'What is your caste?' I was a bit taken back. I was like caste regarding what? I don't think so anyone has asked my caste in Delhi. I said I am a Muslim. That is when she said 'I wont be able to give you the flat because building people will make a problem.'

Nida could not understand how the owner's voice could change so quickly.

I said at that time (when you gave me the flat) did you recognize from my voice that I am a Muslim or a Hindu from my voice? She was like I don't have a problem but if your father or brother come then people in the society will know that I have rented to a Muslim. And I was like aunty how can you differentiate between a Muslim and a Hindu? You cannot. Like I live in a Jain colony.

Nida tried to reason with the apartment owner in Ahmedabad but she would not budge.

She passed the phone to her brother and he was telling me Ahmedabad is such a kind of a city. He said we don't have a problem. He said your community has created so many problems and I was like what community are you talking about? I have been living in a Jain colony and I have never had a problem.

Nida had always heard about housing discrimination in India but she had never experienced it. She was born and raised in Delhi to Muslim parents from Uttar Pradesh and attended the Jamia Hamdard University. Her father always dreamed of living in the upscale, predominantly Jain housing complex called Green Park and six years ago they moved in.

In Delhi no can be bothered. Nobody wants to talk to you, even if you want to talk to them. I have seen every religion stay in Green Park. There is no discrimination.

I consider India as my own. And I don't think so I need to say this. It's... it's... it's... I don't think there is any mistake I have done as a Muslim? I don't know how to express but I felt really sad at that moment. And I felt why did I even approach her.

It was the support of her roommate Shwetambera that gave Nida the courage to tell her story to her IIM professors. She worried that Shwetambera would abandon her and ask Nida to find an apartment on her own.

"But she stood by me. She said they cannot do this and this is what gave me the strength."

One of her professors told a local reporter and The Ahmedabad Mirror ran Nida's story -- and her picture -- on the front page. Life suddenly became even trickier for her and she became an unwilling spokesperson for the plight of Gujarat's Muslims.

In 2002, the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was accused of failing to protect Muslims during the riots. Ashutosh Varshney, one of the world's foremost experts on Hindu Muslim conflict, called the 2002 riots "India's first pogrom."

This week Modi won re-election in Gujarat as projected and he is now poised to make a move to become India's next prime minister. But Nida has little desire to speak about these issues. Her passion is helping rural Muslim women in Bihar.

When I met Nida at Ahmedabad's upscale Alpha One shopping mall last week, she wore a purple salwar khameez and had a large diamond studded nose ring. After I was denied housing in Vastrapur because I am a Muslim, I found accommodation in Juhapura on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, one of the largest ghettos of Muslims in India. Many friends in Juhapura suggested we help find Nida a place in a Muslim locality. But the idea had little appeal to her.

"No, I will not go to Juhapura just because it is a Muslim area. I do not feel that because I am a Muslim I will feel safer in a Muslim area. I am a Muslim by heart, not by accommodation."

She and Shwetambera now live in a Hindu locality but she has asked me not to reveal the area. What surprises her, she says, is how many people in Ahmedabad have praised her for speaking up. Why would they not speak out, she wonders.

You have to speak about it. There is no bad thing about being a Muslim, a Sikh, a Hindu, a Christian. India is a mixture of every culture. Shwetambera and I have the same education. We have the same position. We are equal. You have to respect me also.

After I returned from the interview, she texted me later that night.

"I have been reading online. My story is too small in front of that injustice that happened to people here in the Gujarat riots. I can't stop thinking about it."

Zahir Janmohamed is a freelance writer living in and writing about Juhapura, the Muslim ghetto of Ahmedabad in India. He previously served as the advocacy director for Amnesty International and senior foreign policy aide in the U.S. Congress.

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