MUMBAI — The sunny apartment had everything Palvisha Aslam, 22, a Bollywood producer, wanted: a spacious bedroom and a kitchen that overlooked a garden in a middle-class neighborhood that was a short commute to Film City, where many of India’s Hindi movies are shot. She was about to sign the lease when the real estate broker noticed her surname. He didn’t realize that she was Muslim, he said. Then he rejected her.
It was just six weeks after the November Mumbai terrorist attacks and Indian Muslims were being viewed with suspicion across the country. He then showed her a grimy one-room tenement in a Muslim-dominated ghetto. She felt sick to her stomach as she watched the residents fight over water at a leaky tap in a dark alley.
“That night I cried a lot. I was still an outcast in my own country — even as a secular Muslim with a well-paid job in Bollywood,” said Aslam, who had similar experiences with five other brokers and three months later is still sleeping on friends’ sofas. “I’m an Indian. I love my country. Is it a crime now to be a Muslim in Mumbai?”
In the months after the brazen three-day Mumbai terrorist attacks, stories like Aslam’s are common, even among some of the country’s most beloved Bollywood actors, screenwriters and producers in India’s most cosmopolitan city. The accusations of discrimination highlight the often simmering religious tensions in the world’s biggest democracy, where Muslim celebrities can be feted on the red carpet one minute and locked out of quality housing the next.
The phenomenon has become known here as “renting while Muslim.” It raises questions that go to the heart of India’s identity as a secular democracy that is home to nearly every major religion on the planet. Although India has a Hindu majority, it also has 150 million Muslims, one of the largest Muslim communities in the world.
“The new generation wants a better India that isn’t bogged down in religious strife,” said Junaid Memon, 34, a Muslim Bollywood director who is trying to promote religious harmony through his films and his Facebook site. “We shouldn’t be an India that ghettoizes all Muslims to apartments near a mosque. This is a real test for modern India.”
With national elections across India that began Thursday and last a month, some Muslim activists and Bollywood film directors are raising the issue with political parties and trying to form a voting bloc.
“This election, we have to talk about housing discrimination against Muslims,” said Zulfi Sayed, a Muslim actor who is outspoken about the issue and is courting Hindus who agree with him. “In a shining India, this shouldn’t be still such a common practice.”
Muslims have long served as an important swing vote in India, since Hindus are increasingly divided among nearly 200 regional parties. Historically, India’s Congress party won elections with the help of the Muslim vote by running on a platform of promoting religious diversity. The opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has, at times, used anti-Muslim sentiment to court votes while pledging to keep Hindu heritage alive.
India blames the Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Lashkar-i-Taiba for the November attack in which 10 gunmen left more than 170 people dead, including 40 Indian Muslims.
Many Muslims here feared the attacks would unleash cycles of revenge killing of the sort that have recurred throughout India’s modern history, from the violence of partition between India and Pakistan in 1947 to the 1992 riots in Mumbai. In the days after November’s Mumbai attacks, Muslims from all corners of society united, holding candlelight vigils with a message to protest terrorism and pledge loyalty to India. In the end, there was no communal violence.
But across the country, reports of housing discrimination have increased.
Afroz Alam Sahil, 21, a student activist at Jamia Millia Islamia College in New Delhi, said that more than a dozen students from states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — which have large Muslim populations — have been unable to find housing since the Mumbai attacks.
“Some Muslim friends have dropped out of college because they have nowhere to stay,” Sahil said. “There is intense suspicion. Sometimes I ask myself why I was born Muslim.”
Rana Afroz, a Muslim editor with the newspaper the Hindu, is investigating the issue after spending three months unable to find a landlord willing to rent to her and her husband.
“It is ridiculous that I have to prove to non-Muslims that I am not making bombs in my kitchen,” she said. “Is this really the modern India I live in?”
In India, Muslims are often segregated, and they experience high poverty rates and low literacy. Although they make up nearly 14 percent of India’s population, they hold fewer than 5 percent of government posts and are just 4 percent of the student body in India’s elite universities, according to a 2006 government report.
But there are few issues more emotional than housing, especially in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, India’s pulsating city of dreams where aspiring farmers and filmmakers come from across the country to seek fame and fortune.
“The ethos of Bombay is a city open to the world. The Muslims of this city feel that way, too. But the real question is why do we as Indian Muslims always have to be proving our loyalty?” asked Nawman Malik, a popular Bollywood producer who spent months searching for an apartment.
Mumbai has always had tensions over what are known here as “vegetarian buildings,” where meat eaters are not allowed to live and are thus seen as devices to keep out Muslims and lower-caste Hindus. Those kinds of buildings have become more common in middle-class and posh neighborhoods as more merchants and industrialists from the neighboring state of Gujarat, where vegetarian Hinduism is the norm, migrate to India’s richest city.
Managers of vegetarian buildings say they don’t want the smell of meat in their hallways. But they often also explain their rules by saying they are worried about security and want like-minded residents to live together.
“Say you check one renter and they seem okay. But then they go to mosque and bring back their bearded friends and those friends are terrorists,” said Raj Pathak, a vegetarian-building manager in downtown Mumbai. “Why do we have to live with such fears?”
Muslims, who have seen housing discrimination and the number of vegetarian buildings spike after every terrorist attack, see the issue as blatant discrimination.
“Everyone knows the vegetarian-only restriction is code language for ‘No Muslims,’ ” said Naved Khan, a Muslim real estate broker who is trying to help Bollywood’s Muslims find housing.
On a recent afternoon, Aslam, the producer, hung out at a cafe, as she sometimes does so she doesn’t get on the nerves of those she is staying with. She wore jeans and a hooded sweat shirt.
Until January, she was living with a Hindu roommate. Then their lease ended. Her roommate was getting married.
“So I thought I would get my own place as a successful adult,” said Aslam, who had come to Mumbai from Kolkata with dreams of landing a Bollywood job. “My mom was really proud of me. Now she’s really upset.”
A broker recently showed her a house in a working-class neighborhood. “It looked haunted. But I was denied even that,” she said.
Another broker gave her advice: “Madam, live with a Hindu roommate. Only then will you get a flat.”
By Emily Wax, Washington Post Foreign Service, Sunday, April 19, 2009
Special correspondent Ria Sen in New Delhi contributed to this report.