The peace committee
members put up “This is a Disturbed Area’’ notice boards three years ago in the
bustling residential-cum-commercial walled city area of Raikhad in Ahmedabad.
Sandwiched between the Jay Shankar Sundari Hall, the city’s oldest auditorium for cultural events and the Gaekwad police station—which once headquartered the police crime branch—at the other end, in this “disturbed area” there’s no hyped police presence or army patrols.
For the casual onlooker it is an everyday scene: busy housewives, school-going children, burqas and sarees, skull caps and tilaks in shops, street vendors and homes immersed in their personal lives and vocations with no obvious acrimony amidst them. It’s the boards that seem to be out of place.
But for the likes of Natu Jadav, who put them up, they ensure a restful night’s sleep. The only ones to take serious note are real estate brokers and wannabe property buyers.
The last spurt of violence reported in Raikhad was in 2002, but that was true for other nearby walled city areas of Ahmedabad, and beyond it to many parts of central Gujarat. The notice boards stand witness to the Gujarati understanding of “disturbed area” and the Disturbed Areas Act.
The Act owes its existence to a social schism which, while not limited to Gujarat, is entrenched here in a manner no other place in India knows. It is a social divide that routinely flares into communal riots. Other places too have riots but it was only in Gujarat that they continued for weeks and months on end in the mid-Eighties in Ahmedabad and Vadodara cities.
Gujarat is the lone state where Disturbed Area and the Disturbed Areas Act has a context and meaning unlike any other. What makes it unique is that the Act, unlike elsewhere else in India, is not enforced by the home department but the revenue department.
The Act owes its existence to a social schism which, while not limited to Gujarat, is entrenched here in a manner no other place in India knows. It is a social divide that routinely flares into communal riots. Other places too have riots but it was only in Gujarat that they continued for weeks and months on end in the mid-Eighties in Ahmedabad and Vadodara cities. This was why the Act came into being.
As in Raikhad and most parts of Ahmedabad’s disturbed areas, there are no signs of immediate violence or unrest. But while there has been no palpable violence in the last decade, mistrust has become a way of life in Gujarat. The Disturbed Areas Act comes into the picture for those who would continue with their misplaced fears rather than remove mistrust in the times of tenuous peace.
Exodus and distress sale of property is common in conflict-prone areas anywhere, and the same has been experienced in Gujarat as well. But the prolonged period of political instability, and social unrest during which land speculation became rampant during the Eighties in Gujarat, has given the law a unique context. Real estate transactions are central to the Disturbed Areas Act
For this reason Jadav could take recourse to the Act when Mehboob Khan and his family moved to Gandhi Chowk from the nearby Jamalpur area in Raikhad. Khan had begun to stay in a part of Jadav’s neighbour, Jyotish Bhagat’s ancestral property. That did not go down well with Jadav and others around who are sore that Jyotish sold off his property to Mehboob, a Muslim. Mehbood and Jyotish deny the sale and say the property has been taken on rent.
There is no official proof of the alleged sale, for it is the Disturbed Areas Act that prohibits property transactions between Bhagat and Khan unless they have the prior approval of the district collector.
And this is what worries Kanu Sumra, Natu’s friend who lives in Gandhi Chowk, a lower middle-class Dalit Hindu dominated area.
“Most of us (Dalit
Hindus) migrated from Mehsana after the ‘chhapaniyo dukaal’ (drought of 1956).
We have no money to buy a home elsewhere.” Working mostly as casual and daily
wage labourers, barely managing a income of `2,000 per month, Sumra now fears
that if Muslims tempt or coerce them into selling their property—usually at low
rates, it would mean a home in one of the hutments in Ahmedabad’s urban sprawl.
The Gujarat Prohibition of Transfer of Immovable Property and Provisions for
Protection of Tenants from Eviction from Premises in Disturbed Areas Act, 1991
was first introduced in the mid-Eighties as an ordinance by the Congress
government of Madhavsinh Solanki. In theory, it was meant to be enforced for a
limited period only in areas that could have experienced communal violence. In
practice, the “disturbed area” tag remains attached seemingly forever.
Successive governments, be it the Congress, the BJP or the coalition
governments of varying ideological dispensations in Gujarat have continued with
the Act till date.
Exodus and distress sale of property is common in conflict-prone areas anywhere, and the same has been experienced in Gujarat as well. But the prolonged period of political instability, and social unrest during which land speculation became rampant during the Eighties in Gujarat, has given the law a unique context.
The Eighties were a period of extraordinary unrest in Gujarat. Its roots lie in the student’s agitation, the Navnirman movement of 1974. The Eighties saw the anti-reservation stir morphing into anti-Dalit riots, and political instability. These were also the times when Gujarat’s long coastline witnessed rampant smuggling, the rise of the underworld abetted by Prohibition (another Gujarati peculiarity which bans sale and consumption of liquor which has led to rise of a parallel economy run by offenders, those who sell and consume as well) and, to a large extent, politicisation of the police force.
Most of these social tensions began to culminate typically in Hindu-Muslim riots stretching on for weeks together in Ahmedabad and Vadodara cities.
According to professor Sujata Patel, there were a host of factors which introduced the property dimension to the strained communal ties during the Eighties.
“The Muslims were becoming cash rich due to Gulf money and began to refurbish properties in the walled city as they could not move out the way Hindus could. Also, the underworld in Ahmedabad, involved in smuggling and cases of Prohibition violation were largely Muslim faces, that only heightened social tensions,” says Patel.
The local Gujarati dailies extensively reported instances of distress sale, but favoured the versions of the Patidars or the Patel community, who were politically affiliated to BJP and Hindu groups. But it was the formal representation by the Muslims to the chief minister of the day, Madhavsinh Solanki which led to the introduction of the Ordinance.
“Acceding to the demands of the Congress Muslim leaders, led by the late S S Qureshi, a senior advocate and community leaders, Solanki introduced the Ordinance,” remembers Iqbal Shaikh, an advocate and Gujarat Congress general secretary attests, remembers Shaikh.
Patel, who authored the fact-finding report on the 1985-86 riots in Ahmedabad explains how the Muslims of Ahmedabad sought such a legal protection during those times of social unrest. “During the early Eighties, before the riots Hindu families from the walled city area had started moving out to newer colonies and apartments. Muslims in these walled city neighbourhoods were in a position to buy these properties due to Gulf remittances, and quite often were also neighbours. This changed after the 1985-86 riots.”
According to her, after the riots, the Muslims too began to move out of the walled city neighbourhoods due to insecurity. “The consolidation of the right- wing Hindu groups became evident, who were dictating the norms for the property transactions. Migrant Hindus were moving in these areas and buying properties from the Muslims who were moving out from the smaller pockets.’’
The law prohibits a Muslim from selling, leasing or transferring his property to a Hindu, or a Hindu to a Muslim in a disturbed area unless a go ahead is received from the district collector. The list of disturbed areas is notified by the state government, based on inputs provided by the home department. The list is drawn on the basis of police reports related to what is locally referred to as “HM cases”.
Any clash, dispute, violence involving a Muslim and Hindu is in the local as well as police parlance referred to as a “HM case”. Based on the frequency of these clashes, the intensity of the violence, eventual loss of property and life in the HM cases, the police deem the area sensitive or disturbed.
The revenue department comes into play when any property transaction is to take place between members of two different communities, to ensure that no distress sale is taking place.
Distress sale is common in riot/violence-prone areas, where residents sell their properties at a price lower than the market price, sometimes under duress, sometimes due to dire conditions.
Such sale of property, residential or otherwise, has been common in Gujarat in mixed neighbourhoods, meaning those neighbourhoods where both Hindus and Muslims lived together. To ensure security for themselves, the seller would move to a neighbourhood dominated by the community to which he belonged.
The transaction is allowed only after permission from the district collector’s office. A senior level official in the revenue department is deputed to assess the transaction and ensure a fair deal for both the buyer and seller, according to which permission is granted.
In 2009, the Gujarat government amended the Act, giving sweeping powers to the district collector to ensure what it termed was the effective implementation of the Act.
Before the amendment, the Act was in force in parts of Ahmedabad and Vadodara city. But that changed after the amendment as more neighbourhoods in both cities, as well as Surat and the Muslim dominated neighbourhoods affected by the 2002 violence also came in its ambit later.
The district collector now has been empowered to hold inquiry suo mutu or based on an application by anyone if the provisions of the act are felt to be violated in any manner.
It also empowers the district collector to seize any property temporarily and restrain the transfer as well as alterations in the property if he construes it as a violation of the Act.
The penalty clause was introduced for the first time while making the violation of any of its provisions a cognisable offence.
While it is easy to relate to communal violence as a law and order situation, especially the policing, Gujarati business ethos too comes into play during these situations. Real estate transactions are central to the Disturbed Areas Act. Academics, activists, politicians alike admit that the Act was originally intended to avoid ghettoisation and distress sale of property, a natural outcome of the communal riots in the mixed neighbourhoods of the Ahmedabad and Vadodara.
It is these neighbourhoods, which gradually built a dominant Muslim population that came to be identified officially as the Disturbed Areas in the pre- and post-2002 riotous years.
“The law originally meant well and was to prevent distress sale and ensure a fair deal for buyers and sellers. But it ended up ensuring the reverse. The process of ghettoisation is now complete, corruption and underhand dealings are rampant in property transactions between Hindus and Muslims,” said Gujarat’s veteran legal activist Girish Patel.
It was Patel who challenged the repeated extension of the law in the mid-Nineties in the Gujarat High Court arguing that it was discriminatory and unconstitutional. “Ironically we lost the case, because communal riots broke out while the case was being heard. Our plea was dismissed,” he says wryly.
“It’s not that riots have happened in Gujarat only, but in Gujarat they are unique as they have historically continued for weeks and months, which is not the case elsewhere in the country.’’
And that altered the landscape in ways more than one in the riot-prone areas of Ahmedabad and Vadodara, and gradually in other parts of the state.
Not far from Gandhi Chowk in Raikhad, near Siddharth Chowk lives TV makeup
artist Gaurav Purani in his ancestral property. Since a year he has a new
neighbour, a Muslim couple he doesn’t know too much about.
“Geetaben, who used to live here for ages, moved out after selling it to this Muslim family in new Ahmedabad. None of us know the actual sale details, but this couple who hail from a nearby Muslim area only come to sleep in night, so there’s no issue.’’
After the 2002 riots, following a fresh assessment of the Disturbed Areas, the list of these areas has become longer, including now some neighbourhoods outside Ahmedabad and Vadodara. In reality, officials, builders and activists admit that the Act has made it more difficult as well as more expensive for Muslims to buy property than Hindus
Purani is not too comfortable with his new neighbour, but will not shift , as his father does not wish it. “Most Hindu families have moved out and for those like us who stayed back, it’s either because of our parents or of the steep real estate prices in the new Ahmedabad,” said Purani.
The law soon became a self-defeating exercise as people began to find ways to circumvent it. While officially there were no property transactions as between Bhagat and Khan in Raikhad, in practice the definitions for sale of property, renting out and invoking power of attorney assumed different connotations altogether, as opposed to the legal understanding. These pushed up property prices further, more so in the “border areas”.
The border areas, yet another Gujarati euphemism, are understood as the intermediate neighbourhoods in between the ghettos, where the feasibility of mixed neighbourhoods is higher.
Though the Act has been in place since 1991, the near-complete ghetthoisation in the past two decades is a barometer of how the law failed.
“The law was circumvented by avoiding the mandatory paper work. It happened in three ways, first through underhand dealings getting the tacit approval of officials after bribing them to look the other way. Secondly, the property would be officially rented out drawing up an agreement on stamp paper, or the power of attorney would be invoked,’’ said Jamil Patel, a Vadodara based lawyer.
Krishnakant Vakharia, a senior lawyer, a veteran expert on constitutional matters in Gujarat attests, “It only led to more underhand dealings, its unconstitutionality was challenged, but nothing came of it.’’
The Lal Bahadur
Shastri stadium road splits the once mixed neighbourhood of Bapunagar to areas
which locals referred as Bharat and Pakistan during the Eighties. The Patels,
who migrated from Saurashtra, set up diamond polishing units and became cash
rich. Active in the anti-reservation stir, they supported the BJP against
Congress CM Madhavsinh Solanki’s move to increase the reserved quota. The
resulting violence ensured Patel and Dalit domination as Muslims moved out of
many areas of Bapunagar. The Morarji Chowk area is now the Muslim bit, while across
the road Indiranagar is the Hindu bit. The temporary tents of the State Reserve
Police have remained rooted ever since on both sides. It is in a similar way
that the Kalupur area of Ahmedabad gradually became dominated by the Muslims,
attest walled city residents.
The burden of these
distress sales continues to haunt the families who lived in mixed
neighbourhoods in Ahmedabad and Vadodara, as it made it difficult for them to
own property later.
Liaquat Saifi experienced the fallout of the 2002 riots in Vadodara. “I had to sell my bungalow at half the prevalent price, after my home was attacked in the Sama area. I could buy a home, and that too a smaller one, only after eight years.” said Saifi, who moved from the Hindu-dominated up market Sama to Muslim-dominated Tandalja after the 2002 riots.
The national mainstream understanding of Disturbed areas and Disturbed Area Act, is coterminous with insurgency and violence in the North Eastern states or Jammu and Kashmir or Naxalite violence prone states. In these states, unlike in Gujarat, the Act gives the police sweeping powers to make arrests to tackle insurgency and violence by armed outfits. In Gujarat neither is the case.
Though a border state, sharing both land and sea borders with Pakistan, Gujarat has a long history of communal conflict, but it has never experienced insurgency or self-determination uprisings as in other parts of the country. The Gujarat Prohibition of Transfer of Immovable Property and Provisions for Protection of Tenants from Eviction from Premises in Disturbed Areas Act, 1991 is meant to prevent ghettoisation and distress selling of property to ensure fair deal to the buyers and sellers. An objective it has failed to achieve.
In the upmarket neighbourhood of Paldi in Ahmedabad, the sale of 29 flats owned by Hindus to a Muslim builder could be effected in April this year only after a Gujarat High Court ruling. The state government as well as a local neighbourhood committee had opposed the sale of Hindu-owned properties to a Muslim arguing it was located in a Disturbed Area and should not be sold to a Muslim, but only to a Hindu.
Shifting in the ghettos, especially for the Muslims does little good other than ensuring a sense of security. With most Muslim-dominated areas either in walled city areas or the suburbs, they have fallen off largely from the development agenda of the local bodies as well as the state government.
Juhapura, perhaps the largest Muslim ghetto in Gujarat as well as smaller pockets in walled cities of Ahmedabad and Vadodara have residents routinely complaining about missing civic amenities. “The population swelled after the 2002 riots, poor and rich, businessmen and professionals all came to stay here. Retired police officials and judges now reside here,” points out young Tausif Saiyed, whose grandmother was once a peace committee member when they resided in the walled neighbourhood of Kalupur in Ahmedabad.
In the last two decades, according to an estimate by J V Momin, a senior Congress leader, residing in Raikhad as well a builder himself, “maybe 30,000 odd illegal property transactions took place in these Disturbed Areas’.
In Ahmedabad, 274 neighbourhoods in 26 of the 35 police stations are officially Disturbed Areas. The entire neighbourhood that falls under the jurisdiction of Shahpur has been declared a Disturbed Area.
The demand-supply ration is skewed for the Muslims. They cannot buy or lease out property in Hindu areas, the builder denies it or society members deny later. This increases property prices for the Muslim buyer.
“It is very visible. What were once mixed neighbourhoods have turned into Muslim or Hindu areas now. The sales have continued, though illegally, but the owners have no legal papers while they continue to be in possession,” said Momin. Yet another argument against the law is the loss of revenue in the form of stamp duty as these transactions are not registered.
Most transactions turned out to be underhand dealings in cash, as no official payments could be done. After the 2002 riots, following a fresh assessment of the Disturbed Areas, the list of these areas has become longer, including now some neighbourhoods outside Ahmedabad and Vadodara.
In reality, officials, builders and activists admit that the Act has made it more difficult as well as more expensive for Muslims to buy property than Hindus.
ration is skewed for the Muslims. They cannot buy or lease out property in
Hindu areas, the builder denies it or society members deny later. This
increases property prices for the Muslim buyer,” explains Imtiaz Pathan, a
Vadodara based builder who works in what he terms as “Hindu and Muslim
Pathan had to do the rounds of the revenue department to obtain clearances in Vadodara after he purchased a bungalow owned by a Hindu in Vadodara’s mixed neighbourhood of Syed Vasana Road, which was deemed a Disturbed Area, for one of his Muslim projects. “Everyone knows there was no violence here, except that it witnessed an influx of Muslims post-2002. I had firmed the sale before the latest notification was announced and was ready with my plans to build an apartment,” said Pathan.
Pathan was luckier than SM builders of Ahmedabad who had begun to purchase flats since 2006 in an apartment block from Hindus in the Paldi area, which again is an upmarket mixed neighbourhood. A petition by the right-wing neighbourhood committee opposed the sale, which was supported by the local revenue officials who interpreted the provisions of the Act to prevent the sale. It was only when the Muslim builder owned group took the matter to the Gujarat High Court arguing on the merits of the Disturbed Areas as defined for that neighbourhood, that the sale could be carried out.
“Usually there is no opposition by Muslims to Hindus buying or leasing out properties in their proximity, it is the Hindus who don’t want them around. Also, now ghettoisation is complete. The law in fact has no relevance at all’’ observed Girish Patel. While Patel’s left-liberal ideological moorings find few takers in the state, his argument is backed by several instances.
Though Gujarat has
witnessed no major riots after 2002 barring a few exceptions, the Gujarat
government invoked the Act in the Kapadvanj area of Kheda district in June this
year for a period of five years. According to news reports, the Kheda police
superintendent supported it arguing there were instances of sporadic communal
clashes in the region post 2002.
There are instances when Hindu outfits or BJP local leaders campaign for invoking the law to prevent the sale of property to Muslims. In July, the local Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Bhavnagar publicly campaigned, did sit-ins after a Muslim purchased property in Hindu-dominated Gita Chowk. While the sale was completed, and the Hindu owner had refused to back out, VHP mounted public pressure to ensure that the Muslim would not occupy the property and sell it back to a Hindu.
The VHP wanted to invoke the Disturbed Areas act in Bhavnagar to prevent such sale of properties to Muslims.
What now everyone understands and accepts in Gujarat is that a Disturbed Area is one with an overwhelming presence of Muslims, and that there is a law that prevents any property transaction between Hindus and Muslims in areas where they could have lived together. And this, governments of all hues and ideological bents have argued, is to ensure a fair deal for the buyer and seller and thus maintain social order.
While the law failed to serve the purpose it was originally meant for, it serves as a great irony for the state which a decade after unprecedented communal riots, goes into election mode on the plank of Sadbhavana in 2012.
It was a Congress chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki who introduced the ordinance. Chimanbhai Patel, who led a coalition government with indeterminate ideology firmed it as an act in 1991.
Shifting from his Hindutva plank a decade after to Sadbhavna, it is chief minister Narendra Modi who introduced stringent amendments that practically ensures that Hindus and Muslims no longer become neighbours.