Ahmedabad - A City Of Deliberate Ghettoization


29th January, 2021

Written by Muskaan Palod

Artwork by Suryansh Srivastava

What has ended up happening is we have built an environment to fulfil the demands only of a particular emerging social class (the rich of course). And who have we ignored? The poor and powerless.

This city used to be one where meat was served alongside Jain food. That, to me, speaks volumes of how it may have the power of making the stakeholders of the existing Hindutva agenda insecure.

With the Gujarat Model going national, there seems to be a pattern in trying to identify an enemy. In this search, the identity of the said enemy is evidently rooted in one thing -- religion. 


The Godhra riots remain very much alive in public memory, almost as if imprinted on the city’s biomarkers. Justice undelivered and the agony fresh, what invisibilizes the communal tension?


Ahmedabad is a city characteristic of its segregation. Growing up here, I have seen the city walled and divided into segments. The ‘pols’ (housing clusters defined by religious or caste affiliation) in Eastern Ahmedabad are visibly different in their planning compared to the Western parts of Ahmedabad.  The 2002 Godhra riots had first forced Muslims to reside in ghettos in the ‘old city’ where the pols are. These “pols” have been the reason for Ahmedabad to bag its title of becoming “World Heritage City”. Yet, when it comes to the institutionalised support, these areas receive next to no funding, forcing the Muslim community to stay in the “downmarket”. While different classes are contesting for space and production in such spaces, such conflicts don’t just remain economical but transcend into communal lines. The majority groups assert hegemony through their cultural practices but this does not exist simplistically - it seeps into policy decisions.


How often is it that a state actively advocates for a pro-ghettoization policy;  a policy that would literally separate Hindus from Muslims?


Welcome to Ahmedabad -- where an act made it illegal to move property between Hindus and Muslims. The Disturbed Areas Act of 1986 was meant to be temporary in order to prevent the distress sale of properties following the riots in 1985-86 and to ensure the safety of the Muslim community, different cities across Gujarat. It took over 3 decades for lawyers in the city of Ahmedabad to move the court debating the act. As of 2020, it was ruled that the Collector would have more powers to ascertain if there is a likelihood of “polarisation” or “improper clustering” of persons belonging to a particular community. This got the President’s assent and hence deemed immovable. The State’s intervention and supervisory power were understood as a power that must be maintained for “welfare”. According to the legal stipulations, while the clustering of persons with one common identity (religion explicitly stated as an identifier of the community) is considered proper, other forms of communities are treated as ‘improper’


What scientific inquiry is placed to define “proper clustering” in a city known for its segregative practices? It is arbitrary and over the past 30 years, the common public has accepted the sketchy law as a matter of fact rather than contesting it with the said Governor in any spirit. This is deeply seated in the Indian far-right’s narrative of the Muslim community mobilising to “take over” the nation and “convert” it from its Hindu nature. Isn’t secularism allowed in a performative sense at the least? We live in a republic where religious harmony isn’t allowed by the State. It isn’t even permitted to exist in the same physical space, tangibly as a law. 


Currently, it is being argued that this law advocates that the people can live peacefully only if they have something in common such as norms, religions, values or identity. Having grown up in this city, the geopolitics seemed normal, till it did not. How did I grow up in a space where Hindus and Muslims not being allowed to live together was the norm, that the societal consciousness simply cannot think of an alternative?


When I first heard about this Act, I was taken aback. How did we reach this compromised pluralistic within the legal discourse? Why is it so important for the State to maintain homogeneity of a religious cluster? As a child, I have often been to the pols, to buy Navratri apparel. I assume I was never allowed to visit the “old city” without being accompanied by my parents for I may see beyond their bigotry. I assume I am not allowed agency in this particular section of the city for what if I learn Muslim does not equal bad? What is scarier about this established boundary is that it is not exclusive to my household, it is the law that backs the bigotry. Ahmedabad, a city where a bigoted population can find solace in a compromised legal system. 


The communal nature seems to be a trend, even outside the walled houses, extending to the streets. 

Gujarat was brought under the scanner when it was reported to have the lowest compliance to the Street Vendors Act (2014) i.e. Gujarat had too many street hawkers left without rehabilitation. This came to light in 2018 when Ahmedabad had started a traffic decluttering drive (done solely to achieve an urban aesthetic). Over 5000 hawkers were displaced, most from the cohort of Law Garden, and their woes ignored. The move received extensive backlash, and to save face, the State invested crores of money in constructing a space by the name, “Happy Streets Ahmedabad”. Designed by the city's premier educational brand, National Institute of Design, it is a constructed street that effectively displaced a two-decade-long business haul by local vendors and dedicated a new urban space to their original idea. This newly constructed area has food outlets, paid parking facility, exclusive space for people to walk and cycle. You get into your car and drive to a venue to access a street-like experience -- peak capitalism. This brought together the “Happy Streets” and the food trucks going around the city in one designated spot. 


What’s the catch you ask? 


Law Garden was a public garden, it was characterised by three things: its street-food vendors, a renowned cultural and handicrafts market and Chitti Bang (one of the city’s first kids’ arcade). This is much like the amenities in any mall but yet very different considering factors of accessibility. Everyone from this cohort of vendors was promised a space in the new Happy Streets Ahmedabad. Out of the many registered and unregistered vendors in the original Law Garden area, only four old players got the spot in the new urbanised street zone. This is because the vendorship was auctioned for those who secured the highest bid of per-month rent and they got the selling space. 


Here, the subaltern, i.e. largely the vendors from the Muslim community, could not contest what they owned as culture material. In clear sight, power was transferred to be owned, sold and reproduced by a certain class -- rich Hindu-Jain(s) of the society. 


An age-old livelihood was destroyed to create this one. 


The traffic they wanted to “declutter”, it’s still congesting the roads. One can argue that we really needed to declutter roads jammed with traffic, whether it starts from Law Garden or any other space is of lesser importance. I, for one, don’t see any reduction in traffic in that area. It stands as nucleated as it did two years ago. The reason is that there are multiple registered restaurants also in that area that have not been subjected to the same scrutiny as street-food vendors. Another reason is that this space has a lot of old residential buildings which don’t have designated parking. A lot of cars are parked outside their residential limits, on the streets. What has ended up happening is we have built an environment to fulfil the demands only of a particular emerging social class (the rich of course). And who have we ignored? The poor and powerless. There had to be a comprehensive future plan which could have been replicated in the future as well, one which would have allowed city-wide traffic regulatory practises.

Who owns these streets - is it not owned by people who build it and consume it, or is it owned by the State? 

“Streets are not a place of peace, but war”. There is camaraderie, there is contestation, there is a constantly flowing demonstration. Streets bring people together and also give them an identity to associate with. A street’s identity is a place of conspicuous consumption. Identities are shaped and continue shaping its people and cities at large. Who owns these streets - is it not owned by people who build it and consume it, or is it owned by the State? 


Only vendors, and to an extent, academicians talk about the right to cities and to have spaces without having this overhand of regulation on non-issues. Who is the traffic inconvenient to, who is causing it -- public or private transport riders? Who thinks of street-food as unsanitary? 


Since Ahmedabad has been a city to uphold choices of Brahmanical purity there has always occurred a constant otherisation of non-vegetarian eaters and Muslim community at large. But the Law Garden area became a site of everyday resistance to that propaganda -- even if the Muslim vendors there did not consciously protest. Just occupying a space in public was enough resistance. 


Street food consumption is primarily a nighttime activity. When streets are an avenue of communication, it becomes quintessential for the development of ‘culture’. Is political interference then not an infringement on our constitutional right to cultural identity? It becomes political when there is regulation, it becomes when the State behaves as though such a space can be treated as a commodity up for grabs. 


Here the planners’ unconscious deliberations are bound to come into play. The street clearance and housing policies may be working, after all, they are providing ‘affordance’ to somebody, but who is the other somebody, the one we’re forgetting? Without examining this, under the pretext of providing a certain aesthetic to the city, all policies hold value. However, sometimes affordances lie to us; because the State likes to ignore the cost of affordance. 

City spaces form and shape, include (or exclude) debate and discussion. These are spaces of shared respect and belongingness even if there is a conflicting history. There is an abstraction of community model and public consciousness in its only tangible form. What is often lost in public and private dichotomy, is recovered in the streets. To me, having lived in this very space, it was important to realise that these are not just imagined boundaries. There is a constant iteration of religious communal extremities, and any breach is met with serious ramifications. Rioting in architecture and structure tells me there is rioting in thoughts and social processes. Streets are the coming together of both activities, littering and loitering, politics and ideology, they are self-emancipatory, shared expression of living, shopping, frustration and love, conflict and celebration. The true ornamentation of the city and its experience is in its architecture. There is literally a river, Sabarmati River, dividing the two communities, 

It may also somehow seem far-fetched to link the city’s geographical anatomy linked to communal politics. However second to the Law Garden area is the Manekchowk eatery space. It is part of the “old city” and is almost never given research or funds to urbanise, it is, however, the only space to hold “heritage”. Selective urbanisation is political and more so because the history of this space holds violence. The Law Garden area also happens to be the space where multiple college students, mainly young adults would come. The minimal abstraction would allow you to think of the power young people hold in dismantling power structures. 


There are various spots in the city where the under-served encroach grey spaces, for occupation and residence - mostly lower caste Hindus and practising Muslim folks. This city used to be one where meat was served alongside Jain food. That, to me, speaks volumes of how it may have the power of making the stakeholders of the existing Hindutva agenda insecure.

It seems like the intention of making accessibility possible in a socialist-capitalist (seemingly more capitalist by the day) set-up is considered noble, the public is open to trade as they seem fit. However, it is then left vague who the State and transnational parties consider part of ‘public’. All in all, accessibility and equity are constantly negotiated and questioned. It goes opposite capitalistic realities because what one is essentially doing is moving away from practising the act of alienation. You are forming collective identification when you are in the city in said public and housing spaces. It is a revolt. It is an everyday act of resistance and demonstration even if there is no ‘protest’ as we understand. It is against the backdrop of politicising the othering of some communities. It is a subversive way to claim power, however performative it may be. Can we not expect cities to be egalitarian or if they exist in capitalistic right-leaning models, do we necessarily have to settle for it to be exploitative to the minority communities?