The law, the land, and the parting of a people 

A Muslim woman in Gujarat’s Vadodara is not being allowed by the Hindu majority to occupy an apartment allotted to her by the State government. Maitri Porecha visits different parts of the city to uncover its communal complexities and spatial segregation

Updated - June 21, 2024 06:52 am IST

Published - June 21, 2024 12:30 am IST

Motnath Residency in Vadodara Gujarat, where residents are disallowing a neighbour to occupy her house.

Motnath Residency in Vadodara Gujarat, where residents are disallowing a neighbour to occupy her house. | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

In spite of temperatures that have hovered around 40 degrees Celsius across India’s north and west, Muslims in Vadodara, celebrated Bakr-Eid on June 17 with their usual enthusiasm: they dressed up in new clothes, sacrificed the goat, went to prayers, stepped out to eat Gujarati snacks at roadside stalls. One of Gujarat’s major cities, it is an academic centre that operates at a slow, calm pace.

The family of 43-year-old Tabassum (name changed to protect identity) though, was not in the same mind space. She had been allotted a flat under the affordable housing scheme of the Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC), in the predominantly Hindu neighbourhood of Harni, barely 4 kilometres from her family home. 

The exciting prospect of moving into a new home with her college-going son quickly turned sour as the majority of the 461 residents of the housing complex, Motnath Residency, sent applications to the Collector’s office, Vadodara police, and VMC demanding that her allotment be cancelled. They came out in protest and refused to let her park her scooter outside the society gate, with the security guard forcing her to sign the visitors’ register.

Since 2020, Harni has fallen under the Gujarat Prohibition of Transfer of Immovable Property and Provision for Protection of Tenants from Eviction from Premises in Disturbed Areas Act, 1991. The Act that does not speak of any particular religion, states that all transfers of immovable property in disturbed areas must be done with the sanction of the Collector, who will hold “a formal enquiry” into whether the transfer is mutually agreeable and has a “fair value”.

Subsequently, all property-related transactions between Hindus and Muslims began to be subjected to police verification. Opinions of neighbours are sought to understand if they have any objection to the sale or purchase. The latter two clauses were not a part of the original act.

“In 2023, we received 946 fresh applications seeking permission for Hindu-Muslim property deals. In the same year, a backlog of 488 cases was closed at the Collector level,” A.K. Sambad, deputy collector (Vadodara City), says. He says most of these inter-religious land transfers don’t go through either because neighbours object or the police cites the danger of compromised law and order. Since January 2024, up to 259 such applications have been received, and all of them are pending approval, as they are stuck at the police verification stage.

In Gujarat, a State that has still not recovered from communal riots, first in 1982 in Ahmedabad, then in 2002 in Godhra, and in 2006 in Vadodara, the real estate law, meant to protect a minority community against distress sale of property, is being used to ‘prove’ that its majority is under threat. 

The dargah demolition site at Champaner Darwaza, where abandoned police vans have still not been cleared.

The dargah demolition site at Champaner Darwaza, where abandoned police vans have still not been cleared. | Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

Tabassum, a single mother, is a senior central government employee and a gold medallist in Electronics Engineering from the renowned Maharaja Sayajirao University. In 2018, she was overjoyed when her name was picked in the housing lottery scheme under the CM Awas Yojana that provides for affordable housing. “Since our story has caught national attention, my relative does not want to speak to anyone, especially the media. We are scared,” says a relative of Tabassum. She says she still wants to live there, in spite of everything. “Just as sugar dissolves in milk, she hopes to integrate into the community.”

Outside the low-income-group (commonly known as LIG) housing gate are larger-than-life portraits of the Hindu gods Ram, Sita, and Hanuman. Saffron flags bearing ‘Jai Shri Ram,’ flutter outside matchbox size apartment windows. 

Your shop or mine

Vasna road that cuts across the breadth of Vadodara, is an invisible line, dividing the predominant Muslim quarters of Tandalja from the Hindu colonies that lie on the other side. In Tandalja, also under the Act, a conflict is brewing between neighbouring shop owners: a branch of Shree Kheteshwar Sweets and Farshan run by Suresh, 30, the nephew of a local BJP politician Mahavir Rajpurohit and proprietor of Amin Opticians, Mohammed, 43.

Mohammed says he purchased the shop from former BJP local corporator Dakshaben in 2019 for a little over ₹70 lakh. Four years later, he has still not received the sale deed copy from the Registrar’s office, because the government office is demanding that he produce no objection certificates from the police, and the district administration. Suresh has raised an objection under the Disturbed Areas Act, and wants Mohammed to shift his shop.

“Back in 2002, the Hindu mob which had turned violent charged on to our Muslim neighbour’s toyshop to burn it down. We pleaded with the mob to stop because if the Muslim’s shop had been burnt, so would ours,” Suresh says. He doesn’t want to live in fear of losing a business he has built up if communal tension surges again.

Mohammed, who sits solitarily at his brightly lit shop, is distraught. He pays the electricity bill every month, though it arrives in the name of Dakshaben, the former owner. He blames the law for ruining agreeable Hindu-Muslim real-estate business deals. “What is frustrating is that there is no timely solution in sight. My property file keeps moving up and down between the police and the district administration, and I am running to both offices to get documents that are rightfully mine,” he says. 

Navigating broad roads, then narrow lanes, about seven and a half kilometres away from Tandalja, lies the stone pre-Mughal-era Champaner gate, which serves as one of the four entry gates into the walled city of old Vadodara. The 15th century gate bears witness to riots that broke out in 2006, after a nearly 200-year-old dargah of a wali (or saint), who followers believe came from Arabistan, now a province in Iran, was razed during the 2006 violence.

Now, two rusty broken-down police vans from the time of the riots, block the main road and occupy the space in front. There is a gate separating the space between the dargah, located in the Hindu part of the city, and areas of Fatehpura and Yakutpura, dominated by Muslims. 

Mohammed Salim, 60, whose father was the caretaker of the dargah, points at the fresh rose petals that have fluttered away underneath the police vans that believers have offered. His family, the sole Muslim family here, has stayed in the neighbourhood for over 100 years. He says that the Disturbed Areas Act, which was first notified in 2009, three years after the mob incident, has complicated property transactions between Hindus and Muslims. “Instead of sending buyers and sellers into a paperwork spiral, the law should have simply banned Muslims and Hindus from buying property from each other,” he says, tired of the complications that have arisen between the two communities because of the law. He leaves to offer his afternoon namaz on the other side of the gate. 

Both communities suffer

A 20-minute drive from the old city to Kesarbaug, a posh housing colony, where the roads are broad and the trees look less tired, 46-year-old educationist Faisal Fazlani, lives in a sprawling 15,000 square-foot bungalow with his family. Geeta Goradia had sold the property to him for ₹6 crore. All the paperwork pertaining to the Disturbed Areas Act was in order by 2019, and just when the transfer was about to take place, the Special Secretary of the Revenue Department asked the District Collector to stay the sale, until complaints of five Hindu neighbours were investigated. 

Fazlani filed a case in the Gujarat High Court that ruled in his favour in November 2023. The court said the objections raised by the neighbours were not maintainable as the purpose of the Disturbed Areas Act was to prevent distress sales, and not to maintain law and order. 

Vadodara-based advocate Hitesh Gupta explains that if a housing society has eight Hindu families and two Muslim families, the Disturbed Areas Act is invoked to ensure that the Muslim families are not selling their houses under any distress to the majority. 

A top cop in the Vadodra police force agrees: “The protectionist law was made to prevent ghetto-isation, but it is now promoting it,” they say. The ambit of the Act is fast expanding with large swathes of land in Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Bharuch, Surat, and even parts of rural Amreli district coming under its ambit. While Fazlani had the time and means to go to court, most people do not have the economic ability to seek legal recourse. 

Pratap Rajput, 75, owns a 1,700 square-foot patch of land, on which he has built his two-room house in the Muslim-dominated area of Fatehpura. Rajput, who has recently undergone a leg surgery, was contemplating selling off his property to go back to his village. He gave up the idea, because only Muslims wanted to buy the land, and the legal processes seemed too daunting.

“A decade ago, there were at least 20 Hindu families in this neighbourhood. Now there are only three, including mine,” he says. He points at a narrow three-storey mansion opposite his home. “After the [2002] mob violence, the Prajapatis sold off their home for ₹9 lakh to neighbouring Muslims, and ran away overnight, without any paperwork in order. Now the building is occupied by Muslims, but the electricity bill still comes on the name of the Prajapatis, as the transfer of property has not occurred. Legally transferring property, would also evoke objections from neighbourhood Hindu families, within 500 meters, on the other side of the road,” Rajput adds, lounging on his charpoy.

When 70-year-old Lataben wished to sell her property to 43-year-old Iliyas, a middleman approached them and offered to forge transaction documents, including a fake police verification and district administration approvals. When this came to the notice of the Collector’s office, an FIR was registered and a look-out notice was issued for both Lataben and Iliyas, Deputy Collector Sambad says. Iliyas, who was on his way to the Haj, was stopped at Ahmedabad airport by immigration authorities and jailed, while Lataben, who is seeking anticipatory bail, has gone underground. 

“The two parties wished was to peacefully sell and buy a property, but the fear of the Disturbed Areas Act and the next-to impossible property transaction, led them to resort to criminal means,” Gupta says. 

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