'No Vacancy' For Muslims in India's Capital

Sanjay Kumar, a Hindu, was recently told to leave his home in Delhi because his wife is a Muslim and the landlord wanted her out. The young broker, who finds houses for people in the city, wasn't too surprised since he often has to tell his Muslim clients --"no vacancy."

The many terrorist attacks endured by the city have whetted old religious animosities and now more people are refusing Muslims places to live in India's capital.

"It's never been so bad," says Prabhat Singh, another broker, who is an old-hand in the Delhi housing circuit. "Since 9/11, it's become worse every year."

It's news when prominent Muslims are denied housing but countless rejections are doled out everyday. Brokers admit that this kind of discrimination has become part of the housing scene and people feel rather numb about the prejudice.

Knowing that house-hunting will end in failure, brokers don't bother taking on Muslim clients. "It's a waste of both our time," said Singh, matter-of-factly.

With more than 160 million Muslims in a majority Hindu country of 1.2 billion people, India has the largest Muslim minority population in the world and third largest Muslim population.

Hindus have generally preferred not renting to Muslims because they don't want meat cooked in the house. Landlords of the Jain faith are even more particular about renting to vegetarians. But some wounds run deeper than meat. For an older generation, the partition of India still cuts deep.

Ashok, an elderly landlord in a posh Delhi locality, does not rent to Muslims. Sitting on the verandah of his home on a nippy evening, he recalled leaving his ancestral home in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and described his harried journey across the border.

"We wanted to live there but couldn' many Hindus live in Pakistan," he says. "These divisions haven't changed for so long and they won't change."

Since 9/11, finding houses for Muslims has gone from tiresome to quite impossible in good neighborhoods. In grungier places however, rent money can trump other considerations. "It is the educated sorts who make more fuss since they are worried about their reputation," says Sandeep Mukherjee, another broker.

The current brand of Islamophobia is more pervasive because fear has made intolerance easier to justify. With news channels bringing every terrorist attack so close to home, there is a growing crop of people, without painful old memories or dietary restrictions, who don't feel guilty shunning Muslims.

A middle-aged landlord simply says he doesn't have time to do the extra legwork of checking whether the lodger is "safe." A loudspeaker of his neighborhood marketplace in Delhi belts out a message from the police, "Please take all precautions when renting."

Even brokers say that renting to Muslims is a hassle because the police want additional verification, more paperwork and the entire transaction is sprinkled with an air of suspicion.

Having so many doors slammed in their faces is crushing young Muslims especially those who want to be part of the mainstream.

Humanyun can vividly conjure up the two times when he was denied housing in Delhi. In one instance, the landlord returned his money after learning that he was fasting for Ramadan. "The day that guy returned me the cash, I cried," he said.

The 32-year-old Kashmiri-Muslim avoids talking about what happened because he has finally found a house in a decent neighborhood and doesn't want to cause trouble.

Homeowners tend to give places to Muslim diplomats from abroad and Indian Muslims who work in well-known companies that can vouch for them.

Humanyun and his wife both work in multinational companies but their new landlord needed further convincing. So, Humanyun asked people he knew in his landlord's office to also put in a good word for the couple.

"Before you are trusted... you are not trusted," he says.

Competing realities, however, make it difficult to dismiss India's claims of secularism. Shanty neighborhoods have been the stage of the bloodiest communal clashes but also where Hindus fast with their Muslim friends during Ramadan and have lived together for generations.

Landlords, when charged with being intolerant, defensively assert that they have no problem renting to Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists or any other religion.

Even the appetite for bloodshed has diminished. Multiple terrorist attacks have not led to communal violence in the country. But the reflex mantra of "unity in diversity" prevents any genuine stocktaking on where religious diversity really stands today.

Indifference is one way of describing prevailing sentiments. Kamla, a middle-aged landlord, for instance, explained that she has no desire to see Muslims harmed but she wants no interaction with them. "Just stay away," she says.

Kamla has rented her place in an upscale Delhi locality to Christians but no Muslims are welcome--not even former Indian President A P J Abdul Kalam or Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. "They can find homes in their own colonies," she says.

(The homeowners requested their real names not be used).