Ahmedabad: Life in the City

What is the problem some might ask – Isn’t Ahmedabad still among the most dynamic cities in India growing economically at double-digit rates?

True enough, but there is something special about Ahmedabad; and the city is also changing in ways that warrant watching by those who are interested in the long term.

One person who has wondered about these changes is Professor Vrajlal Sapovadia who teaches in Ahmedabad and who has studied the impact of communal conflict on the life of the city.

The first fact Professor Sapovadia points out is that there are over 3000 urban locations in India but half the deaths in communal riots have occurred in just 8 cities that account for 18 percent of the India’s urban population and 6 percent of its total population. Of these 8 cities, Ahmedabad is among the main contributors. Given that Ahmedabad is the home of Gandhiji, the apostle of non-violence, this is a bit odd, isn’t it?

The conclusion is that communal conflict is not inherent in just the proximity of two communities. There are some places where, as Professor Sapovadia puts it, ‘sparks’ ignite much more readily into ‘fires’. If that is indeed the case, there is a clear need to study the reasons that abet this ignition more readily in some places than in others. Perhaps some useful lessons can come out of such a study.

The second point that Professor Sapovadia notes is that communal riots are changing the shape or the morphology of Ahmedabad: “The Muslims feel safer in their own ghettos and the same in true for the Hindus. The communal divide became more pronounced after each riot, but major riots of 1969, 1985, 1992 and 2002 made the divide much sharper…. There is a constant migration of Hindus and Muslims into the ghettos making the separation more apparent…. Segregation is not confined to the poor and middle classes. Even the elite areas are ghettoized.”

The effect of the communal conflict is reaching even further down to affect urban architecture: “The construction of houses is done in view of providing protection during communal riots. Therefore clashes along communal lines have been accepted and the people of the two communities are now mainly concerned about protecting themselves…. Often, ghettoization is promoted by the fact that Hindu/Muslim landlords simply refuse to rent out their houses to Muslim/Hindu tenants.”

The third impact on the city is the atmosphere of fear. Professor Sapovadia cites a study in Juhapura, now the largest Muslim settlement in Ahmedabad, where 56 percent of the respondents interviewed had been living in the area for less than 10 years: “This indicates a high level of migration or ghettoization in recent years.” Of the in-migrants, 46 percent had moved in from Hindu-dominated localities and 22 percent from areas with a mixed Hindu-Muslim population. “This clearly implies that fear and insecurity was the most important reason for their shifting of residence from one locality to another.”

This relocation has had a negative impact on the life chances of over 10 percent of the city’s population: “Migration and consequent ghettoization seems to have had a particularly deleterious impact on the economic condition of the [interview] respondents in Ahmedabad. Some 52 percent of the respondents in Ahmedabad said that their conditions had markedly declined after migration.” And this has consequences for future generations because “ghettoization of Muslims appears to have extremely deleterious impact on their overall economic and educational conditions.”

So, is the writing on the wall for all but the blind to see? Because, as Professor Sapovadia remarks on the consequences of segregation, “the lack of joint activities among the two communities has reduced the level of tolerance making Ahmedabad more prone to riots…. A large number of Ahmedabad respondents said that while before their migration they had frequent and fairly cordial relations with non-Muslims, this had markedly declined after migration.”

Professor Sapovadia refers to research by Ashutosh Varshney in suggesting that the antidote to communal disputes is an increase in ‘bridging’ capital (ties between ethnic groups) rather than ‘bonding’ capital (ties within ethnic groups). This is the factor that explains the marked difference in the incidence of communal violence across the various cities in India. But the dynamic that has been underway in Ahmedabad continues to erode the bridging capital in the city sapping the ties that hold people together.

So, what is in store for Ahmedabad? Double-digit growth that blinds the authorities to the changes beneath the surface till one day the city burns itself down in flames?

Given a choice, would you wish to live in a city with rapid economic growth but where sizable groups belonging to various communities live in ghettos in fear? Is it acceptable in the twenty-first century to have citizens of a city subjected to the insecurity and uncertainty of terror? Have we learnt nothing from the history of Europe in the twentieth century?

The paper by Professor Vrajlal Sapovadia (A Critical Study on Relations Between Inter-Communal/ Caste Ghettoism and Urbanization Patterns vis-à-vis Spatial Growth and Equity: A Case Study of Ahmedabad, India) is available here.

  • Aakar
    Posted at 05:53h, 21 January Reply

    Juhapura has very few civic amenities. Prof Bandukwala of Baroda pointed out that even banks are reluctant to open ATM booths and branches there.
    Essentially the state is leaving the Muslims of Ahmedabad to their own devices.

    One reason the economic activity in Ahmedabad has remained unaffected by the segregation is that the dominant Muslims in the city are not from the mercantile castes (Khoja, Memon, Bohra) or the neo-mercantile castes like the Sunni Patels of Rander, a suburb of Surat.
    The bonds that Varshney writes of in his book, and he mentions Surat, which has similar demographics as Ahmedabad and Baroda but not the violence, are almost certainly those that unfold from the Muslim castes above, though Varshney doesn’t mention caste.

    I might add here that the imam of Ahmedabad’s Shahi Masjid is imported from North India (Bihar), but is not Deobandi.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 19:59h, 22 January Reply

    Aakar, The implication of the absence of mercantile and neo-mercantile castes explains the two aspects you point out – the lack of impact on Ahmedabad’s growth and the lack of bridging capital. Does this mean that Muslims have been marginal to Ahmedabad’s economy for a long period and this differs from other cities in Gujarat (e.g., Surat)?

    The implication of the imam being imported and not being a Deobandi was not clear to me. Could you elaborate?

  • Aakar
    Posted at 07:38h, 24 January Reply

    Yes, the Muslims of Surat are not marginal to its economy, while I would say the Muslims of Ahmedabad are.
    Some Gujaratis, like Pravin Togadia, tend to associate violence against Muslims as reactive, that Muslims have provoked this by tending towards stiffer strands of the faith, from Deoband, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
    But there is not much evidence of that in Ahmedabad proper.

    • mastkalandar
      Posted at 14:07h, 06 March Reply

      Aakar: Is that Aakar Patel, the independent journalist? Your views seem exactly what I read in your reports.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 06:55h, 28 October Reply

    This is more recent evidence on trends re Professor Sapovadia’s article:


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