POLITICS

As The Right-Wing Pushes Its 'Land Jihad' Conspiracy Theory, A Hindu Property Agent Struggles To Help His Muslim Client

Torn between prejudice and professionalism. 

05/02/2018 11:05 AM IST | Updated 05/02/2018 8:22 PM IST
Akash Aherwar/You Tube screenshot

MEERUT -- Rajiv*, a wealthy property consultant, was in a bind when I met him at his house in a posh neighborhood of Meerut in western Uttar Pradesh. We were speaking about 'land jihad', the latest conspiracy theory floated by far-right Hindutva groups where they accuse Muslims of systematically taking over Hindu localities. This is when the conversation took an unexpected turn. The 50-something broker went on to discuss his personal dilemma about finding a 20-something Muslim client a place to rent in an upscale neighborhood of the town. His client, a post-graduate student in the city, was slated to meet the Hindu landlords soon. The client in question has family already settled in Meerut and was looking to rent a commercial space for his new business venture in the city.

Rajiv appeared torn between prejudice and professionalism.

On the one hand, Rajiv seemed to be an active endorser of the stereotyping of Muslims as violent troublemakers by the likes of far-right Hindutva groups. Several of his thoughts on the community echo those of many Hindu landlords, mostly belonging to the upper castes, and who refuse to rent houses to Muslims just because they are Muslims. On the other hand, he seemed to suggest that as a professional property agent he cannot let his personal prejudice come in the way of finding a client a property. Furthermore, he seemed to be impressed by this particular Muslim man, as he belonged to a "good" family with connections in high places.

"I will have to think carefully about whom to approach. When I say it is a Muslim client, I can see the expression change on the face of the landlord. The first and final reaction is 'no'. They don't even try to find out whether the person is from a good family or not," he said. "The fear is that if Muslims come, criminal elements will come, illiterate people will come, their living standards are very low and they will make the place dirty."

When I asked Rajiv if he agreed with this kind of denigration of one religious community, the broker said that it was true for "90 percent" of the Muslim community, but not the "10 percent" to which his client belonged.

"It makes me sad that this young man will think, 'I did not get the property because I'm Muslim. I wanted to make my career but they did not give me the property to do it," he said. "He will think, 'What is my fault?' It is not his fault but he will suffer because of the 90 percent of his community."

When I say it is a Muslim client, you can see the expression change on the face of the landlord.

In the past ten years or so, Rajiv has noticed a rise in the number of Muslims looking for properties to rent in upscale neighborhoods. ­­­He attributes the growing demand to improved economic circumstances and a desire to get ahead in the world.

Hindu landlords in Meerut have been known to relent when it comes to leasing spaces to Muslims for setting up businesses and shops in commercial areas, often with the stipulation that they don't prepare non-vegetarian food in the premises. Giving them a space to live in a residential area, however, is far rarer.

While Rajiv has managed to help some Muslims lease properties from Hindus to run salons and parlors, Rajiv puts the success rate at 0.1 percent in residential areas.

"Hindus also think what will the neighbors say. People will say, 'You have given the house to a Khan. Did you need money so badly?'" he said. "We (brokers) tell them (Muslim), 'You will be stressed, I will be stressed and really there is no point. So better take a place in a Muslim area.' It is better if they don't even try."

You have given the house to a Khan. Did you need money so badly?

Rajiv's client is looking for a space to set up a restaurant franchise in a commercial area. The broker confided that it would have been a whole lot easier to find him a place just a few years earlier, when Hindus were not edgy over issues like "Love Jihad," "Land Jihad" and gau raksha (cow protection), which have been fanned by Hindutva groups over the past few years.

Rajiv, however, refused to blame the ruling BJP for the religious polarization which has prevailed since the Hindu nationalists came to power in May, 2014. Instead, he blamed a host of Muslims --from firebrand lawmaker Asaduddin Owaisi to the Pakistani terrorist Hafeez Saeed -- for creating a hostile environment, while accusing the community in general for placing religion before nation.

"I don't hate Muslims but I do think they should be kept in check," he said. "What is so painful about saying Vande Mataram, why do they refuse? But I don't think one should force them to say it. Why do they want to eat cows? The one thing that is sensitive to Hindus."

Referring to the 2010 Bollywood movie My Name Is Khan starring Shah Rukh Khan, he said, "I didn't make the movie. But it is internationally accepted that if 'My name is Khan' then there will be checking at the airport, three times, four times, five times."

I didn't make the movie. But it is internationally accepted that if 'My name is Khan' then there will be checking at the airport, three times, four times, five times.

Even as he laid bare his bias, it was clear that Rajiv did not want to be pegged as a xenophobe. Each slander was followed by an account of how he had tea and coffee with Muslim families, even ate in their homes on occasions like Eid. "When my wife was sick and needed blood, we took it from a Muslim man," he said.

Rajiv told me it would be an "injustice" for his client to suffer because of how "90 percent" of his community behaved. "Honestly, my first reaction was I did not want to take it up. But then I spoke with them and I thought okay, I will do my best. I will have to convince landlords by saying that he is from a good family, his father is an engineer, his uncles are well-placed people," he said.

I will have to convince landlords by saying that he is from a good family, his father is an engineer, his uncle is (position withheld), his other uncle is (position withheld)...

'Land Jihad'

A shocking instance of religious discrimination, reported from Meerut at the end of 2017, involved Hindu residents quite literally barring a Muslim man from taking possession of the house he had bought in a Hindu neighborhood.

At the time, a host of local leaders from the Hindu right, including the city secretary of the BJP youth wing, publicized the idea of 'Land Jihad,' accusing Muslims of taking over Hindu neighborhoods by offering to pay more than the sale price of houses.

The Hindutva camp had started accusing Muslims of expelling Hindus in the summer of 2016 when Hukum Singh, a veteran BJP lawmaker from UP, claimed that harassment by Muslim criminals and extortionists had forced over 300 Hindu families to flee from the town of Kairana in the western part of the state. (The 79-year-old lawmaker, accused of making inflammatory speeches before the Muzaffarnagar riots, passed away on Saturday at a hospital in Noida.)

Singh's account was supported by an investigation of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), but was later widely discredited after it came to light that it was based on conversations with only 10 people. Furthermore, there was no hard evidence to back the NHRC finding that over 25,000 Muslims had settled in Kairana following the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013, which the report claimed had changed the demography of the town.

Independent investigations by the media revealed that people had left for a variety of reasons such as health issues, better economic opportunities and to live with their children who had moved out of the town. Some of the names on Singh's list were dead. In fact, the lawmaker later clarified the "migration" of Hindus from Kairana was not of a communal nature but a law and order problem.

In Meerut, the four property agents that I interviewed gave similar reasons for Hindus moving away from some of the neighborhoods which local leaders have been bandying as examples of 'Land Jihad.' Brokers told me that sometimes the decision to move is based on things as simple as the narrow bylanes of the old city, which makes it impossible to own cars. There are many people who are moving to the sprawling apartments lining the fringes of the city, thanks to the amenities they provide.

Despite his prejudices about Muslims, the broker said that it was "very wrong" that a Muslim man had been prevented from taking possession of his house. He added that it was not an isolated incident -- a similar incident had taken place in Meerut in 2014.

The local leaders from the BJP, the Bajrang Dal and the Vishawa Hindu Parishad, who I interviewed, denied that they were fanning the "Land Jihad" issue ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, just as they did with "Love Jihad" before the Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh last year. However, they declared that they will make it very difficult for Muslims for rent and buy property in Hindu neighbourhoods.

Laxmikant Bajpai, the former president of the BJP in UP, and a four-time lawmaker from the Muslim-dominated Meerut constituency, told me, "The election is very far off. We will sort this out before that. We won't allow this buying and selling to continue."

The veteran leader, who was the state president when the BJP won a stunning 71 out of 80 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, suffered a surprising setback in the 2017 Assembly polls, losing to the Muslim candidate from the Samajwadi Party. While the BJP swept the state election, Bajpai's defeat is attributed to Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party's decision to not field a Muslim candidate, preventing a split in the Muslim vote.

The election is very far off. We will sort this out before that. We won't allow this buying and selling to continue.

Bajpai compared Muslims to Raktabija - a creature from Hindu mythology, obviously regarded as a 'demon'. The story -- cherished by Brahmanical far-right Hindu activists -- says Raktabija was nearly invincible, if you killed him, another version of him would arise from each drop of blood spilled. He is finally vanquished by Kali. Bajpai sought to 'explain' this reference by saying that he has seen the demography of 40 colonies in his constituency change drastically in 20 years but the former lawmaker did not say whether he had gathered any hard evidence to back such a claim or the reasons behind it. However, he added, "Hindus are now taking a stand."

"In one locality, some Hindus tried to sell their houses to Muslims but the Hindu residents came together and bought the houses. That is the way. If we get information in advance about sales such as these, then we can get Hindu residents to buy the place. In one such purchase, the Hindu buyer turned the house into a flat where 20 people can now live. They have increased the strength. That is how Hindu society has to think," he said.

In one such purchase, the Hindu buyer turned the house into a flat where 20 people can now live. They have increased the strength. That is how Hindu society has to think.

For Rajiv, this kind of prejudice is sad but inevitable. The property agent matter-of-factly articulated the kind of caste, class and religious bigotry that dictated whom we choose to share our homes and property with.

"Take for instance, there is a property in GK (Greater Kailash), a posh area in Delhi. Say, a Muslim, a Gujjar, a Sindhi, a Punjabi, a Baniya and a Brahmin go to rent property in GK. The Sindhi, the Punjabi, the Brahmin and the Baniya will get it easily, no problem. All these communities are very good," he said. "But the landlord will not give his house to a Gujjar or a Muslim. He would prefer that his house stays empty."

The landlord will not give his house to a Gujjar or a Muslim. He would prefer that his house stays empty.

Taking advantage of my silence, Rajiv continued, "You know my name and that is why you have come to my house without any fear. Now, say if my name was Khan, would you have come to my house without any fear, would you have come to the second floor? No, you would have thought, 'the man's name is Sameer Khan. Will it be safe for me to go to his house especially the second floor?'"

As I opened my mouth to protest, Rajiv interrupted with yet another disclaimer of sorts. "But then the exception I must mention is the family of this boy (his Muslim client). I visited his family home yesterday and I came away thinking, 'Wow, they even seem superior to me.'"

Now, say if my name was Khan, would you have come to my house without any fear, would you have come to the second floor?

*Editor's note: We have used a pseudonym as per the wishes of the interviewee to guard against any backlash.

Also on HuffPost India:

The Best Sherlock Holmes Of All Time