Gujarat Disturbed Areas Act, and the ghettoisation of Muslims

The Act that aimed to prevent house owners of one community from selling to another in the case of social distress has translated into something different

Gujarat Disturbed Areas Act
Time and again, the law has been used to prevent Muslims from owning property in a state that has come to be seen as a Hindutva laboratory | File photo for representation only

A legislation, first enacted in Gujarat during Congress rule and amended later by the BJP, is being used to prevent the Muslim community from owning property in a state that has come to be seen as a Hindutva laboratory.

In March this year, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) Bhavnagar unit urged the Collector to implement The Gujarat Prohibition of Transfer of Immovable Property and Provisions of Tenants from Eviction from Premises in Disturbed Areas Act (popularly known as Disturbed Areas Act) in the city.

The VHP alleged that Muslims purchased houses in certain areas at a high price. Thereafter, as real estate prices fell, they tried to buy out the remaining houses owned by Hindu residents at low prices.

This was not the first time a right-wing Hindu outfit demanded the implementation of the Disturbed Areas Act in Gujarat. In January, over 5,000 members of the VHP gathered in Bhavnagar to demand the implementation of the Act.

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Trouble in Dhandhuka

In October last year, the Gujarat government imposed the Disturbed Areas Act in 32 localities of Dhandhuka town of Ahmedabad district. It was the first time the Act was enforced in Dhandhuka.

“The Act has been imposed to notify disturbed areas of Dhandhuka town for five years between October 29, 2022 and October 28, 2027. All transfers of immovable properties situated in the disturbed areas made during the aforesaid specified period shall be null and void and no immovable property situated in the said disturbed areas shall during the aforesaid specified period be transferred except with the previous sanction of the Collector, Ahmedabad District,” read the notification.

About 51 per cent of the Ahmedabad district has been brought under the Act, the largest area in any district. In 2021, the Act was implemented in Surat and Vadodara at the behest of local BJP MLAs.

The Disturbed Areas Act was originally enacted in 1986 following communal riots in Gujarat. It empowered the government to declare riot-prone areas as ‘disturbed’. Property sale or transfer in areas where the Act is imposed requires additional permission from the District Collector’s office, affirming free consent.

Act amended

In July 2019, the Gujarat government moved to amend the Act, claiming that ruling party MLAs had received a large number of complaints about people who had flouted the Act using legal loopholes. The amendment got the Presidential nod on October 13, 2020.

The amendment added to the scope of the term ‘transfer’ to include transfer of right, title or interest in or over properties in “disturbed areas” by means of sale, gift, exchange, and lease. Under the amended Act, no property in disturbed areas can be registered without prior sanction from the Collector.

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The amended Act also gave the Collector more power to asses if there are chances of polarization or improper clustering of people of a particular community in an area.

Provision for the creation of an SIT or a committee to probe these aspects has also been included.

Noticeably, the Act that aimed to prevent distress sales or prevent house owners of one community from selling to another in the case of social distress has translated into something different in implementation. It is not uncommon for Hindu rightwing outfits to demand the Act’s enforcement in Gujarat.

Ahmedabad flats

In April 2018, the Nagrik Seva Samiti, an Ahmedabad-based outfit that is part of the Hindu Jagaran Manch, filed a complaint seeking the reclamation of a residential society called Varsha Flats in the city.

Following the complaint, then Chief Minister Vijay Rupani ordered a review of the Act with a view to plugging its loopholes. The meeting was attended by state Home Minister Pradipsinh Jadeja and officials of the home and revenue departments.

Varsha Flats, a residential complex in Paldi area of Ahmedabad, was originally a cooperative society built in 1969 and had 24 flats. After 35 years, the contract for redeveloping the dilapidated flats was given to two Muslim builders. Along with the original 24 flats, an additional 38 flats were part of the redevelopment plan.

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“There was no clarity about the inclusion of Varsha Flats in the Disturbed Areas Act, so we were initially given permission and documents were registered by the district sub-registrar. Later, the authorities said the flat does fall under the Act but we also got permission under the Act,” said Ruknuddin Sheikh, one of the builders.

“Just as we were to begin the work, two men, Apoorv Shashtri and Jigar Upadhyay, identifying themselves as social workers, raised an objection. These two were in no way related to the property or resided near it. Yet they were heard by every authority, including the Chief Minister. They accused us of ‘land jihad’ and distributed pamphlets around Paldi area (in Ahmedabad) asking people to save Paldi from becoming a Juhapura (a Muslim ghetto in the city),” said Sheikh.

Government failure

The same year in May, the Disturbed Areas Act was challenged in the High Court by Ahmedabad-based minority rights activist Danish Qureshi.

“It is a failure of the state government if there is no communal harmony in parts of the state and such an Act has to be implemented. This Act, in its essence violates the basic rights guaranteed by the constitution and amounts to harassing both Hindus and Muslims dealing with the transaction of properties,” said Nishant Verma, the advocate who filed the petition.

In November 2022, the Gujarat government extended the Act to additional areas of Morbi despite the town not having witnessed any major communal violence in years.

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In December that year, the Gujarat High Court, in a decision against the Act, ruled in favour of a Surat-based firm where a majority of stakeholders were Muslims. An objection had been raised by Hindu outfits after transfer of 5,000 square metres of land in Surat was permitted by the Collector. The permission was revoked after the objections.

The firm moved the court. In February 2023, the high court imposed a cost of Rs 25,000 on people of Vadodara who had objected to a Hindu man selling his shop to a Muslim man, calling the objections “disturbing”.

Court ruling

A Muslim man from Vadodara had purchased a shop from a Hindu man in the city dominated by Hindus in 2020. The sellers later filed a case claiming they were “coerced”. Following that, the Collector and police also objected to the sale, citing that it could cause law-and-order problems.

“It is a disturbing factor that a successful purchaser of property in a disturbed area is being hounded and people are thwarting his attempt to enjoy the fruits of the property he successfully purchased,” Justice Biren Vaishnav held.

But as the VHP’s move in Bhavnagar in March 2023 shows, there is no end to the moves by Hindu outfits aimed at putting down Muslims who want to own property in Gujarat.

Communalism in Gujarat

Muslims form about 9.6 per cent of Gujarat’s electoral population but are mostly concentrated in urban spaces. The ghettoisation of Muslims has been happening since the 1960s. With every riot, Muslims get displaced and are forced to move to a “safer neighbourhood”, leading to formation of many urban ghettos in Gujarat.

Every such ghetto suffers from a lack of basic amenities like drinking water and roads. Juhapura, the largest Muslim ghetto in the state in the heart of Ahmedabad, is no exception. The area, surrounded by posh Hindu localities has often been referred to as ‘Mini Pakistan’ in political discourse.

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The water supply pipeline of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) was facilitated in Juhapura only after a PIL was filed in 2016. The AMC pipeline earlier ended in the adjoining Hindu-dominated ward, Jodhpur.

“The government apathy adds to the insecurity of the Muslims of Gujarat. The BJP makes sure that Muslims don’t become a part of the mainstream. The Disturbed Area Act is another tool to achieve the aim,” moans Danish Qureshi, president of the Democratic Muslims Forum, a minority rights outfit.

“Even after 20 years of the (2002) riots, Muslims feel abandoned. The primary concern of the common Gujarati Muslim still remains social security,” he added.