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Fragments of the City: Engaging the Urban through Its Neighborhoods

Saeed Ahmad
Bibliographical reference

Jha, Sadan, Dev Nath Pathak, and Amiya Kumar Das. 2021. Neighbourhoods in Urban India: In Between Home and the City. New Delhi: Bloomsbury India. 326 pages.

Parveen, Nazima. 2021. Contested Homelands: Politics of Space and Identity. New Delhi: Bloomsbury India. 312 pages.

Full text

  • 1 I would like to thank Catharina Haensel and the editors of SAMAJ for their comments on earlier draf (...)
  • 2 These urban templates included the stark ideological and spatial manifestations of difference betwe (...)

1Anthony King argued that despite attempts to represent the city as a totality, the everyday urban experience is socially and spatially relegated to fragments of the city: neighborhoods, dwellings, particular institutions, or spaces.1 While these fragments “form the basis of one kind of urban identity” (King 2007:2), “the city” only exists in our minds (King 2007:2). Recently, Alkan and Maksudyan (2020) similarly stated that cities are “fragmented and fractured spatial entities” (p. 3). This can be illustrated through the case of colonial Bombay where the urban spatial order attempted to regulate and define “usage, function, and habitation” (Masselos 1991:33). The intersection of the urban form with social practice, based on the daily lives and rhythms of Bombay’s inhabitants, established a series of urban templates, or fragments.2 For example, the fragments for a mill worker included the residence and its immediate surroundings, the workspace and the route to it, as well as spaces and routes of leisure, religion, or sociality (Masselos 1991:33–40). Key to this urban experience was the locality: a street, lane, apartment building, or neighborhood. Neighborhoods were elemental to urban life, intersecting with power relations, kinship structures and institutions, religious practices, economic life, emergent social relations, and contestations over “accustomed space” (Masselos 1991:39).

  • 3 They also draw attention to the methodological challenges of writing neighborhood histories. With a (...)

2This essay focuses on that crucial fragment of the urban experience: the neighborhood. Several scholars have addressed cities as social formations through locales or neighborhoods. Historical studies examine labor politics, nationalism, communal discord, social space, resident activism, and their entanglements with national and imperial developments (Chandavarkar 2009, 2018; Masselos 1976, 1991; Sengupta 2018; Legg 2019; Mehra 2020).3 Globalization and its attendant transformations have intensified these linkages, bringing the local and the global into an interesting conversation (Donner and Neve 2006). Lastly, research on the rise of Hindu nationalism since the 1980s has exposed the various mechanisms of Muslim urban marginalization (Gayer and Jaffrelot 2012; Kirmani 2013; Chatterjee 2017; Jamil 2018).

3The two books discussed here are welcome contributions to a growing scholarship on neighborhoods, providing a rich mosaic of approaches to understanding these fragments of urban India. The compiled volume entitled Neighbourhoods in Urban India: In Between Home and the City [cited as NUI] explores the neighborhood as a “socio-spatial constellation” (NUI:3) through rich and diverse empirical studies in towns and cities. Contested Homelands: Politics of Space and Identity [cited as CH] tracks the historical construction of “Muslim” space in Delhi through the idea of “Homeland.” After summarizing their broader arguments, this essay engages with the core tenets of neighborhoods that the works illustrate. Building upon the editors of Neighbourhoods in Urban India, I describe them under three characteristics: the historical, the spatial, and the social (NUI:4). The essay ends by discussing an implicit theme in the studies discussed i.e., displacements and neighborhood making.

4Neighbourhoods in Urban India, edited by Sadan Jha, Dev Nath Pathak and Amiya Kumar Das, draws on the disciplinary vantage points of history, sociology, literature, architecture, and economics to address neighborhoods in North and Western India. The historical and ethnographic investigations tackle four key rubrics of spatial subjectivities: value regimes; inequalities and exclusionary dimensions of space rooted in the logic of caste and community; gendered forms of spatial relationships; and the politics of planning and housing. Part I on spatial religiosity highlights relational spaces in the city, kinship networks, everyday boundary work, and the intentional or unintended practices that produce neighborhoods. Dalit neighborhood histories in Part II draw attention to the entanglements of caste and community in planning regimes, neighborhood identities, and memories. Part III analyses the neighborhood and its everyday spatiality through the gendered everyday practices of local social figures that influence neighborhood conviviality or unbelonging. Part IV includes top-down processes of urban planning, the property market, neoliberal aspirations, and caste-class formations that produce neighborhood social identities. AbdouMaliq Simone’s Afterword ends the volume by arguing that neighborhoods are always in the making, constantly responding to internal socio-spatial, and larger external urban, national, and global forces.

5Nazima Parveen’s Contested Homelands is a historical study of the gradual production of “Muslim space” in Delhi through archival research and oral histories. The four chapters engage with Delhi’s history from the suppression of the 1857 revolt till the aggressive family planning and urban “beautification” programs undertaken during the Emergency (1975–77). Chapter 1 provides a broad overview from the end of the Great Rebellion until the early twentieth century when the city was reshaped through displacement, occupation, and dispossession. Chapter 2 traces the evolution of religiously demarcated neighborhoods and the intellectual history of the idea of “Homeland” that transformed Muslim streets, sites, and localities into contested spaces. Parveen defines “Homeland” as a political idiom emerging out of colonial attempts to manage religious communities in space, and the tense national debates on the future of Hindus and Muslims in India. It received legitimacy and longevity with the idea of Pakistan as the Muslim homeland, framing future politics around Muslims and their spaces. We turn to the moment of Partition and postcolonial Delhi in Chapter 3 when Muslims were attacked and driven out of their homes, concretizing Delhi’s communal geography. Analyzing Parliamentary and Delhi Metropolitan Council debates, Parveen tracks the route by which the emergent “Muslim zones” (CH:15) became spaces of protection, segregation, disgust, or “mini-Pakistans” (CH:16). Chapter 4 shows the entanglements of identity, space, and urban planning in the massive redevelopment and resettlement of old Delhi, again reconfiguring Muslim relations to their spaces.

6Neighbourhoods in Urban India critiques assumptions of the neighborhood as a pre-given, spatially demarcated unit, or merely an arena to observe larger progressions. The editors define the neighborhood as a socio-spatial constellation with its “own interiorities, complex practices, and convoluted histories” (NUI:4). Crucial to our understanding of urban life, neighborhoods are produced through ever-shifting amalgamations of multiple subjectivities, conflicts, power relations, and negotiations. As Simone’s afterword reminds us, “the neighbourhood is a processual infrastructure through which critical and discrepant forces and exigencies are ‘worked out’ in provisional settlements” (NUI:301). The following discussion shows how the historical, spatial, and social are entangled rather than being distinct features of neighborhoods.

The historical: Neighborhoods are produced through their histories and memories

7The processual nature of neighborhoods is evident through the “envelopes of space-time” (Massey 1995:188). Histories and memories of settlement, displacement, events, administration, and urban planning affect the evolution of the neighborhood and shape it as an affective space (Sengupta 2018; NUI:210). The domains of urban planning and administration intersect with caste, class, gender, and religion to frame the social composition of neighborhoods. Sonal Mithal’s study of Lucknow (NUI:229–50) shows how colonial legacies of segregated urban planning cemented the morphology of government housing settlements as ideal urban dwellings: class- and status-based residential neighborhoods or “colonies” marked by low density and ample green spaces (NUI:231–34). The postcolonial Nehruvian state saw colonies as secular and egalitarian spaces for inclusive urban development (NUI:236). However, its urban planning bodies reproduced structural social inequalities to favor the accommodation needs of upper-class/upper-caste groups. Due to this primary emphasis on government housing estates, other areas in postcolonial Lucknow struggled with high densities and low greenery (NUI:248–49).

  • 4 Improvement Trusts were independent colonial urban planning bodies inherited by the postcolonial st (...)

8Similarly, Sheema Fatima (NUI:273–300) reveals how the Patna Improvement Trust4 replicated colonial urban policy by reifying hierarchical residential segregation in postcolonial Patna (NUI:273–300). Landed and bureaucratic elites utilized caste political networks and alliances for the growth of elite formal neighborhoods, as well as informal middle-class neighborhoods that violated the Master Plan. Permission for constructions and materials such as cement were often fast-tracked for high-level officials, side-lining intended time and resources for social infrastructure projects. Such sanctioned deviations and patronage through caste, class, and official networks allowed the elites and middle-classes to occupy centrally located neighborhoods in the city (NUI:277–83).

9These histories of elite, upper-caste and middle-class preference highlight urban neglect through the exclusion, segregation, and relegation of slums, Dalits, and Muslims to the urban margins. Akanksha Kumar (NUI:144–58) studies the construction of specific Dalit neighborhoods during Partition refugee rehabilitation after 1947. Epitomizing the differential planning regimes of caste and class, the Rehabilitation Ministry collaborated with the Harijan Sewak Sangh (a Gandhian Dalit upliftment organization) to construct neighborhoods like Jhilmil colony for Dalit refugees. It was on the outskirts of the city of Delhi and lacked adequate infrastructures and resources for its Sikh Bhaat allottees (NUI:148–51).

  • 5 The East Punjab Evacuees (Administration of Property) Ordinance of 1947 was a measure to protect mi (...)

10Around the same time, the Partition violence of September 1947 in Delhi exacerbated the already ruptured social fabric of the city and led to the emergence of Muslim zones. Non-Muslim local and refugee mobs attacked Muslim bodies, properties, neighborhoods, vandalized and occupied religious, historical, and residential spaces. The arbitrary practices of the Custodian of Evacuee Property also assisted this process of Muslim displacement.5 Driven out of their homes and escaping violence, Muslims sought refuge in Muslim majority spaces such as neighborhoods, Muslim historical and religious sites, and official evacuee camps (CH:137–40). As a result, Muslim residential pockets—having concretely emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century—simultaneously decreased in number and increased in population density. Therefore, the postcolonial administration delineated “Muslim zones” to protect Muslims from violence by non-Muslim mobs (CH:151–64). Debates on refugee rehabilitation and the future of secular India among local and national leaders branded these areas as “protected” spaces or “mini-Pakistans.”

11However, such histories of settlement neither freeze the identities of neighborhoods nor undermine their ability to negotiate. For example, Jhilmil Colony’s oral histories narrate that unaffordable rents, inadequate infrastructures, and better prospects elsewhere drove the original residents away from the neighborhood. Employed in several informal professions ranging from manual labor to petty trade, the Bhaats countered these constraints by selling their houses and shifting to other parts of the city or emigrating to Britain (NUI:151–55).

12Vijay Kumar’s (NUI:119–43) history of Khatik (butcher caste) bastis (settlements) from late-19th to mid-20th centuries in the United Provinces (UP) shows that their origins lay in the migrations of landless Dalit laborers who squatted on wasteland in towns and cities. Their proximity to the naala (dirty drain) and separation from caste-Hindu and Muslim settlements framed their socio-spatial identity. These settlements, which provided labor to urban construction projects, were perceived as insanitary and temporary. Eventually, they emerged as politically charged sites of Dalit resistance to Brahmanical and colonial hegemony. An emergent Dalit politics was channeled through pork consumption, silent labor protests, the claiming of street intersections as religious sites, and the development of informal economies of leather, bristle, and paper (NUI:136). Illustrating the politics of memory, residents today mobilize this history to produce these neighborhoods as spaces of Dalit collective identity and forget the demonizing marker of the drain (NUI:121).

13The dynamic and fluid nature of neighborhoods is also observable through the logics of property and aspirations of modernity explored by Yugank Goyal and Harini Shah (NUI:251–72). Neoliberal economic reforms, changing price-rent ratios, and modernity’s attendant aspirations affect the social categories of Delhi’s neighborhoods. Here, the temporality of financial investments, class compositions, and homogenized neoliberal urban aesthetics influence buyers and rentiers, and frame belonging in contemporary Delhi.

The spatial: Neighborhoods are grounded in material space(s)

14Neighbourhoods in Urban India insightfully argues that “the idea of the neighbourhood not merely mediates and connects the interiority of homes with the anonymous city, but because of this unique spatial function, it is also endowed with its own spatial agency and subjectivity” (NUI:3). Important works on neighborhoods as sites of religious articulation (Masselos 1991), political mobilization (Chandavarkar 2009), and spaces of safety or segregation (Kirmani 2013; Jamil 2018) analyze them as bordered administrative or spatial units. Masselos put forward the innovative concept of “accustomed space”, produced through repetitive and daily urban rhythms across localities and other city spaces (Masselos 1991:39–40). This extended the spatial parameters of the urban experience, but invariably presented the neighborhood as a bordered spatial unit.

15While being attentive to the way in which institutions and structures define neighborhoods, Neighbourhoods in Urban India purposefully discards assumptions about their administrative or delimited spatiality, regardless of urban sprawl. This epistemological open-ness is articulated through Sadan Jha’s idea of paros or “in the neighbourhood,” a spatial rather than scalar concept (NUI:205). Through an idea of “spatially immersed social lives” (NUI:3), paros foregrounds the relationality of space and spatial proximity in the neighborhood’s production. This includes spaces such as balconies, streets, crossings, blocks, spatial markers, or even adjacent neighborhoods: the sites of everyday interactions, negotiations, and practices that forge social space in neighborhoods.

16In this context, Rashi Bhargava and Richa Chilana (NUI:181–202) address single rentiers and their efforts to forge a home in Delhi. A booming rentier economy in Delhi’s urban villages has attracted several young individuals to affordable neighborhoods such as Kishangarh and Munirka. However, this period of incessant urban transformation has also witnessed a revival of patriarchal norms and surveillance. Neighbors view singles with suspicion and their presence is considered anathema to family-oriented neighborhoods, resulting in constant surveillance and efforts to control their social lives, especially those of single women. In response, these single rentiers produce a network of neighborhood spaces including sites of leisure and sociality, or homes of friends. Thus, the immediate spatiality of neighbor homes is bypassed and falls outside one’s own neighborhood.

  • 6 Emphasis added.

17However, larger structural forces are always acting upon and affecting the spatial and historical dimensions of neighborhoods. As AbdouMaliq Simone’s powerful afterword argues, “unless they succumb to atrophy, neighbourhoods must continuously remake their interfaces with external worlds6; they must support the differentiation of inhabitants and their subsequent networks and affiliations with those outside worlds in ways that enable the continuous provisioning of new ways of doing things and the information required for adaptations” (NUI:305). This relationship plays out in the immediate spatial points within (streets, lanes, intersections), elsewhere spaces, and larger processes. These negotiations, conflicts, and reconfigurations occur through varying social registers and power matrices.

18Gauri Bharat (NUI:45–62) highlights the fluidity and instability of Jain neighborhoods through their interaction with neoliberal urban transformations, a real estate boom and migration in Ahmedabad. Traditionally Jain communities in Ahmedabad’s historic pols were characterized by Jain residence near Derasars (temples) and Upashrays (temporary residences of Jain ascetics) and participation in everyday collective religious practices. Ahmedabad’s urban expansion and the out-migration of Jain families to newer parts of the city have scattered Jain Sanghs (collectives), affecting historic Upashrays that rely on their spatial proximity and patronage. However, the continued relevance of Jain ascetics and temples in Old Ahmedabad produce a multi-sited Jain neighborhood through continued patronage, establishment of Derasars in new Ahmedabad, and an exclusionary rentier economy of Jain migrants.

19In Delhi, the discourse of Homeland affects the iterative processes of neighborhood formation. Parveen (CH:76–133) documents the way in which nationalist politics in the 1940s turned Muslim spaces, streets, and lanes into material expressions of a putative nation-state. The Indian National Congress, Hindu Mahasabha, and the Muslim League articulated different imaginaries of a Secular, Hindu, or Muslim Homeland to produce a territorial dimension to the idea of Pakistan. This discursive articulation of Muslim national space forced Muslims to negotiate belonging through their immediate spatiality, their paros, and attendant socio-spatial relations with non-Muslims (CH:89–103).

The social: Neighborhoods are produced through practices

20The historical and spatial dimensions of neighborhoods affect the last and most crucial principle: the social. Neighborhoods as “places” or affective spaces are formed through ever-changing configurations of power, gender, identity, social relations, and acts grounded in material space (Massey 1994, 2005). The constitutive practices that produce the neighborhood’s social space involve a variety of acts and actors: surveillance, gossip, boundary work, as well as concerted political and economic events initiated by individuals, collectives, institutions, and structures.

21We return to the idea of paros, where the parosi and parosan (male and female neighbors) are important social figures of the neighborhood. Networks of gossip and surveillance in Delhi’s urban villages lead to “ways of operating” by single tenants to portray acceptable behavior (NUI:195). Singles deploy minimal interactions and perform hetero-normative values to counter the panoptic gaze and invasive personal questions of neighbors (NUI:191–96). These practices imply single women’s compliance with and suitability to the patriarchal neighborhood, illustrating the often-gendered practices emerging from unstated or expected rules. However, gossip and rumors in the neighborhood not only frame social boundaries but also creative practices of place-making.

22In Krishnapur, Calcutta, Abhijit Dasgupta (NU:92–116) points to the practices emerging from the historical antecedents and contemporary religiosity. Here gossip is mobilized for “social control, surveillance, and contestation” (NU:116). This Christian neighborhood was formed by the settlement of the dominant Mondal family and everyday life in spaces of sociality. A member of the dominant family galvanized public support to create a schism in the E Protestant church (EPC) and attract congregants to his own informal house church, CHS (NUI:96). Previously, the pastor’s rules and procedures of running the EPC, his unfamiliarity with the locals, and his non-Bengali provenance had aroused the ire of attendees. Through gossip, the CHS proprietor mobilized the prevalent displeasure to facilitate ridicule of the pastor’s linguistic shortcomings and allegations of his indifference towards attendees (NUI:107). The CHS Church gained notoriety in the Christian para through its daily sermons, the organization of, and participation in local neighborhood events. With a Church schism and the pastor’s departure from the locality, followers flocked to a now formalized church, bringing about a Christian place-based community along ethnic tie lines (NUI:104–10).

23In Benaras, Anakshi Pal (NUI:63–91) unpacks the production of a different place-based community in the Kashi Mumukshu Bhawan. Here, the resident pilgrims or Mumukshus (seekers of salvation) forge a negotiated space through everyday practice and acceptable public behavior. The Kashivasi ideals stipulate detached and disciplined minds characterized by silence and avoidance of inter-personal conversations. Although these practices are contrary to conventional notions of neighborliness, they produce a neighborhood community of a-sociality. Through the routinised daily ritual of sitting in communal silence in the courtyard and writing the name of Lord Ram, the ashram’s inhabitants become a collective in a shared space (NUI:79–80). At the same time, regional and social differences influence negotiations with Mumukshu ideals to establish hierarchies and bend rules to check deviant behavior and quarrels. Thus, these practices and performances produce a complex socio-spatial formation.

  • 7 For a wider discussion on the rise of communalism in North India, see Freitag (1989) and Pandey (19 (...)

24Delhi’s neighborhoods displayed the visible transformation of the city’s communal geography through religious processions, political rallies, and self-defense committees (CH:25–75). With growing communal discord by the late nineteenth-and early twentieth centuries in colonial north India, religious processions became a major flashpoint in the city’s public life. Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh religious and spatial assertions included instigative practices and outright violence like provocative slogans or riots near rival religious sites, neighborhoods, or public intersections.7 This volatile environment prompted the colonial state to identify “Hindu,” “Muslim,” and “mixed” neighborhoods, ensure massive police presence and craft safe procession routes to prevent violence. The administrative labelling, security provisions, and the processions themselves—passing through specific lanes, streets, neighborhoods, and public spaces—concretized the spatiality, the “inside” and “outside,” of neighborhoods now defined by religion.

  • 8 The National Register of Citizenship is a population register that seeks to identify “illegal” immi (...)

25Joyashree Sharma’s ethnography of Golakganj, Assam offers new insights into the socio-spatial nature of the neighborhood, where residents forge familiarity through everyday chores and economic relations in a segregated town. At this fluid borderland, “Homeland” emerges from the interaction of Indo-Bangladeshi history with political debates around region, nation, and community (NUI:163–67). The 1992 riots reconfigured historic settlement patterns in Golakganj as Muslims shifted to the other side of the river. In the present day, the neighborhood is forced to negotiate with the bureaucratic manifestation of the discourse around region, religion, and nation, i.e., the National Register of Citizenship (NRC).8 On the one hand, gossip in everyday life marks socio-spatial boundaries between Hindus and Muslims. On the other, residents familiar with a shared history of movement and migration across a porous border suppress potentially contentious histories. Everyday economic relations and female sociality foster tolerance and comradery to avoid political discussions on questions of contested citizenship. Here, we see the coming together of the spatial, social, and historical in the everyday production of neighbors and neighborhood imaginaries (NUI:173–78).

Displacements and neighborhoods

26Both books allude to another visible but under-explored aspect, i.e., the foundational role of displacements in neighborhood and city-making. Used both in its literal and figurative sense, displacement includes a variety of departures, exclusions, dispossessions, otherings, and erasures. For example, the immediate or protracted effects of differentiated citizenship regimes, urban policies, and property markets; events such as communal violence or slum evictions; or everyday practices like memory work, gossip, and drawing social boundaries. While these modes of displacement (material and symbolic) often coincide, they also operate separately (Ahmad 2022).

  • 9 Ravinder Kaur (2007) and Uditi Sen (2018) have extensively documented the caste- and class-based di (...)

27We can revisit questions of urban neglect from Section 1: The Historical, where urban policy ideologically and spatially excludes Dalits, slum settlements, or Muslims. Patna’s urban history illustrates how urban planning institutionalizes the denial of substantive rights like housing for the urban poor—first leading to the proliferation of “illegal” slums, and then, their removal. Jhilmil colony (NUI:144–58) was born out of the symbolic and spatial exclusion of Dalits from the privileged central government upper caste/class refugee projects in Delhi. An obscure spatial location and infrastructural inadequacies were intrinsic to a Dalit settlement built by an organization specifically responsible for Dalits.9

  • 10 Although both non-Muslims and Muslims were evicted from the city, the former were allowed to return (...)

28In another vein, Delhi’s post-1857 urban restructuring triggered a long-term process of Muslim urban marginalization. British punishment for Muslims’ betrayal in 1857 played out through the confiscation and sale of their properties to loyal non-Muslims, the occupation of religious spaces like the Jama Masjid, and the eviction of Muslims from the city.10 Once they could return, Muslims were confined to certain concentrated pockets, the first step towards the breakdown of caste or craft-based mohallas and the communalization of the city’s geography (CH:25–75). By the 1940s, Muslims were symbolically and physically displaced from their homeland—through debates on Pakistan, and the violence, evictions, replacements, and segregations of 1947. Hindu right-wing politics had redefined these Muslim spaces by the late 1960s.

  • 11 Delhi was ruled by the Centre, but the Jana Sangh controlled the Delhi Metropolitan Council and Del (...)
  • 12 With the Emergency, Muslim ilaaqe (areas) and their so-called backward populations became the focus (...)

29Drawing on earlier national level cow protection debates and local municipal bye-laws that banned cow slaughter, the Hindu nationalist Jan Sangh State government carried out a concerted political campaign against Muslim meat consumption and trade from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Invoking the logic and idiom of Hindu sentiments, legislation and political rallies demonized buffalo meat while permitting the consumption of chicken, fish, and mutton in the city.11 The Jan Sangh othered sites, spaces, and objects of sensory disgust i.e., Muslim neighborhoods, establishments, and butcher knives associated with buffalo consumption and trade. This politics materialized in the frequent harassment of meat traders and riots in 1973 and 1974 (CH:164–84).12

  • 13 Such tropes have been utilized across time and space. Fachandi (2007) has mapped the production of (...)

30Similarly, elite upper-caste and colonial discourses on unclean occupations and food habits stigmatized the Khatik bastis as Suarbaade (pig pens). Dalit consumption of alcohol and meat (beef and pork), and their employment in tanning, pig breeding etc., were considered antithetical to upper-caste Hindu sensibilities and colonial ideals of clean urban living (NUI:132–36). These instances illustrate how normative ideals of “acceptable” urban practice exclude minority groups and spaces to produce neighborhoods as urban “elsewheres,” outside dominant urban social imaginaries.13

31The practices of social figures also define social imaginaries of neighborhoods and cities. Gossip and boundary work establish the Bengali Christian Para along ethnic ties, displacing the non-Bengali pastor as a rooted resident and stakeholder. Surveillance on single rentiers enforces norms in the family-oriented neighborhoods. Uncomplying singles and their lifestyles are excluded from idealized notions of neighborhood social life. Such symbolic exclusions and erasures are not interruptions but are essential to the making of neighborhoods.

32As we can see, these displacements result in marginalization, negotiations, and resistance. They lead to the formation of contested Muslim spaces, sites of Dalit identity, alternative neighborhoods, place-based or multi-sided communities, local comraderies, as well as to the elevation, suppression, or erasure of specific histories. They take place in and respond to different scales: the local, urban, national, and global.


33While Contested Homelands does not claim to be a history of specific Muslim neighborhoods or postcolonial Old Delhi, it meticulously maps Delhi’s urban history. This comprehensive study on the discursive production of “Muslim space” could have been enriched by a more direct claim that emerges: if the Muslim ilaaqe (areas) were formed through displacements, the displacement of Muslim bodies, properties, spaces, and memory also produced the city. Neighbourhoods in Urban India acknowledges that conflicts and exclusions are endemic to neighborhoods. However, its focus on modalities of present/arrival populations limits an understanding of how departures/absences contribute to the making of the neighborhood (Ahmad 2022:4). Not only do residents, states, or regimes exclude individuals and groups, but the act(s) of displacement produce the neighborhood, its histories, and populations.

34We can examine the neighborhood as a processual spatial formation through its social, spatial, and historical registers. Intersecting with local, national, and global developments, the neighborhood and the city are constantly being defined, reproduced, imagined, and contested by a multitude of actors and institutions. These emerge out of myriad constellations of social relations, structures, spaces, processes, and histories (Massey 1994, 2005; King 2007:2). Despite the minor criticisms, the works contribute to deepen our understandings of urban India through its fragments. Contested Homelands brilliantly documents the accretive production of Muslim neighborhoods during a relatively understudied period in Delhi’s history. Neighbourhoods in Urban India moves beyond neighborhoods as pre-given, simple administrative or residential spaces, or mere containers of larger urban, national, and global processes. Through its complex and wide-ranging understanding of the socio-spatial neighborhood, this much needed and innovative volume pushes us to revisit the urban through this crucial analytical category.

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1 I would like to thank Catharina Haensel and the editors of SAMAJ for their comments on earlier drafts.

2 These urban templates included the stark ideological and spatial manifestations of difference between British and Indian towns; the functional nature of economic spaces, attendant labor processes, and movements; and the socio-spatial divisions within the Indian town (Masselos 1991:36).

3 They also draw attention to the methodological challenges of writing neighborhood histories. With a scarce and fragmentary archive, the neighborhood mostly appears during moments of friction (Legg 2019) or basic infrastructural improvements. Since oral histories primarily recall dramatic events or material transformations, it is difficult to retrace everyday histories (Mehra 2020). However, as I have stated elsewhere, neighbourhoods can be studied through the “very silences, erasures, and otherings produced by the limits of the archive, memory, and the field” (Ahmad 2022:1874).

4 Improvement Trusts were independent colonial urban planning bodies inherited by the postcolonial state, and in some instances were eventually replaced by institutions like the Delhi Development Authority (Haynes and Rao 2013; Legg 2006).

5 The East Punjab Evacuees (Administration of Property) Ordinance of 1947 was a measure to protect minority properties in India and Pakistan. In this context, the Custodian would protect abandoned properties till their owners returned. In Delhi, the Custodian also forcefully acquired properties of Muslims who had left but were still in the city. These properties would later serve the housing needs of Hindu and Sikh refugees. See Zamindar (2007).

6 Emphasis added.

7 For a wider discussion on the rise of communalism in North India, see Freitag (1989) and Pandey (1999). For an examination of processions, politics, and localities, see Masselos (1976).

8 The National Register of Citizenship is a population register that seeks to identify “illegal” immigrants to Assam and now India. See Jayal (2019).

9 Ravinder Kaur (2007) and Uditi Sen (2018) have extensively documented the caste- and class-based division of refugee rehabilitation. In this context, Dalit refugees were first displaced from the normative idea of the upper-caste Indian “citizen-refugee”. Second, they were spatially relegated to “Harijan” neighborhoods, city outskirts, or the obscure rehabilitation schemes in the Andamans.

10 Although both non-Muslims and Muslims were evicted from the city, the former were allowed to return earlier.

11 Delhi was ruled by the Centre, but the Jana Sangh controlled the Delhi Metropolitan Council and Delhi Municipal Corporation. Although the Delhi government did not have full legislative powers, it could suggest bills for Parliament approval.

12 With the Emergency, Muslim ilaaqe (areas) and their so-called backward populations became the focus of reform through the violent sterilization and urban development programs (CH:200–64).

13 Such tropes have been utilized across time and space. Fachandi (2007) has mapped the production of “vegetarian Gujarat” and Muslim marginalization where discourses around the different “effects” of meat consumption were activated during the Gujarat Pogrom of 2002. In contemporary Delhi, residents often employ phrases like ghinn (disgust) or boo (bad smell) to other Afghan and African migrants (Ahmad 2022).

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Electronic reference

Saeed Ahmad, Fragments of the City: Engaging the Urban through Its NeighborhoodsSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 30 | 2023, Online since 30 May 2023, connection on 05 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Saeed Ahmad

Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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