Uprooted from Mumbai after the 1992-93 riots, thousands of Muslim families found safety in Mumbra on the city’s outskirts. Visiting it over a few days, Basharat Peer discovered islands of progress amid large seas of neglect in the township that nine lakh people call home

On a recent afternoon, after a two-hour drive out of Mumbai, I followed a highway hugging the low hills of Mumbra, north-east of the city, near the Thane creek. As the road forked downhill, hundreds of grimy, teetering buildings stacked like tattered books in a neglected public library were the first glimpse intimation of Mumbra, India’s largest Muslim ghetto. Despite the heat, young boys played cricket in a clearing by a graveyard. A chaotic medley of vehicles choked the main street leading into the Kausa area of the ghetto.

Mumbra expanded with great velocity in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The Bombay riots of December 1992, which overwhelmingly killed Bombay Muslims, and the retaliatory bomb blasts in January 1993 by the Muslim underworld, reconfigured the social geography of the city. Bombay Muslims from riot-hit areas sought safety in numbers and found it in Mumbra, where Muslims from the Konkani coast had a long-standing presence. Through a combination of the desire for safety among Muslims, the relatively cheaper price of apartments, and continued rural-urban migration, Mumbra’s population grew 20 times from about 45,000 before the 1992 riots to more than 9,00,000 in the 2011 Census — possibly one of the fastest expansions of an urban area in India.

“Not Bombay, a village”

Assadullah Khan, an electrical engineer in his late 40s, was among the first groups of people who moved to Mumbra from Mumbai after the 1992-1993 violence. Mr. Khan was living in Kannua Nagar in the suburb of Vitroli, a mixed neighbourhood, where Hindus and a smaller number of Muslims lived together without incident. Mr. Khan, who also gave part-time tuitions to students, was the only Muslim in his building. After the riots, most of his Muslim neighbours began to migrate to areas with a heavier concentration of their co-religionists. Mr. Khan was weighing his options.

A female neighbour warned him. “You should leave now,” she said. “Things are going to get worse.” He moved his wife and children to his in-laws’ house overnight. “A little later, I sold my apartment for much less than it would fetch on the market,” Mr. Khan told me. The market for distress sales was booming.

Mr. Khan found shelter in his brother-in-law’s apartment in Mumbra. “We then bought an apartment of our own and have lived here since,” he said. Thousands followed him, from Bhandup, Vitroli, Ghatkopar, Behram Baug, and Walkeshwar. Uprooted from the charred geography of the city, they converted a semi-rural backwater into a promised land.

The Maharashtra and central governments, which had watched impassively through the riots, left the migrants to their own devices, but Mumbra grew. Power and water supply was feeble. There was little public infrastructure. The crisis provided a business opportunity for Mumbra builders; they set out to build illegal and substandard apartment blocks, which were (and still are) a lot cheaper by Mumbai standards. In the early 90s, an illegally built two-bedroom apartment in Mumbra would sell for around Rs. 2 lakh. “Most of the buildings are illegal,” a builder told me. “Today, an illegally built three bedroom costs Rs. 8-10 lakh. If I built that legally, it would cost Rs. 25-30 lakh.” Mumbra is a mixture of middle, lower-middle, and working class Muslims, but the majority are from the lower-middle and working classes. “Most people here couldn’t afford the legal market prices,” he said.

The poor building quality exacted a terrible cost in 2013 when a building collapse killed more than 70 people. It did not deter new arrivals. Rafiuddin Khan, a retired teacher in his 70s, lived most of his life in a tenement near Mohammad Ali Road — one of the oldest Muslim majority areas in Mumbai. “Our area was safe but I was tired of living with a growing family in two rooms,” he said. He sold his chawl; it fetched enough money to buy an apartment in a Mumbra apartment block. “It is a lot more space than we had in Bombay,” he said. He paused for a while, as if reimagining the vistas of his earlier life in the middle of the bustling metropolis. The ease of travel and the proximity to major public hospitals, schools, and colleges was missing in Mumbra. A journey to the city in a sardined local train took about an hour and half. “It is not Bombay, it is a village.”

Desire for upward mobility

The signs of aspiration are seen in the names of apartment blocks: Shimla Park, M.M. Valley, and Wafa Park. The impatience with the status quo and the desire for upward mobility screams from roadside billboards advertising the achievements of Mumbra boys and girls in coaching classes and private schools. A higher secondary level school, Al Hidayah School, has advertised with a collage of smiling student photographs and the percentages of their Senior Secondary School marks. There was pride in that data: Out of 24 students, 9 have secured above 75 per cent and 14 between 60 per cent and 70 per cent. Meanwhile, Shoeb Junior College simply said: 89.16 per cent success.

“When we moved here, we clearly felt the absence of things we were used to in the city,” said Mr. Khan, the engineer. The ghetto had a few government schools, which were abysmally overcrowded and lacked infrastructure. Mr. Khan gave up engineering and set up a tuition centre, Unique Classes. When an old Sikh family, which had run a private high school in Mumbra decided to sell the school, Mr. Khan bought it, renaming it Assadullah Khan English High School and Junior College. It already has 1,400 students. “We are trying to fill the gaps ourselves,” he said. Despite having around a million residents, the Maharashtra government has not set up a single public college in Mumbra.

Beyond the doors of the ghetto, a Mumbra address often carries a degree of prejudice and suspicion. A lawyer spoke of trying to buy an Idea Internet dongle at a Thane shop and being turned away; an Urdu publisher spoke of waiting months to get a landline and broadband connection from BSNL. A few weeks ago, a private school in Panvel, a suburb 24 kilometres from Mumbra, decided to ban admissions of students from the ghetto, claiming that they behave badly. Waris Pathan, the Byculla area legislator from Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, led a protest against the school administration, which eventually revoked its decision.

Neglect and discrimination

One evening, I met Nazim Qazi, a sanitation officer with Thane Municipality. Before moving to Mumbra, when his wife, a schoolteacher, got a job in the area, he lived in Andheri and Thane, working as a freelance Hindi journalist, writing about cinema and the underworld — the two great Bombay themes. He gave it up for a more stable income at Thane Municipality.

Mr. Qazi lived in a relatively spacious, meticulously neat two-bedroom apartment with his wife, son, and two daughters. He saw certain benefits in living in Mumbra. “Women can walk around anytime and nobody will bother them. We have been here since 1999 and we sleep in peace, without any fear of riots or disturbances.” He loved hearing the azaan, the call for prayer, five times a day. “It has been easy to raise my children with Muslim values here,” he said.

As we spoke, Shehzad Faisal Qazi, his 20-year-old son, who has a mechanical engineering degree from Anjuman-I-Islam College, a minority institution in Panvel, joined us. A fashionable young man with rimless glasses, Mr. Faisal had recently returned from Coimbatore, where he and his college mates had won several top positions in a Go-Kart design competition. They were trying to patent an anti-skid mechanism for cars. He was about to leave for New Delhi to take classes for the Indian Administrative Services examination.

Along with the strivings, a sense of neglect and discrimination pervades Mumbra, which does not have a single public hospital. The nearest public hospitals are in Kalua and Thane. Several clinics and rudimentary private hospitals have come up. Mumbra goes without electricity for at least six hours everyday. “We are No. 1 in load-shedding,” Mr. Qazi laughed. “But things are a lot better compared to even five years ago.”

The evidence of incremental progress was visible in Mumbra. Some streets had been paved with tar. State Bank of India, HDFC, and Bank of Maharashtra had opened branches or ATMs. A Domino’s Pizza outlet opened last year. The absence of banking facilities or companies denying home delivery of products has, for years, been the standard attitude towards India’s Muslim ghettoes. Barely an hour from the Indian Parliament, the Okhla Muslim ghetto in New Delhi did not have a single bank despite a population of several lakh. Two years ago, Jammu and Kashmir Bank opened a branch in Zakir Nagar. Juhapura, the Ahmedabad ghetto, whose population doubled after the 2002 riots, still does not get piped water or gas, and remains excluded from Ahmedabad’s vaunted public transport network.

Run-ins with police

Mumbra also lives with a hostile relationship with the police. It was home to Ishrat Jahan, who was killed along with three other men by the Gujarat police. The Central Bureau of Investigation later described the killings as a “fake encounter”. Taunts of being a safe house for terrorists are often thrown at Mumbra. Last March, several hundered policemen raided Mumbra one and a half hours after midnight. A video recorded by a local journalist shows scores of men being paraded through dark streets by the police, bundled into police vans, and held for hours in Mumbra police station. Around 80 people, including young students, poets and old men were arrested. The police claimed to be looking for two petty thieves wanted for chain-snatching.

One afternoon, I met Ishrat Jahan’s family in Mumbra. They continue to litigate and fight the everyday battles of existence on the periphery. Ishrat’s sister Musarat Jahan recently completed her B.A. in Psychology through a correspondence course, but her mother, Shamima Kausar, is too scarred to let her step out and seek work. “I can’t trust the world anymore,” said Ms. Kausar. Yet, there are bills to pay. Ishrat’s brother Anwar Iqbal used to do odd jobs to support the family. Initially, he was denied employment because he was Ishrat’s brother, but he persisted and found work at a BPO in Thane. “It is an American company,” said Ms. Jahan. “He doesn’t make calls, he does data entry.”