Tucked in Delhi’s south-east, Jamia Nagar is a sprawling locality home to the Jamia Millia Islamia university as also numerous residential areas around it. It is a curiously mixed place, with small industries, cramped workshops and famous eateries jostling for space with congested housing and visibly unplanned areas. Yet, it hosts one of the finest universities in India and prominent Muslim intellectuals and public figures live here.
The area is often referred to as a Muslim ghetto and shrouded in stereotypes. Muslims constitute the majority in this locality, with the total population numbering over 3 lakh. In 2008, the Batla House encounter took place here, and that gave a negative spin to the entire neighbourhood.
It is this perception that Karvaan wants to change.
“We want to break stereotypes around Muslims,” says Asad Ashraf, founder of Karvaan. “For example, at the beginning of our Urdu workshop, a lot of people were apprehensive coming here. But once they came, and interacted freely, their perceptions changed, and they started coming regularly. Somehow, we have been able to change their mindsets, and create the right perception about us.”
One of them was a girl who was not keen to come to Jamia Nagar and wanted to know if the classes could be held at her residence instead. The team asked her to visit once, see how it would go, and then decide. She came to Karvaan, and turned out to be the most active participant in the batch.
Karvaan has hosted academic talks, book releases, film-screenings and runs study circles. For the locals, it undertakes small initiatives such as cleanliness drives and civic education, urging the people to put pressure on the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to clean the area.
A talk by Prof Dibyesh Anand on ‘The Place of Minorities in Contemporary India’.
For outsiders, it aims to dispel their misconceptions about Jamia Nagar. “Jamia Nagar is not just what has been inherited from the media and from popular narratives,” Ashraf says. “There are plenty of other churnings happening here.”
One such is CAFE Jamia, the acronym for Centre for Art and Free Expression, started by journalist Bilal Zaidi in July 2017.
CAFE runs guitar and photography classes. It has an exhibition gallery, a small auditorium and a dark room for film photography. It is, in the words of its founders, “a community space and resource centre that brings together writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets, and scholars from oppressed communities to string together a new narrative”.
A poetry recitation programme at Centre for Art and Free Expression.
Saba Hasan opens a group show by students.
Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance that took place in New York, it aims to be “a safe space which enables community discourse and free expression”.
“There are lessons that Indian Muslims can learn from the Harlem Renaissance experience,” says Zaidi. “Just the way the Afro-American community was able to build their own cultural and political narrative against Jim Crow and white supremacy, Indian Muslims too are going through a phase of churning in the face of right-wing oppression. It’s in this context that it’s important to channelise our resistance and find different forms of expression to bring together the community.”
Close to the Jamia Millia Islamia campus is the residence of Dr Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, a former member of the Planning Commission. Here, a group consisting of noted artists, journalists and activists, going under the banner of Jamia Collective, organise the monthly talk ‘Guftagu’. The aim is to promote diversity, pluralism and constitutional values, and engage with the locals of Jamia Nagar on current issues.
Iqbal Ahmad, Planning Editor of BBC World Service, is one of its founders. He says that in the backdrop of shrinking spaces for public discourse and dissent, Jamia Collective was founded “to provide a platform to anybody who believes in the secular democratic ethos of this country. Anyone can come to the platform and share his or her opinion without having the fear of assault or attack by right-wingers of any side.” Along with this, the aim is to “enhance and preserve the thousand years old syncretic culture of India.”
In pre-Independence India, one of the staunchest supporters of this syncretic culture was Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. His organisation worked on social reforms and strengthening communal harmony. In India, the Khudai Khidmatgar was revived by social activist Faisal Khan. It is headquartered in a place called Sabka Ghar, located in Ghaffar Manzil, Jamia Nagar. Founded in June 2017, Sabka Ghar runs a residential programme where people, irrespective of their religion, language or caste, are invited to come and stay together.
Attendees at the Sarv Dharm Prarthna that happened last Sunday at Sabka Ghar.
“Here, we discourage talks that only result in more talks. The focus is here on amal, actions,” says Dr Kush Singh Kumar. He has been coordinating the activities of Sabka Ghar since its inception and is also a founder member of the Khudai Khidmatgar. “When we felt that seminars, symposiums and workshops are ineffective, we felt that the task of communal harmony, to be taken seriously, could not be run as an academic project. It has to run as a way of creating love and brotherhood between people. It is a most foundational work. So the programmes we run are different from others. We celebrate Janmashtami and Holi here, we run charkha-spinning, we have a special women’s Eid Milan.”
“It is not nashistan, guftan, barkhastan (just sit, talk, disperse),” says Faisal Khan. He is the convenor and founder member of Khudai Khidmatgar. “We do not want to be called intellectuals, we’ll be more pleased if someone calls us ‘deewane.’ This is the work Nizamuddin Auliya used to do 800 years ago. He was a man of Allah, and he used to celebrate Basant. He knew that only through such work could one go to the people. We can’t use big words and long talks to reach out to the people. That can help in publishing a book or presenting a paper. But the task here is to save people.”
A few months ago, a picture of Sabka Ghar celebrating Janmashtami went viral. Faisal Khan smiles and asks: “Since people who spread hatred use viral posts to get their message across, why can’t we counter that with posts that spread love?”
Their initiative has found an eager audience across the nation. Another Sabka Ghar has been opened in Kanyakumari. But they insist the work they are doing is nothing exceptional.
“All that we are doing is to make people meet one another, make them understand and respect one another, eat together, live together. Hatred is a disease. It has to be treated. Where does hatred stem from? It starts from our homes, and it is from our homes that we can stop it.”