2002. A line of trucks traverses a road in central Gujarat from the village of Ode to the small town of Anand, a distance of twenty-five kilometers. They halt at an open piece of land in the northeastern outskirts of Anand. They unload their passengers—refugees who have survived a violent attack on their homes a few hours earlier, when a mob entered their village carrying kerosene and matches, setting fire to houses after locking them from the outside, and burning twenty-three people alive. Ode is one of the villages in which Muslims are targeted during Gujarat’s anti-Muslim pogroms, organized by militant Hindu nationalist organizations in the run-up to the Gujarat state elections. Of the Muslims who escape the fire, many seek refuge in Anand, in a hastily set up camp alongside hundreds of other refugees, whose numbers swell into thousands during the following months. All the refugees have arrived from nearby villages. All of them are Muslim. Many of them belong to the regional Muslim community of Charotar Sunni Vohras. Some return to their villages afterward; many stay in Anand. In the fifteen years after 2002, many other Muslims leave their villages and move to Anand, too.
2016. In a living room in London, photographs of Anand’s 100 Feet Road appear on a flat-screen TV. The pictures are taken from the balcony of a new flat in Anand, recently purchased by an overseas Gujarati Muslim family for a vacation home. The family has just returned from another trip to Anand, and enthusiastically describe Anand’s rapid development and the comfort offered by some of its newly constructed houses. The atmosphere is cheerful, their delight palpable. While the family comments on the new curtains and furniture in their holiday home, I wonder how a neighborhood grown out of violence and displacement has evolved into a vacation destination within the span of a decade. This family has no prior history in Anand—most of their family is in Mumbai, and they trace their roots to a village in Gujarat that did not see violence in 2002.
2017. A middle-aged Vohra woman drives around Anand on her two-wheeler. She talks about how the town has changed since 2002. The 100 Feet Road, she explains, was considered to be the border between Hindus and Muslims in 2002, when the police had stood guard along this road to prevent residents from crossing it. The border is moving, she adds, pointing southward. Hindus and Christians have been selling their houses, and Muslim buyers from the nearby villages are willing to pay high prices for them even now, fifteen years after the pogroms. New housing societies are being constructed on the agricultural land around the town to meet the housing demand. Pointing around her, she says, “This area is very lucky for us [Muslims]. Everybody thinks that. This area is very lucky. This is a good area.”
How do people get on with their lives after an episode of violence? How, in the process, are new spaces and societies made? This book addresses these questions. It describes the long-term transformations that have occurred in a town where, according to the residents, “nothing happened in 2002,” while the surrounding villages were on fire. It shows how this town grew into an important focal point for Muslims in central Gujarat, a “safe” place, a “lucky” place, a regional “center” for the local Muslim community of Charotar Sunni Vohras, and a place to which overseas Gujarati Muslims “return.” Just as the villagers found a new home in the town, their relatives living abroad did the same, buying houses and land in a town that previously had little meaning for them. In a rural region undergoing rapid urbanization, these relocations have been accompanied by the creation of new rural-urban imaginaries, in which the rural is seen as primarily a Hindu domain, whereas the urban—or rather the urban outskirts—has come to be seen as a Muslim domain. Amidst this changing landscape, people’s sense of direction, of belonging, and prospects has also been reconfigured. These relocations and reimaginings are viewed here through the lens of “center-making” and the broader social implications through the lens of “reorientation.”
Representing Indian Muslims
This book can be read as a reconsideration of the available vocabulary with which Muslim spaces and experiences are described, and as an invitation to expand this vocabulary. The public and political stakes in representing Muslims are high, not just in India but around the world, where stereotypical representations dominate. With the growing suppression of minority voices in India in recent years, information about how Muslims understand themselves has been limited even further.
The representation of Muslims as non-Indian and as not belonging in India is crucial to the Hindu nationalist agenda, which consists of a majoritarian and exclusivist interpretation of nationalism. In Hindu nationalist articulations, Muslims are represented as stereotypical outsiders against which the nation has come to be defined. This story has grown in popularity since the 1990s (Hansen 1999) and has consolidated into a political agenda that commentators have compared with fascism (Banaji 2013). In Gujarat, the state that has been described as a testing ground (laboratory) for the Hindu nation, Hindu nationalism been couched in the language of asmita, or Gujarati pride—an interpretation that makes Gujarat and Gujaratis synonymous with Hindus and antithetical to Muslims (Chandrani 2013; Ibrahim 2008). While this language resonates with forms of Islamophobia that exist in Europe and the United States, it operates in distinctive registers, for example, when the Gujarati ideal of Hindu vegetarianism is projected against a stereotype of Muslims as (disgustingly) meat-eating (Ghassem-Fachandi 2010, 2012). Stereotypical representations of the supposedly threatening or evil character of Muslims can be used to legitimize anti-Muslim violence during electoral campaigns in order to divide the electorate along religious lines.
Another representation of Muslims highlights their marginalization. The social, political, and spatial marginalization of Muslims has been well recorded in a multitude of research reports, some written by committees that had been established by the Indian government itself (Sachar et al. 2006). Indian Muslims are excluded from holding power in the state apparatus; they are underrepresented in the judiciary, the administration, and the police, marginalized within the formal sector of employment, and are only minimally present among salaried public sector workers (Gayer and Jaffrelot 2012, 4–6, 314). They have also been at the receiving end of violent attacks on their lives and property. A particularly gruesome wave of anti-Muslim violence took place in Gujarat in 2002, during which mobs of men travelled around the state, killing and raping, looting and burning, while police and politicians waited and watched or even supported the attacks.1 In the aftermath of this violence, many researchers studied the causes (among others, see Berenschot 2011; Dhattiwala 2019; Varshney 2002), including the causes of the sexual violence committed against Muslim women (Kumar 2016). Some studies explored the consequences of the violence: the massive displacements that occurred when Muslims fled their homes (Lokhande 2015), and the loss of trust by Muslims in the Gujarati state (Jasani 2011). These studies have provided important insights and frameworks to understand the position of Muslims in Gujarat and India. Yet the continuous focus on violence and marginalization, in a way, also blinds us to other perspectives. With the best of intentions, these studies may contribute to muting the Muslim experiences that do not neatly fit the narrative of marginalization.
A third way of representing Muslims is found in their own self-representations. Studies show us that Muslims can sidestep their binary representation of villain or victim to assert themselves as human beings in different terms: for example, by defining themselves as educated people, highlighting their achieved over their ascribed status (Jeffrey, Jeffery, and Jeffery 2004); by defining themselves as modern people, cultivating new kinds of religious identities (Osella and Osella 2008a, 2008b); or by articulating alternative viewpoints in oral histories or cultural practices (Ibrahim 2008, 75). Several studies expose situations in which people defy the very idea of the generic categories “Muslims” and “Hindus” (Gottschalk 2000). Muslims and Muslim groups can carve out a different position, for example, by claiming shared characteristics with local Hindus or by claiming a separate identity that is different from other Muslims (Ibrahim 2008, 195; see also Simpson 2006, 87–109). These claims can be regarded as ways of recovering agency and crafting self-representations on their own terms. They testify to the agency of Muslims to shape at least some aspects of their lives—to tell other kinds of stories, about other topics. In many cases, these self-representations are articulated only among themselves, without being formulated in wider public spheres. The space for Muslims to assert their concerns in the political or public arena, or even in the legal sphere, is limited.
The viewpoints and stories that were shared with me in Anand have prompted me to take into account Hindu nationalism and Muslim marginalization, but also to look beyond these themes, to include other aspects. By now there is extensive literature on how “the Muslim” has been crucially positioned an internal “other” against whom the Indian nation has historically been defined (Pandey 1999, 2001), and on the discursive exclusion of Muslims and other minority perspectives from the “idea of Gujarat” (Simpson and Kapadia 2010). My attempt has been to understand how Anand’s Muslims themselves interpret what happened to them and their surroundings. I attempt to look at Anand’s Muslim area not from the outside in, but from the inside out.
From the Ghetto to the Hub
Urban studies scholarship in India has in recent years paid considerable attention to issues of spatial transformation, particularly residential segregation. Yet, as several authors before me have argued (Gupta 2015; Jamil 2017; Jasani 2010), the terms in which these discussions are couched do not necessarily reflect the experiences of Muslims themselves. The term “ghettoization” has been repeatedly critiqued, yet it continues to dominate scholarly and journalistic discussions about Muslims in Indian cities. It is time to seek ways out of this impasse.
The concept of the ghettoization of Muslims in Indian cities is defined as the regrouping of individuals of different social, class, and caste backgrounds on the basis of the religious (ascribed) identities in response to political and social constraints, the neglect of these areas by state authorities, the estrangement of the locality from the rest of the city, and a sense of closure among its residents (Gayer and Jaffrelot 2012). This concept was developed through research in eleven Indian cities. Ghettoization is understood as a response to anti-Muslim violence and the insecurities that result from this, leading Muslims to seek safety in numbers. The city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, a few hours’ drive from Anand, is presented as an emblematic case of ghettoization (Jaffrelot and Thomas 2012). Other research that has been done on this city2 confirms that segregation has developed, describes the marginalization and (stereotypical) representation of its Muslim spaces, and explores the ways in which Muslims have coped with or attempted to influence the situation.
Several scholars have followed up on these findings to inquire further into the causes of Hindu-Muslim segregation in India’s cities. One approach focuses on how bureaucratic practices produce reified notions of community and space (Punathil 2016), another employs statistical indices as a way of indexing segregation in Indian cities (Susewind 2017), and a contribution inspired by Marxist theory theorizes segregation in India as a process of “accumulation by segregation” in a neoliberal economy (Jamil 2017). These contributions offer insights into the underlying political and economic structures that may contribute to the formation and marginalization of Muslims areas, in addition to the hypothesis that Muslims self-segregate in response to violence. Another line of research does not seek to explain the causes of segregation so much as to describe the heterogeneity of residents’ experiences of everyday life in a ghettoized Muslim area (Chatterjee 2017).
These works also offer opportunities for comparing India with instances of segregation elsewhere in the world (e.g., Wacquant 2008). In discussions about Black ghettos in the United States and Jewish ghettos in Europe, a recurrent question has been the extent to which residents of a segregated neighborhood are still integrated into the social and economic life of the rest of the city (e.g., Marcuse 1997). This question has been addressed for the Muslim ghetto in India by Ghazala Jamil (2017) and Raphael Susewind (2015), who have forcefully argued against the idea that the state is absent in such neighborhoods and point to the mechanisms of real estate markets and labor circulation through which Muslims are integrated into the city economy. Anasua Chatterjee (2017) and Nida Kirmani (2013) also discuss the ability to participate in work, education, and consumption in the other spaces of the city, especially for the urban middle class, who can, to some extent, shake off the stigma of living in a Muslim neighborhood due to their class position (Chatterjee 2017, 166).
“Ghettoization” is a central term in all these studies, but several authors have expressed discomfort with it. One critique raised is that the term inadvertently reproduces stereotypes of the “other” and produces the very thing that it describes—creating a “ghetto effect” (R. Gupta 2015). A related critique is the tendency to reiterate the Hindu-Muslim divide and thus to overlook the intermixtures that continue to exist in so-called ghettos (Jasani 2010, 166–67). Moreover, the usage of the word “ghetto” might normalize segregation, and the word can be misleading in the Indian context because of its Euro-American baggage, conjuring associations with Jewish and Black ghettos in European and US history quite different from the situation in contemporary Indian Muslim localities (Jamil 2017). The term nevertheless continues to prevail, and no alternatives have yet been proposed.
I have refrained from ghettoization discourse primarily because it made no sense to my interlocutors.3 The words used by Muslims in Anand to demarcate the spaces where they live are neutral—they talk about a “Muslim vistar” (Muslim area) or “our area,” but also often simply use the name of the town, Anand, to refer to their home. When I asked residents what they thought about the term “ghetto” (in 2017),4 considering its regular use in English-language Indian newspapers, I found that the term was unfamiliar to them. “Ghet-to?”: an English teacher tasted the term. She had never heard of it but was eager to learn, so she wrote it down and asked me if she had got the spelling right. “Do you mean, a get-together?” she asked. When I hesitated to answer, she added, “Yes, you can say that; Muslims get together here in Anand!” This was said with a smile, without the negative connotation that the term has in academic and journalistic literature, by a woman who thinks of her family’s relocation to Anand as an event that liberated her from the constraints of village life. Such encounters have continually challenged me to reevaluate the terms of the debate and to consider other notions that might better capture developments in Anand from the perspective of its residents.
The Muslims I met in Anand told me different stories about their town—that it was the center of the Vohra community, a good place, a safe place, a lucky place, and our place, a place for Muslims. A board member of the Charotar Sunni Vohra community jokingly referred to Anand as a “Mecca of Vohras”—a telling joke. For Muslims, the city of Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) is not only the direction to look toward during prayer and a site of pilgrimage and religious orientation, but it is a meeting point where one meets other Muslims—a site of community-making. Mecca is also an aspirational site: a place one can visit only if one has the financial capacity to do so. The relocation to Anand, in this analogy, is an experience of geographic mobility paired with a distinctive sense of directionality, connectivity, and social class mobility.
While they are diverse, the descriptions of Anand that I have mapped by talking to Muslims of the town have one common aspect; they use neutral or positive terms for the localities where Muslims live: safe, social, happy, central to the meaning of the town, and a regional center for the rural hinterland. These descriptions contrast with the prevalent discussions about marginalization and completely invert the meanings imposed on Muslim spaces—by the popular media, political discourses, and everyday conversations with non-Muslims in Gujarat—as being dirty, full of crime, alcohol, meat, and possibly rape; in other words, as peripheral to society (Ghassem-Fachandi 2010).
These inversions have led me to describe the town in particular ways. If I describe the dramatic demarcation between Hindu and Muslim areas that was a response to communal violence, I also show that the residents do not understand their move to Anand in exclusively communal or post-violence terms; instead, they describe their translocation as a compound and multifaceted process. Muslims of Anand cannot be reduced to their religious identity, and indeed are often reluctant to be described in this way. Many prefer to speak of themselves and their changing surroundings in terms of other social identities they consider to be important: the regional Vohra community, or the Indian middle class, for example. Conceptualizing Anand’s Muslim area as a “center” or “hub,” I believe, is a way to do justice to their experiences.
The term “hub” deviates from that of “ghetto” in that it rejects the idea that residential segregation is paired with estrangement and closure. It instead highlights the residents’ continued ability to maintain connections with a variety of people and places: urban and rural, local and transnational, as well as Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. It also deviates in that it broadens the scale of the analysis, seeing the neighborhood not only in relation with the rest of the city but also in relation with regional and transnational networks. Not only are the Muslims of Anand making a new home in its Muslim area; Muslims living in nearby villages and towns, and even overseas Gujarati Muslims in the United Kingdom and United States, are discovering Anand as well, and contributing to its meaning as a hub for Muslims in central Gujarat.
“Center” and “hub” are apt terms to describe a neighborhood that has turned into a focal point of urban, rural-urban, and transnational connectivity. This account is based on mobile, multisited and multiscalar research that combines descriptions of one such neighborhood with research into the regional and transnational networks that emanate from it. This approach combines a “neighborhood” lens, as is common in urban studies, with a “diaspora” lens that encompasses the wider regional and overseas networks of the residents. This methodology stems from the theoretical position that places and societies cannot be studied in isolation (Wolf 1982), because the people who dwell in them are both locally and translocally embedded—they are territorial as well as deterritorialized (Appadurai 1996; Inda and Rosaldo 2008, 12). Such translocal understandings of space and society are well established in the field of transnational migration studies (Glick Schiller, Basch, and Blanc-Szanton 1992), and have also been articulated in urban studies (Sassen 2001; and, in Gujarat, Spodek 2013), but they have not often been applied in studies of Muslims in Indian cities. Many scholars have studied how violence against Muslims is legitimized and organized in India, and how Muslims have been relegated to segregated neighborhoods in response to such violence. Some of these works provide us with in-depth descriptions of daily life in India’s Muslim-majority neighborhoods (Chatterjee 2017), while other studies have explored the transnational mobility of Indian Muslims across the Indian Ocean (Osella and Osella 2009; Simpson and Kresse 2007). Here, I analyze an urban sphere with respect to its multiple linkages: rural-urban, local-global, and Hindu-Muslim. I describe the networks that emanate from Anand from the perspective of its Muslim residents and show how their experiences of residential segregation are paired with distinctive practices of mobility and exchange.
While existing studies offer insights into the urban experiences of Indian Muslims, and to some extent into their class and gender identities, my contribution is to describe regional orientations. This contributes to a recent set of scholarly attempts to describe Indian Muslims beyond a singular focus on their religious identity (Kirmani 2013). Muslims in Anand continue to be part of the regional economies and networks surrounding India’s cities and towns, even under conditions of residential segregation. This reality contrasts with the view presented in discussions of ghettoization, of residential segregation as a process that leads to estrangement or a subjective sense of closure of residents (Gayer and Jaffrelot 2012, 22).
It is possible that the situation in Anand is specific to small towns in rural regions with a dense pattern of rural-urban connectivity. If so, the case study of Anand is also an opportunity to counter the dominant metrocentric focus in the existing literature on Muslims in India, which has often been limited to large and metropolitan cities. The focus on cities in the literature on Indian Muslims has been justified by the idea that the city occupies a central place in the history of Indian Muslims (Gayer and Jaffrelot 2012, 13–18). Lost in these discussions, however, is the fact that many urban residents in India live in small and medium-sized towns (Scrase et al. 2015). In Gujarat, most discussions of the impacts of the 2002 violence on Muslims are focused on the city of Ahmedabad, yet what happened in Gujarat’s towns and villages is largely unknown.5
The case study of Anand also shows how transnational modes of community organization are entwined with regional politics. My research builds on a particular line of scholarship within the broad field of migration studies, that is, works that focus on the connections that transnational migrants maintain with their regions of origin. Considerable thought has gone into the question of how diaspora communities are formed and conceptualized (R. Cohen 1996; Safran 1991; Brubaker 2005) around ideas of a shared “homeland” as a source of community making under conditions of migration (Axel 2002; Biswas 2010; Clifford 1994). The social, economic, and political relations between transnational migrants and their homeland are further scrutinized in the field of migration and development (de Haas 2010).6 In this book, the term “migrants” is reserved for cross-border migration, with a focus on overseas Gujaratis in the United Kingdom and the United States. The term “relocation” (rather than “migration”) is used for residents who moved to a new house within the vicinity, within the town, or to Anand from nearby villages. The term “displacement” is reserved for situations where people were forced to migrate or relocate.
In the literature about migration and development, migrants have been conceptualized as agents of development (Faist 2008; Levitt and Lamba-Nieves 2010) who can change conditions in their homeland. They are described as senders of remittances and investments, starters of businesses, and intellectual innovators whose overseas education and professional skills can inspire various kinds of transformations in their regions of origin.7 In studies of conflict regions, the mostly optimistic tone shifts to one of concern, and the question is raised whether transnational migrants should be conceived as promoters of radical viewpoints or as having a role as peacekeepers in their regions of origin (Anderson 1998; Orjuela 2018). Studies in this field have delivered diverse and increasingly nuanced insights into the myriad ways in which mobile actors remain embedded in their home regions (Upadhya, Rutten, and Koskimaki 2018).8 This book builds on these works, but also asks a less familiar question within the frameworks of migration and development: how do spatial transformations in a migrant-sending region influence migrants’ “development” practices? The spatial transformation under discussion in this book is the processes of center-making in Anand in the fifteen years after 2002.
Questions of migration and development resonate directly with everyday experiences in central Gujarat, where overseas Gujaratis have become highly visible as participants in social and economic life. National Indian and state-level Gujarati policies have stimulated overseas Indians to invest, remit, donate, and contribute to various kinds of social initiatives in their regions of origin. Moreover, the vocabulary of “development” is not limited to the policy documents and speeches of state officials. It is commonly used in everyday speech in Gujarat, especially when people talk about new buildings and townships, but also when they talk about broader economic and social transformations signaling “improvement” or “progress.”9 The overseas Gujarati Muslims who appear in this book also use the term in this sense.
While some of the national-level and regional-level politics of migration and development enable overseas Gujarati Muslims to act as agents of development, their activities are also influenced by conditions at the microregional level, such as urbanization and residential segregation in central Gujarat. These affect where migrants can participate in “development,” and where they can’t. While overseas Hindus have been able to maintain, and to some extent strengthen, their relations with their villages of origin by making contributions to village development, overseas Muslims from these villages are challenged to redirect their mode of spatial anchoring. They have witnessed how their acquaintances back home fled their villages and found refuge in Anand. They have sent remittances and charitable support to help these refugees to find new homes, and, eventually, some made investments of their own in Anand, such as buying a house so that they could participate in the social life of the growing Muslim area during their holidays or retirement. The story of Anand thus shows how transnational migrants respond to, and participate in, a process of center-making in their home region.
To describe the social implications of this move to Anand, I employ the lens of “reorientation,” a practice of familiarizing oneself once again, of adjusting to new circumstances after being disoriented. Reorientation is a spatial process when it involves alignment to a new direction or selecting a different path. It is also a social process when it involves an adjustment to new social surroundings or new modalities of sociality. It involves a shift in aim or focus, a turn to new horizons that would otherwise not have been envisioned.
This ethnography of reorientation combines anthropological approaches to place, sociality, and aspiration. Anthropological perspectives of place look at the narratives and “place-making practices” by which people actively shape and understand their surroundings (Harney 2006; Rodman 2003) and formulate their own “theories of dwelling” (Feld and Basso 1996; Basso 1996). In light of the regional community narratives articulated by the Charotar Sunni Vohras, in particular, anthropological approaches to the concept of region are relevant. These look beyond the official formulations of a region by state institutions or as depicted on maps, and conceive of the region as a flexible concept that develops from the ways in which people interact with their surroundings during everyday practices of work, socializing, travel, or going to the market (van Schendel 1982; Skinner 1964; see also Ingold 2005). The Charotar region in central Gujarat has no official existence as an administrative unit, but it is popularly perceived as a region with its own social networks, practices, and histories. Muslims’ perspectives of this region are influenced by the watershed episode of 2002, as we can see from their comparisons between the past (in many cases located in the villages) and the present (in the town).
This description of the regional orientations of Muslims is informed by anthropologies of community and caste. Community is a classic theme in anthropology, although it has been neglected somewhat in recent anthropologies of humanity, materiality, and infrastructure. Instead of taking community for granted as a unit of analysis, anthropological approaches seek to capture people’s experiences and the meanings they attach to community (A. Cohen 2000, 38). In Gujarat, “community” is a much-used term, the meanings of which are shaped not only by Hindu-Muslim dynamics but also prominently by caste and regional politics, as well as social networks of kinship, neighborliness, and trade.
In Anand, the production of a new space happened in parallel with a reconfiguration of community concepts. Of the multiple changes brought about by the move of Muslims to Anand, a significant one is the reconceptualization of the Vohras’ regional community, from a rurally embedded mercantile community to an increasingly urbanized one. Vohra leaders and associations have articulated a regional Charotari community narrative since at least 1926. Now that Vohras are moving to and investing in a segregated Muslim area in Anand, their regional narratives are maintained but acquire new meanings. The term “reorientation” is used in this book to describe these changes in the conceptualization of a regional community.
With the term “reorientation,” anthropologies of community can be linked to anthropologies of both class and place. The notion of reorientation resonates with anthropological works that analyze “aspiration” (Appadurai 2004), “anticipation” (Jeffrey 2010), and “dreaming” (Cross 2014), but adds a spatial dimension and, in particular, draws attention to the rural-urban divide as an important aspect of the crafting of aspirations in small-town India (comparable to Jeffrey 2001). Aspiration is a prominent theme in discussions on class in India, as, for example, in studies on the formation of the middle class in neoliberal India (Baas 2020; Dickey 2012; Upadhya 2016). Some studies have specifically addressed the topic of aspiration among middle-class Muslims, describing the strategies by which they can affirm their class status despite marginalization—for example, through a focus on education (Jeffrey, Jeffery, and Jeffery 2008, 147); religion (F. Osella and C. Osella 2008a, 2008b), and modernity (F. Osella and C. Osella 2011). When the topic of aspiration is addressed in a study of a changing regional community, this requires a closer look at aspects of spatial imagination and directionality.
The Muslims’ (spatial) move to Anand can be viewed as one aspect of an (aspirational) process of self-transformation: Anand is seen as the direction to move toward in the future. Within Gujarat, Anand is associated with education, urban occupations, and enhanced geographic and social mobility; from the perspective of overseas Gujarati Muslims, Anand is a site to realize aspirations to leisure, retirement, and vacationing. Anand can thus be viewed as a place of hope and promise, even as these hopes are intertwined with anxieties over safety, economic security, and social standing. Relocating to a new space also requires making new relationships with new neighbors and reconfiguring old relationships (for example, with business partners and other acquaintances in the villages of origin), which do not necessarily end after moving into a new space but instead are given new shape and meaning.
A Regional Community
Most of the material I present here is derived from fieldwork among the Charotar Sunni Vohras (Sunni Vohras from Charotar, or, in short: Vohras). As the community name suggests, Charotar Sunni Vohras cultivate a strong sense of belonging to the rural region of Charotar.10 This is the rural inland region surrounding Anand town (the Anand and Kheda districts), located in between the cities of Ahmedabad and Baroda. The region is considered part of the political and economic “center” of Gujarat, in contrast of the “peripheral” regions of the coast (Spodek 1972), and has attracted much interest from historians, sociologists, and anthropologists. While Vohras regard the region as central to their community, existing books and articles about the region only rarely include the Vohra’s perspectives. In Gujarat, where Hindu nationalist concepts have become dominant, the Vohra’s regional narratives are a testimony to the subtle yet steadfast ways in which people can uphold a regional orientation even within an ideological environment that marks them as outsiders to the region, and even after moving to a new location away from ancestral villages and lands.
Vohras are the largest Muslim community (samaj) in Anand, and residents estimate that they constitute approximately 50 percent of Anand’s Muslim population.11 They are also a relatively wealthy and powerful Muslim community among the Muslims of central Gujarat (in their own view and in those of other Muslims).
While overviews of Muslims in Gujarat briefly mention the Sunni Vohras (Engineer 1989; Misra 1964), most studies have focused not on the inland regions of central Gujarat but on coastal or urban locations. There are considerable differences between Muslims in these localities. For example, Muslim communities on the coasts of Kutch and Baruch have been described as seafaring and trading groups that have long participated in social and economic exchange across the Indian Ocean (Simpson 2006; Koch 2017). Like these groups, Charotar Sunni Vohras have been described as a trading community (Heitmeyer 2009a), but their mercantile practices are quite different. The seafaring Muslim communities of Kutch, for example, traversed the Gulf in small ships to bring back exotic goods from the East African coast and see themselves as having a long history of travel and cosmopolitanism (Simpson 2003). In contrast, the Vohras of Charotar have been oriented toward the agricultural economy. Their narratives of the past describe how they worked as traders in agricultural produce and as small-scale industrialists who processed and stored vegetables and other agricultural products. Some worked as shopkeepers and door-to-door traders, selling everyday goods such as clothing in the villages of the region. International migration has been limited in this community until recently. Vohras consider themselves the most transnational group of all the Gujarati Muslims in the inland Charotar region, but their experience of living overseas remains scarce in comparison with the descriptions of Gujarati Muslim groups on the coast.
Charotar Sunni Vohras are distinguished from other Sunni Vohra communities in Gujarat, such as the Baruchi Vohras in Baruch and Surti Vohras in Surat. These endogamous Sunni Vohra communities must in turn be distinguished from the Shia community of Daudi Bohras, an urban Gujarati Muslim community that is widely known in India because it attracts frequent media coverage. Different from the Charotar Sunni Vohras, Daudi Bohras have a sectarian organization with a clerical hierarchy headed by a central religious leader, who holds exclusive rights to interpret matters of religion and provides authoritative guidance to lower-ranking members (Blank 2001).12 Charotar Sunni Vohras, in contrast, do not have a central religious leader. They are highly diverse in their religious beliefs and practices. They follow and denounce different maulanas and saints, and this religious diversity exists even among different members of the same household, making the topic of religion fluid as well as contested. While I describe some of this dynamism (in chapter 4), the book does not focus on matters of religious doctrine. Instead, it centers on a theme about which there is consensus among the Vohras I have talked to: their belonging to the Charotar region.
The Vohras’ claim to regional belonging is discussed in terms of their historical links with land and villages, their endogamous marriage practices and geographically dispersed kinship ties, and their belief that they are descendants of, and culturally similar to, local Hindus. This is a twist to the extended body of literature on the Charotar region. Almost all books and articles about this region have focused almost entirely on the perspectives of the Patidars, a regionally dominant landowning caste group.13 To this Hindu caste of Patidars (also referred to as “Patels”) the reader will find several references here, as the Vohras, too, frequently refer to them in their stories of the Charotar region.
The Patidars’ influence over how the region is imagined is remarkable, because they are a numerical minority in many of “their” villages. Many scholars and students are drawn into Patidar networks during their first visit to the region, and while their hosts’ generous reception allows them to conduct in-depth studies into the internal dynamics of the Patidar caste, the association of researchers with Patidars can make it harder for them to gain the trust of members of other groups. Several methodological descriptions exist of how researchers have been drawn into influential lineages within the Patidar caste, even if they had set out to study or include other people (e.g., Gidwani 2008, 241; Rutten 2007; Tilche and Simpson 2017, 705).
Since 2015, Patidar groups have been making headlines because of the demonstrations and lobbying activities through which they have put forward their demands to be included in the category of “other backward castes” in order to gain access to positive discrimination schemes. Their demands have prompted commentators to ask if the power of this dominant caste has been waning. On the one hand, several sources point to the continued success of Patidars in reproducing their powerful position in the region. Patidar groups have migrated overseas to East Africa, the United States, and the United Kingdom, and the gains from migration become visible when returning migrants operate as development actors in their villages in Gujarat (Dekkers and Rutten 2018). They thereby articulate a narrative that describes the village as ideologically linked to the caste itself: the village is in their blood and remains so even after they migrate overseas.14 In urban spaces such as Anand, Patidars have also acquired prominent roles in educational, commercial, and government spheres (Verstappen and Rutten 2015). On the other hand, a deep sense of failure prevails among young Patidar farmers who remain in the village, when they are unable to obtain a visa to migrate overseas (Tilche and Simpson 2018). In the village squares, Patidars still dominate, but some members of other castes are finding ways to challenge their power (Gidwani 2008). These different accounts of success and failure seem to present two true stories, from different sections within the Patidar caste—this is a caste with pronounced internal differences and tremendous socioeconomic diversity (Pocock 1972, 1973).
The internal politics of the Patidar caste have been thoroughly described by other scholars of the Charotar region, but of interest here is the question of what it means to belong to this region. The Vohra community narratives assert belonging to the Charotar region in ways that are similar to those of the Patidars. For both Vohras and Patidars, belonging to the Charotar region is constructed through a shared ethos of agricultural entrepreneurialism, attachment to ancestral land and villages, and intracaste but extralocal marriages. Yet, their narratives of regional belonging hold quite different meanings in a region where Hindu claims to the village are ideologically validated, whereas Muslim claims have been called into question.
Some studies have sought to describe and understand the silences within the Patidar narratives of the Charotar region. An alternative view of the region is offered in a historical account of the peasant community known as the Dharalas, which explores not only the Patidars’ consolidation of power, but also the histories of exploitation on which this power has rested (Chaturvedi 2007). The only study that engages specifically with Muslims in the region describes the Charotar Sunni Vohra community in the town of Sultanpur (“Sultanpur” is a pseudonym; Heitmeyer 2009a, 2009b). While this study notes that Vohras see Anand as the regional center of their community, it does not scrutinize further the novelty of this orientation.
The story of the Vohras of Charotar is a story about a rural business community whose relations with the land and villages of the region have changed. These changes include, but are not limited to, the influence of Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim violence. When comparing the Vohra story to available literature about the Patidars of Charotar and other Gujarati Muslims, it also becomes a way of thinking about a broader set of transformations in rural and small-town India that affect many groups, whether Hindu or Muslim: urbanization, changes in the organization of village spaces, the conversion of agricultural lands into real estate, education, and the search for urban professions and lifestyles, as well as a broadening significance of transnational migration and return, even for groups that traditionally have not been as mobile as others.
To describe the rural-urban relocations of Muslims to Anand, qualitative as well as quantitative data are employed here. Both my interlocutors and the available quantitative data suggest there is a direct link between the violence of 2002 and the urbanization of Muslims in Anand district. The violence can be seen as an accelerator of a longer-term trend of urbanization.
In Anand district, Muslims constitute 12 percent of the population; Hindus constitute 86 percent; Christians (1.4 percent), Jains, and Sikhs (both less than 0.5 percent) are smaller minorities (Census 2011). In the decade after the violence, a remarkable shift in rural-urban residential patterns occurred in this district. In 2001, most of the Muslim population in the district (52 percent) lived in rural areas, while 48 percent lived in urban spaces. By 2011, this rural-urban ratio had almost reversed, with only 44 percent of Muslims remaining in the rural areas and 56 percent now residing in urban areas (Census of India 2001, 2011; see table A.01). The changing ratio can be explained by the fact that many local Muslims living in Hindu-majority villages had moved to an urban locality in the intervening years—most of them having moved to the Anand district’s eponymous main town.
The Anand district was among the districts in Gujarat where violence was most intense in 2002 (Dhattiwala and Biggs 2012, 505).15 Yet the district town of Anand, a Hindu-majority town with a total population of 156,050 (according to the census of 2001; see table A.02), remained relatively calm amidst the violence. Subsequently, the population of the town grew (to 209,410, according to the 2011 census; see table A.02). While this growth can partly be attributed to the general dynamics of urbanization and population growth, the Muslims of Anand estimate that it was the number of Muslims, specifically, that grew, and even doubled, in the decade following 2002.
Data recorded by the Government of India confirm the growth of the Muslim population in the town, almost doubling: from 25,099 in 2001 to 45,932 in 2011 (see tables A.03 and A.04; Census of India 2001, 2011). In 2001, the share of Muslims in the total population of Anand town was 16 percent; in 2011, it was 22 percent. In comparison, in Gujarat state as a whole, 10 percent of the population are Muslim, while 89 percent are Hindu (Census of India 2011; see table A.04). The possible meanings of these quantitative findings are described here from the perspective of Vohras and other Muslims in Anand.
My methodological approach has been multisited and mobile, and it analyzes the Vohras’ social networks at multiple scales. It focused on the Muslim area of Anand but did not stay there. Building on the networks of the residents, my research zoomed out, as it were, into the surrounding town, region, and transnational social fields that emanated from the neighborhood. This approach is somewhat different from urban studies scholarship of the everyday (de Certeau 1984), which focuses on daily life in a neighborhood (a strategy followed, for example, by Anasua Chatterjee  in Kolkata and Laura Ring  in Karachi). While my material includes observations of everyday practices and social events, it opens new vistas beyond the space of the neighborhood to show how multiple actors forge relations with it and participate in making it.
Multisited fieldwork is a style of research in anthropology that has emerged in response to concerns about the inadequacy of classic single-site fieldwork methods to studying a mobile, changing, globalizing world (Gupta and Ferguson 1997, 3), in which groups migrate, regroup in new locations, and reconfigure their histories and identities without maintaining tight spatial boundaries (see also Hannerz 2003, 202–3; Wilding 2007, 336). This reflects a conceptualization of societies as enduringly and intricately interwoven, and a departure from methodological approaches that that are predicated upon a “container model” of society, projecting societies as distinct “billiard balls” (Wolf 1982).
Such a perspective fits the experience of life in Indian cities and towns, which is shaped by interactions between disparate and unequal, yet interconnected, people and places (Srivastava 2015). It also aligns with historical descriptions of mobility and exchange in South Asia, which offer important correctives to nationalist and sedentary descriptions of society (Ludden 1994). My research has been inspired by approaches in migration studies that look at the world through a “transnational optic” (Levitt and Khagram 2007) as a way of exploring the processes, networks, and practices by which people “forge and sustain simultaneous multistranded social relations” (Glick Schiller, Basch, and Szanton Blanc 1995, 48). Scholars of “transnationalism” (Kearney 1995; Portes 2001) and “mobility” (Urry 2016; Salazar 2017) have critiqued nationalist models of social research (“methodological nationalism”; Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002). Based on ideas of globalization and deterritorialization suggested by the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (1996) and on the translocality of space by the geographer Doreen Massey (1994, 156), they have attempted to look beyond what is visible in a place to explore how various social networks and systems are present and interrelate: “only with an open, global and progressive idea of these migrant places are we able to observe the various crosscutting social networks in which transmigrants are involved ” (Gielis 2009, 278).
As not all the flows that are significant to Anand are transnational, I was encouraged to expand my analysis of mobility beyond the figure of the cross-border migrant to include more localized forms of mobility, especially rural-urban mobility (King and Skeldon 2010; Vullnetari 2020). This approach aligns with recent proposals in the field of mobility studies to include a broader range of mobilities, including rural-urban migration as well as more everyday forms of mobility across small distances (Sheller and Urry 2016). Mobility scholars have also started to experiment with various new methods (Elliot, Norum, and Salazar 2017) such as go-along research combined with conversational strategies guided by nonverbal prompts in the surroundings (Pink 2008). In my travel-along research, it was the journey—and sometimes the possibility of a future journey or the memory of a journey in the past—that became a prompt for further conversations.
My main methodological challenge was how best to combine a neighborhood study with attention to the multistranded and interconnected social fields in which the neighborhood is embedded. Multisited projects run the risk of turning into a “hit-and-run ethnography” if their local embedding becomes too loose (Geertz 1998, 72). It has been argued that anthropological research can still best be accomplished by staying in one place for long time (as advocated in Evans-Pritchard 1976), as that enables immersion, grounding the multisited research in the peculiarities of a well-known place (Wogan 2004). If researchers “spread themselves too thin,” meeting many people in many places without staying put anywhere, this may prevent them from understanding and revealing the perspectives of the people under study (Hastrup 2013, 147). Various solutions to deal with this problem have been suggested, such as George E. Marcus’s oft-quoted (1995) article on the various “modes of construction” that can function as guides for designing a research project with multiple sites of participant observation. Of the techniques he discusses, I have used that of “following the people.” This broad strategy still does not answer the underlying methodological questions, however: which people? How does one choose whom to follow and whom not? How does one construct the field?
My main answer to these questions has been to embed the research in the regional and transnational community networks of the Vohras. In the initial phase, when I was getting to know the neighborhood, I did not focus very strongly on the Vohras, but as the research progressed it gradually turned from a neighborhood study to one of a prominent community within that neighborhood. This mode of selection made sense to my interlocutors, for whom the samaj is an important social category. It enabled me to travel together with my interlocutors, from the space of the neighborhood into other spaces that mattered to them: the town, the village, the region, and the homes of overseas Vohras in the United Kingdom. This opened new vistas that remain hidden from view in an urban studies or national project.
The notion of scale, drawn from geography, has been added to anthropological discussions about transnationalism and global connections to think about the scope of a framework or phenomenon. The term has been discussed as a way of developing a layered analysis of global processes that moves beyond the rudimentary local-global dichotomy (Tsing 2005, 58). Scale can be conceptualized as a hierarchy of spatial layers—for example when discussing the levels of governance (municipality, district, nation)—but anthropologists have used the term in somewhat different ways. In approaches that highlight political economy and power hierarchies, scales are discussed as structures of unequal power relations that exist in intersecting institutionalized and informal networks (Cağlar and Glick Schiller 2015; Cağlar and Glick Schiller 2018, 8). In practice-oriented approaches, scale is conceived as an “emergent” category, conceptualized from an actor-centric perspective to delineate how practices are constituted at different scales. In this latter approach, scale is used as an analytical tool of studying “the scope of coordination and mobilization that arises from collective actions” (Xiang 2013, 284) and of investigating how different scale-making projects intersect.
I apply an actor-centric approach to scale to conceptualize different yet intersecting social networks that emanate from a neighborhood. The chapters describe imagined geographic “zones” that are shaped by everyday practices (Osella and Osella 2008). This description follows up as much as possible on the “topographical awareness” (Hastrup 2013, 156) of the interlocutors. Following their leads, the book highlights the region as an important social network but also incorporates urban and transnational networks. “Scaling” or “scale switching” (Hastrup 2013, 145) is used here as an organizing tool to put these different perspectives to work. Regional, urban, and transnational scales are presented in separate chapters and combined in the fourth empirical chapter.
This study of Anand begins with a description of the regional orientations of the Vohras who live in the town: their links to the villages of the Charotar region, their distinctive marriage system that ties them symbolically to these villages, and their notions of social and cultural proximity to local Hindus. These regional orientations are maintained from a position of rupture. Following the longer-term trend of urbanization, paired with residential segregation in the aftermath of the 2002 violence, many residents of the region have relocated in recent decades; their movements combined to enact a new social geography composed of urban and rural spaces that have come to be imagined as Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. The reimagination of spatiality in terms of a Hindu-Muslim divide is paired with a reimagination of the rural-urban divide, and with a reconceptualization of the regional Vohra community from a predominantly rural to an urbanizing one.
Overseas Vohras, who had migrated from the region prior to 2002, have maintained connections with their region of origin. Their ties to the region have increasingly come to be linked to Anand, even among those for whom Anand is not their town of origin. The intersection of regional and transnational arenas in Anand’s Muslim area shows that residential segregation does not have to result in isolation, but can be paired with multiple intersecting connections that sustain the segregation process.