In the book under review Nazima Parveen looks at the transformation of Shahjahanabad, which later became Old Delhi, between 1850 and the 1970s to understand the deep segregation that has emerged between the city’s Hindu and Muslim populations in terms of residential living. Parveen begins her narrative with the caste- and craft-based mohallas of Shahjahanabad, and seeks to understand how this configuration gave way to strict religion-based segregation—a shift she illustrates through the changing sociological-demographics of city neighbourhoods, showing how such changes resonated with emergent political vocabularies at the national level. As a historian, working mainly with textual material, but also with some oral histories, most of her analysis is focused on the administrative acts which engendered the increasing segregation between Hindus/Sikhs and Muslims, even as such acts come in response to social movements—of reform, the (re)construction of religious identity, religious-politics and critically, riots that unfolded across the city and the subcontinent, as ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ came to be produced as fixed and binary identities, spatially and socially.
The first chapter of the book ‘Colonial Encounters, Identities, Conflicts and Space’ traces shifts in Shahjahanabad through the colonial period, from 1803-1940. At the outset, Parveen notes that mohallas in this area were based on caste identity and craft occupation, with elites living in their own areas, marking class distinctions. At this juncture, she writes, ‘religious processes and celebrations were common in Delhi and joined by people across caste, class and religious boundaries’ (p. 28), even as communal life in the city was tranquil but not idyllic ‘especially around the issue of cow slaughter’ (p. 29). In contrast, the chapter traces, on the one hand, a familiar story of how religious denominations themselves took on a fixed and increasingly ‘aggressive’ identity—first, as a response to Christian proselytization, including through the initiation of religious reform movements, second, due to the regularization of cow slaughter because of the British demand for beef, and third, as separate electorates were introduced in limited municipal government, and local notables became ‘representatives’ for their communities. The aftermath of the revolt of 1857 also split the city on ‘communal’ lines in as much as the English expelled large parts of the Muslim population seen as disloyal, while rewarding loyal Hindus, shifting the demographics of the city, a trend heightened by the change of Delhi from Imperial capital to provincial rail and trade head. What is critical to the chapter as a whole is the colonial administrative responses which certainly appear to oscillate on ‘communal lines’–sometimes in favour of Muslims (in the case of beef production) and sometimes Hindus (post-Mutiny), even as the colonial administration tried to spatially ‘fix’ parts of the city as Hindu-dominated, Muslim-dominated and ‘mixed areas’—so as to decide rules around producing and selling meat, marking the routes of religious processions and electoral politics.