You might visit Nizamuddin Basti for a multitude of reasons, be it delectable kebabs, witnessing a Qawwali at the iconic Nizamuddin Dargah or a visit to the insightful Ghalib academy. However, if you care to halt and have chai at any of the stalls, the chaos becomes context, the noise becomes meaningful conversations and the crowd becomes community.
You can easily get lost in the intertwining lanes, and the sensory overload might be too much for you to take, as an amalgamation of smoke, fresh meat and ittar engulfs you. As you walk through the streets, you will be called from all directions, and will have to make way for running children and honking bikes. There is commotion on one end and people laughing together on the other, there are beggars in one corner and vacant restaurants on the other. This year, the liveliness of the area has reduced due to COVID-19, as the Dargah was shut for six months and has only recently opened for visitors.
While the community is as old as the Dargah itself, apart from the residents from Delhi, it has seen a lot of migrants from other states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. On asking they seem to know about everyone who resides in the Basti. Iqbal*, a shop owner told me that the life they lived before they came to Delhi, was drastically different and now the world is going into chaos. Ikram*, a customer at the shop agreed with Iqbal, and further added that nobody escapes from this Basti, as access to Education and other basic amenities do not change the way the world looks at the Basti.
The place is a bubble in itself, as the entire economy revolves around the Dargah, and almost all businesses thrive on the fact that it attracts a large number of visitors. On top of that, one can notice at least 10 shops that are selling the same products, desperate to break-even for the day. While there is a fierce competition among them, one can also notice them talking to each other and suggesting neighbouring shops if they don’t have something that you want.
When one walks into the Basti from one of its entrances, one can notice a drastic change in the usage of space. Surrounding the Basti is the ‘Institutional Area’ in central Delhi which has wide lanes and big spaced out buildings with parks in the neighbourhood that alone might match the size of the entire Basti itself.
The small lanes inside, are used for a variety of things, ranging from tying goats to drying spices and oiling hair. In the pandemic, one struggles to imagine how such a close-knit community is expected to maintain the suggested distance that in many instances is double the width of the lanes that separate the houses/rooms from each other. It is even harder to imagine the plight of all those people who have not had any source of income for the past six months when the Dargah was closed.
It was during one of these visits to the basti, that for the first time in the city of New Delhi, even though I was ready to bargain, I was offered a price for an auto-rickshaw ride that was lower than I expected it to be. “Saab aaj kal sawari mil jaye wo hi badi baat hai!” said the driver when asked why he was charging so less. All shops that we went to, had the same story of struggle through the lockdown as they managed to survive with their minimal savings and in some cases even had to borrow from family and friends.
“The community has kept us alive” said Adil*, a tea-stall owner. His income after the lockdown has been half of what he previously used to get, but the rent he has to pay for the shop remains the same. However, almost every time the conversations ended with “Ab upar wale ke haath mein hai“, and they would go back to their work.
In recent times, it was not only Covid that has caused distress in this particular area. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for people who identify as nationalists, to target and alienate the Basti. It initially started after a meeting held by the Tablighi Jama’at where certain members were found to be carrying the virus. Adil exclaimed “Contrary to the popular belief, there have been no cases after the meeting in the community. The police comes everyday to conduct a random test to stir us up, however they are still not successful!“
This sentiment was also fuelled by the fact that the entire community had come together to protest against the CAA, graffiti relating to which can still be found on many walls in the Basti. While this community forms an integral part of New Delhi’s culture, they have been systematically ghetto-ized and deemed invisible, mostly due to the fact that a majority of the dwellers here, believe in the religion of Islam.
The Dargah provides the security on which many people depend on, in the Basti. Having a religious significance, even in tight spaces, it fills the place with an aura that calls out to everyone. The Dargah embraces both happiness and sorrow, and a lot is expressed by music, as artists from all over the country perform here and take blessings. With people constantly being forced into poverty, the Dargah remains the only place that accepts everyone and provides opportunity to start small businesses.
However, one can also look at it from another perspective. At the time when occupation based on religion is always looked down upon, and the model of development demands for people to venture out and do other work, this community has preserved their culture and chosen to support it with all that they have. Many people still choose to live there, even if they have enough money to move out.
When asked about the local Aanganwadi, which also was a center for computer training, Adil responded almost immediately saying that it is for the poor and not for us. He then further said that he had a tea-shop, and can somehow afford to send his children to school. There are many people who cannot do that, and the free services are for them.
He recognized his position in the community, and could classify between the poor and the poorest. This symbiosis with the Dargah reflects in the morals and understanding of people.
The community of the Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti is one that is extremely vibrant even in the midst of a recession. If one does not care to inquire further, the image that one might receive based on the popular belief is drastically different from the reality. There are many things that bring people together here, and dargah signifies this power of belief and collective action.
*Names changed to protect identity