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Why so few Muslims in Lucknow live across the Gomti

By Raphael Susewind

The Gomti river is a remarkable boundary in Lucknow: people cross it all the time, but in many a mental map, it demarcates the limits of civility. In the old city, Muslims (and some others) struggle to uphold the tehzeeb and adab of Nawabi times, while new Lucknow is for badtameez log, for “uncivilized migrants” and the “newly rich” – or so many of my conversations went. More often than not, however, the “uncivilized people” across the Gomti were the sons and daughters of those I spoke to, and many would love to live in Gomti Nagar if only they could afford the sky-rocketing prices there. Even through the dispassionate eyes of a scholar, residential pattern in Lucknow – the question of who lives where, and why – pose considerable riddles. Based on spatial and statistical research conducted since 2011, I demonstrate that Muslims indeed concentrate in old Lucknow, and argue that the main reason is neither poverty nor anti-Muslim prejudice – as some allege – but a mix of preference and the political economy of real estate.

The first riddle to solve is: where do Muslims live in Lucknow? The Census only publishes one number for the whole district: 20%. There are estimates based on the presence of Muslim symbols in public space. But until recently, we did not really know. Fortunately, recent e-governance initiatives made a wealth of information available, in particular, name lists. Since most names have religious connotations – not absolute, but probabilistic – such lists can be used to estimate religious demography. The following map applies this technique to the dataset that probably comes closest to overall population: the city’s current electoral rolls. It shows the Gomti (of course!), rough old city boundaries, and the percentage of Muslim names on the electoral rolls of each polling station within current urban limits:

Do zoom in, pan around, and explore the MAP.

The map by and large confirms that most Muslims live in old Lucknow, apart from select pockets across the river, some of which – like Ujariyaon, the isolated dark area in the East – are old Muslim villages now surrounded by modern townships (see a more in-depth analysis here). That the old city has many Muslim inhabitants can be expected and explained through the city’s history; residential patterns tend not to change too quickly, one inherits one’s family home. But history does not explain why the city’s recent expansion was almost exclusively non-Muslim. Lucknowites themselves offer various explanations: voluntary preference for qasbati living (the flipside of aversion against above mentioned badtameez log), Muslim poverty, prejudice of non-Muslim house owners and real estate dealers, security concerns in times of Hindutva, etc.


Read Cafe Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, for other stories.


First, the issue of Muslim poverty: since the Sacchar Committee Report, this seems to be a truism about Muslims in India, but a closer look at data for Lucknow suggests that the city is different. Many Muslims in Lucknow are poor, but so are many non-Muslims. If one classifies the names of beneficiaries under the Public Distribution System (Antyodya, BPL and APL card holders, in total about half the population of Lucknow) by religion, head count poverty rate in the whole district stands at 12% for Muslims but 17% for non-Muslims. Given that Muslim households are on average slightly larger, household poverty rates are almost equal. And if one includes APL card holders and runs a more stringent statistical analysis, no significant difference in income distribution between Muslims and non-Muslims comes up. Of course, the PDS is prone to corruption and distortion, but still: if there is (almost) no difference in poverty, this non-existing difference cannot explain residential patterns either.

But then nobody really means poverty when they say that poverty prevents Muslims from settling across the Gomti; what people mean is that many Muslims are less rich – and the rich are not covered by the PDS. To judge real estate markets, one needs other data sources. Again, e-governance helps out: the whole Property Index Register for Lucknow is online for the past seven years or so. The following map shows the number of registered transactions and the median price per square meter across Lucknow:

Click to the see the MAP.

One can immediately see that Gomti Nagar, to the East of the river, is indeed very expensive – more expensive than the old city. But the old city is not cheap either, it is certainly not the cheapest area of Lucknow these days (as one of my contacts in the scene of builders and developers once remarked: “don’t be fooled – there is a lot of money in the old city, the place just rarely gets dusted off”). More importantly, most recent transactions and development happens further in the outskirts to the North, West and South – and most of these areas are both cheap and predominantly non-Muslim. Again, the assumption that Muslims are poor (or rather relatively less rich) is not particularly convincing: if they can afford housing in old Lucknow, they could easily manage housing in the newest parts of new Lucknow, too.

But what about market discrimination, you may ask? To establish whether and where Muslims have to pay a price premium for being Muslim makes more complex analyses necessary, partly because a seller’s disadvantage is a buyer’s advantage (and Muslims act as both, both in old and in new Lucknow). Moreover, the official property records can hardly be taken at face value – they usually reflect the outcome of a negotiation between the owner and the registration officer rather than the true value of a transaction (According to the Uttar Pradesh Stamp Rules of 1997, the maximum fine for furnishing wrong information in the registration process is Rs.500  – do the math…). The details of a more complex econometric analysis would be beyond the scope of this paper, but the main result is clear: Muslims are indeed disadvantaged outside the old city – but this disadvantage stems from lack of networks to the bureaucracy rather than popular prejudice. And the disadvantage is not huge either: Muslims selling to non-Muslims in the trans-Gomti area, for instance, lose out on an estimated Rs. 16120 on average, not that much given the prevailing rates in this area.

Why do so few Muslims in Lucknow live across the Gomti, then? Muslims in Lucknow are not poorer than non-Muslims, nor is the property actually sold in new Lucknow these days much more expensive. There is some evidence that Muslims are disadvantaged in the bureaucratic negotiations surrounding real estate deals, but this factor, too, is hardly enough to explain such a stark segregation. Perhaps the tales of tehzeeb and adab, of voluntary preference for qasbati living are true after all, then? Of course, there could also be an explanation that is less charming for Lucknow, which has not been mentioned at all so far: it might well be that those who move out of the old city do not bother with Gomti Nagar, they go straight to Delhi. A controversial proposition given centuries of rivalry!


Raphael Susewind is Doctoral Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Bielefeld, Germany, and Associate of the Contemporary South Asia Studies Programme at the University of Oxford, UK.


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