Where the hell is Seelampur?
'I think it’s the slum you see from the Akshardham flyover.'

Outlook India 18 December 2019

For much of Delhi’s English-language media, places like Seelampur, which sprang into news most recently in December 2019 for its anti-CAA protests - and now Jafrabad, Maujpur, Khajuri Khas, Bhajanpura etc - are beyond the pale of their ken, and beats. For them, those areas probably count as “back of the beyond.”

These areas are anyways referred to, often dismissively, as “Jamna-paar (Yamuna paar),” or “trans-Yamuna,” part of the blighted land on the eastern banks of the river Yamuna, while historically Delhi has been settled on the right (western) bank of the Yamuna.

The last of the historic cities of Delhi, Shahjahanabad, constructed during the emperor Shahjahan’s reign, was set on the right bank of the Yamuna and today corresponds to what we call Old Delhi. All the other historic cities of Delhi, from Mehrauli onwards, have been on the “right” side of the river, not jamna-paar.

The Trans-Yamuna basin started getting settled right after independence, especially after refugees from West Pakistan streamed into Delhi.The subsequent rapid settling of the trans-Yamuna area occurred after the Emergency in 1975 as part of the resettlement efforts of the uprooted and displaced. Gokalpuri in north-east Delhi, which saw violence during the recent riots, was one of the post-Emergency resettlement colonies.

It is important to understand the location of the current riots and place them in perspective. These are what may be called largely working class neighborhoods, as is being confirmed from the list of many of those who lost their lives. Among the dead were a painter, a scrap-collector, a blacksmith, a driver, and someone listed simply as a labourer. These areas house a good chunk of labour force of Delhi, including a lot of migrants, among whom are more recently, the purvanchalis (Manoj Tiwari of the BJP is the MLA from Ghonda). Since these areas border areas of UP, they’ve also seen considerable migration from many areas of western UP.

Such perspectives on and awareness of the geographical locations and compositions of such neighbourhoods have bearing on the better understanding of urban spaces, on what constitutes a city, on issues of right-to-the-city (whose city is it anyway; who keeps the city going?), and on equitable provision of services within urban spaces.

All major cities in the world have less-favored neighborhoods, looked down upon as being poor, sketchy and unsafe. In the US, every city has an “east-side,” or a “south-side,” that is rundown, one that has high crime, badly performing schools and generally poor socio-economic indicators. But it is these poorer neighborhoods that provide a lot of city’s workforce and labor needs. While the more affluent neighborhoods take the glory for a city’s reputation, that reputation and efficiency is built on the backs of people in the less favored communities.

The areas in north-east Delhi where the current confrontations took place are tightly packed habitations (NE Delhi has the highest population density in Delhi), with narrow lanes, small plots, and a lack of civic amenities. The buildings are haphazard, roads potholed, garbage uncollected - in short, they are pictures of “how the other half lives.” Which is probably about right because according to some estimates from a few years ago, at least half of Delhi’s population lives in areas with poor planning, overcrowding, and lack of civic amenities.

A lot of the informal economy workers and small-time craftspeople and artisans are to be found in Northeast Delhi. The “Baseline Survey of North-East District, NCT Delhi” report details how the garment wholesale market of Gandhinagar in East Delhi depends on workers from Northeast Delhi:

While Gandhinagar forms part of East Delhi district, it is inextricably tied to the contractors, sub-contractors, master tailors, tailors, threadworkers, kaajwalas, takiwalas, buttonfixers; and the stitching, washing and dyeing units dotting Seelampur, Subhash Park, Welcome Colony, Jafrabad, Mustafabad areas of the North-East district.

All stories and narratives which try to encompass the history of Delhi within the realities of the present metropolis rarely venture Jamna-paar; they might include suburban towns like Gurgaon and Noida in their descriptions to point out the expansion of Delhi, but they do not find anything of note on the other side of the Yamuna.

Sam Miller, the journalist-author of Delhi - Adventures in a Megacity writes in the book that, in 1992, he had “lived and worked as a journalist in Delhi for two years, and had never crossed the Yamuna, except enroute to a Himalayan holiday.” He refers to Seelampur as Delhi’s “Far East,” which he does visit after the 1992 riots and then 15-years later.

Indian cities are open observatories into the nation’s many inequalities. What used to be a truism about Mumbai for years - that of highrises next to the most abject slums - is true for Delhi also now.

The models of urbanization, especially in places like India, implicitly assume the availability of cheap labour without paying heed to the living conditions of that labour. Another resettlement area in Delhi, Trilokpuri in east Delhi, saw communal riots in 2014, right after the BJP took over power. In times of such violence and confrontations, it is the poor and the marginalised who suffer the most.

While the current clashes in north-east Delhi had some clearly identifiable flashpoints and triggers, their rapid spread was probably facilitated as much by simmering hostilities as by the layout and density of the various neighborhoods. A simple case of wanton violence by the lumpen masses cannot be made. However, there seems to be some merit to Praveen Swami’s contention that while the protesters in Jamia and Shaheen Bagh connected with the progressives in Delhi, in areas like distant Seelampur, “Muslims had no instrument with which to engage the wider community around them...To their neighbours, the citizenship protests appeared as an effort to project power into Hindu areas — as a disruption of the fragile balance of power between north-east Delhi’s communities.”

Places like Maujpur, Jaffrabad, Gokalpuri, Bhajanpura have now thrust themselves into the city’s consciousness. Delhi can no longer go back to feigning ignorance about Seelampur or wishing it into oblivion. Delhi cannot, for some, be just about upscale and genteel neighbourhoods like GK-II or Hauz Khas Village any longer.

Jamna-paar has provided Delhi with an unforgettable reality check. It too is as much Delhi as the vaunted areas in south Delhi, if not more, mirroring the true reality of the city’s urban composition and geography.

Umang Kumar is a sometime writer and a socially conscious citizen living in Delhi NCR.

Cover Photograph for The Citizen AMIT PANDEY