By Asghar Ali Engineer
But, political patronage of repressive priesthood could harm the progress made
The Bohra reform movement was hot news during the 1970s and the 1990s. Nothing was seen in the newspapers thereafter and many people thought that this movement has died down, like many other social movements. This, however, is not true. It is still quite alive and kicking.
For those who require proof, the 14th All World Dawoodi Bohra Conference held in Udaipur – the reformist centre – from 11 to 13 February would be quite an example. Not only was the inaugural session attended by more than 700 people of whom about 500 were women, subsequent delegate sessions on 12 and 13 February were attended by 400 people of whom 300 were women.
Why the extra emphasis on women? Women in general and Bohra women in particular have been the worst victims of religious exploitation. They were beaten up and dragged by their hair by the Bohra High Priests’ goons in Udaipur on 1 March 1972.
Long time since it happened? Well, the scars are still fresh, and the crime neither forgettable nor forgivable.
The reformist Bohras are fighting against totalitarianism for their democratic and human rights, which the Bohra priesthood flagrantly violates. They are denied freedoms as fundamental as that of speech. They had started writing on corruption within the religious establishment headed by the priesthood, which has assumed monstrous powers.
It is important to note that the Bohra reform movement is not an exclusive one. It is not restricted to the Bohra community alone. The leadership, from the beginning, has adopted an inclusive approach. From the first conference in 1977, prominent writers including Dalit writers like Daya Pawar had participated. Prominent Hindi writer Kamleshwar inaugurated it.
The mass marriage of 110 reformist Bohra couples that had been held up by the priesthood for over a year was solemnised in the presence of priests from all religions in 1975. Interestingly, more than 5,000 people took part in the celebration.
In order to understand the problems of reformist Bohras, Jayaprakash Narayan, then Chairman of Citizens for Democracy, instituted the Nathwani Commission to conduct a probe into alleged violations of democratic and human rights of the reformists. The Bohra high priest, with the help of a few Muslim leaders, however, raised a hue and cry that Islam is in danger and outside forces are interfering in the religious affairs of Muslims. The Shahi Imam supplemented this when he said that rivers of blood would flow if the Commission is not withdrawn. This was regardless of my assurance to him that no religious matter is being investigated into and that if the Commission does so, I would boycott it.
Later the Commission Report concluded: “Our inquiry has shown that there is large-scale infringement of civil liberties and human rights of reformist Bohras at the hands of the priestly class and that those who fail to obey the orders of the Syedna (Bohra high priest) and his Amils (local representatives of the high priest), even in purely secular matters, are subject to Baraat (social boycott) resulting in complete social boycott, mental torture and frequent physical assaults.” The writer was fatally assaulted five times including once in Egypt.
“The Misaq,” the Report continues, “(the oath of unquestioning allegiance to the Head Priest) which every Bohra is required to give before he or she attains the age of majority, is used as the main instrument for keeping the entire community under the subjugation of the Syedna and his nominees. Threatened of Baraat and the resulting disabilities, Bohras are prevented from reading periodicals, which are censured by the Syedna (such as the Bombay Samachar, Blitz and the Bohra Bulletin).
They are prevented from establishing charitable institutions like orphanages, dispensaries, libraries and so on without prior permission of the Syedna. They cannot contest elections for municipal and legislative bodies without beforehand securing the blessings of the Syedna. Above all one cannot have social contact with a person subjected to Baraat, even if the person is one’s husband, wife, brother, sister, father or son.
The weapon of Baraat has been used to compel a husband to divorce his wife, a son to disown his father, a mother or refuse to see her so. An excommunicated member becomes virtually an untouchable in the community, and besides being isolated from his friends and nearest relatives, is unable to attend and offer prayers at the Bohra mosque. Even death does not release him from the taboo, for his body is not allowed to be buried at the community’s common burial ground…”
Excommunication is not only unconstitutional but also unIslamic as there is no doctrinal provision for social boycott. In fact it was the unbelievers of Mecca who had declared social boycott of the Prophet and his family and companions. There is no concept of priesthood in Islam as priests are self-appointed. There is no coordinating authority as in the Christian Church. An individual with proper knowledge can perform all religious rituals.
The Nathwani Committee Report also enlists many unnerving cases. However, the high priest was so influential that nothing happened to him even after the publication of the report. Top government leaders including prime ministers and other officials publicly patronise him and his family.
No political leader, not even of the saffron variety, wants to touch him. In fact, to our great surprise, the Central Government has postponed examinations on his birth centenary next month. No other religious head has ever had such distinction.
In the Conference, Tahir Mahmood, former Chairman of the National Commission for Minorities threw light on the problems reformers have to face. “It is no tea party,” he said. “Sir Syed, the founder of Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College to spread modern education among Muslims of India had to face terrible opposition and was described as ‘kafir’ by orthodox ulama.”
Social reforms became necessary after the modernisation of the Indian society. However, the state acquired a legislative role to maintain social order. As a result, the state has a limited role in matters of social or religious reforms, particularly in a democratic setup. Even dictators find it difficult to bring about change. For instance, King Amanullah of Afghanistan in the 1930s and the Shah of Iran in 1979 lost their throne for ushering in reforms from above.
The orthodox leadership sees social reform as a threat. They consider it to be a power takeover mechanism by the reformers and a bid to marginalise them. It is not only a question of ideological conviction but also of interests. If reforms become successful, Ram Mohan Roy and Sir Syed would lead the communities not the orthodox priesthood. Ram Mohan Roy and Sir Syed both went down in history as great leaders and visionaries whereas the orthodox priesthood was marginalised.
Considered to be a threat, reformist Bohras are treated worse than pariahs. They cannot enter mosques, mausoleums and jamatkhanas of their own community. When the Supreme Court had struck down the Prevention of Excommunication Act, Justice Sinha, the then Chief Justice of India, had written in his dissenting judgment that social reformers will become social pariah if this Act is struck down. He was proved right.
Mahmood said in his address that it is always persecuted minorities who bring about revolution and usher in new social values. He said: “You reformists today are a persecuted minority but it is you who will change the society for the better and liberate it from tyranny of priesthood. It is these priests who perpetuate exploitation in the name of religion.”
Reformist Bohras have fought their battle strictly on the principle of non-violence, whereas the Bohra priesthood always resorted to violence. They think violence would frighten the reformists and silence them forever. However, violence made them more determined to fight. Reformist Bohras are following the way shown by Mahatma Gandhi who propounded and practiced doctrine of Satyagraha and Ahimsa.
This movement has the distinction of participation in large numbers by women and their iron will to fight the tyranny of priesthood. It is these women who bore the brunt of violence. Their sacrifices are really inspiring for many of us. Moreover, reformists give great importance to communal harmony and inter-faith dialogue. Since its inception they have worked towards for inter-faith harmony.
Of the many resolutions passed in the conference, one was against recent communal violence in the town of Sarada, in Udaipur, where the houses of 70 Muslim families were set on fire under the noses of the District Magistrate and the police.
Another resolution was passed to demand the setting up of a Shi’ah Wakf Board so that interests of reformist Bohra properties and other Shi’ah properties also could be taken care of. More resolutions were passed on the recent corruption scandals such as the Commonwealth Games scam and the 2G scam, in which politicians and government officials have been involved. While condemning such instances the resolution urged on civil society to work more actively to combat corruption and to usher in clean and transparent governance.
This was a historic conference especially because women showed great enthusiasm. They vowed to celebrate major Indian festivals like Deepawali, Eid and national festivals like the Republic Day and Independence Day, jointly with all other communities. They said “we celebrate diversity” and unity in diversity is our profound belief.
Asghar Ali Engineer is Chairman, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai