The enemy within
Muslim extremists unleash a reign of Taleban–style terror on co–religionists, women especially, in Left Front–controlled Kerala and West Bengal
MURSHIDABAD, West Bengal: Sohagi Bibi of Chandipur Colonypara village had gone to collect firewood from a field that grew brinjals on January 16 this year after her iftaar during the month of Ramzan. When Sohagi entered the field, three persons tried to molest her. Abdul Shaikh, a co–villager tried to obstruct the assailants. Outraged, the miscreants pulled off Sohagi’s sari, tied both her and Abdul with it and beat them up. They next tied Sohagi to a tree and kept beating her, saying she was being ‘tried.’
Every time Suhagi tried to say something, her face was pummelled with blows. Even Afroza, Suhagi’s daughter who begged with the assailants to spare her mother, was not spared. Sohagi was brutally beaten to death in front of all the villagers. When her husband, Kismat Sheikh, threatened to go to a court of law, he was severely beaten and fined Rs. 500 by the local court. Kismat Sheikh did not dare go to court, nor did the local Panchayat pradhan,Sakhawat Sheikh, dare utter a word against the anti–socials.
MALAPPURAM, Kerala: Thasni Banu, a 20–year–old Muslim girl is a final year BA student of the Unity College, Manjeri. A feminist in her leanings, she was in love with Nasser, a rationalist activist. She wanted to marry under the Civil Marriage Act, but her parents would have none of this. She was dismissed by her Muslim–managed college, confined at home and tortured by her own relatives. Deliverance came to her, finally, in the form of a habeas corpus petition filed by her lover in the Kerala High Court.
In the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, the intense communalisation of the atmosphere by the votaries of Hindutva that preceded it, and the countrywide riots that followed, a number of existing Muslim organisations got energised and some new ones emerged in different parts of the country to respond to the climate of extreme insecurity prevailing among the country’s Muslim minority. Initially, a number of these bodies allied themselves, formally or informally, with avowedly secular parties and rganisations to fight the ‘fascist’ threat.
For what seems to be a tactical shift on the part of the saffron brigade, Muslims have in the last year or so been relegated to the background while Christians have been identified as the new ‘enemy’. Ironically, while Muslims have thus been spared the wrath of ‘Hindu anger’, however temporarily, some of the very organisations which had come forward or emerged to protect the community from fascist forces have taken to fascist methods. And the hapless victims of the fanatics acting in the name of Islam are once again, ordinary Muslims.
It is equally ironic that the areas which the extremists have chosen to impose their Taleban–brand of Islam are Muslim majority districts in Kerala and West Bengal — two states ruled by communists who compared to other secular parties have had a relatively better track record, at least in respect of keeping communal violence in check. What is inexplicable, however, is the virtual silence of communists, the Congress and other avowedly secular parties and groups to this fresh assault on Muslims, the culprits this time being the ‘enemy within’.
We present below exclusive reports from Kerala, West Bengal and Maharashtra.
It is more than five years since a few young Muslim radicals took him away in a jeep and to this day, the case of the vanishing Maulavi remains a mystery in Kerala. The Quran Sunnath Society, an organisation which used to be headed by Maulavi Chekannur, held a series of agitations demanding the arrest of the culprits. Even the CBI has been involved in the inquiry but no one has been arrested till date. It is a case that seems destined to remain a mystery forever.
The Kerala Nadvathul Mujahedeen is a reformist Muslim organisation and its headquarters in Kozhikode, the Mujahid Centre, is the nerve centre of its activities. The centre brings out journals, defends religious reform activities and calls for a scientific approach in matters like sighting of the moon, which is the basis for the Islamic calendar, providing modern education to women, etc. It is more than six years now after a bomb exploded in the group’s headquarters partly damaging the office. But the police have made no headway in their inquiry.
In the Malabar region of Kerala, the Muslim majority areas in Malappuram and Kozhikode are now going through a fundamental transformation. This area has a past of religious tolerance, political turbulence and peasant revolts. Today, things are slowly taking a different shape. Religious intolerance and bigotry are replacing the gentler human feelings. The victims of this rising tide of fundamentalism and obscurantism are primarily the reform-minded individuals in the Muslim community itself, and Muslim women, who are proving to be a major target for the fundamentalist attacks.
The rise of Muslim fundamentalism in Malabar, especially in Malappuram, which is fast becoming its major fount, dates back to the days when traditional Muslim parties like the Indian Union Muslim League took a beating after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The Indian Union Muslim League, led by Panakkad Mohammedali Shihab Thangal, one of the most influential religious leaders in Malappuram, was at the receiving end of the Babri developments as the party was an ally of the Congress in the Kerala ruling front, even as the Narasimha Rao government faced flak for the demolition.
The Jamaat–e–Islami, the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO), the Islamic Sevak Sangh (ISS) of Abdul Nazer Mahdani, were among the fundamentalist groups in Kerala who were attacking the Muslim League for its opportunistic positions as the party failed to assess the deep–rooted resentment in the community over its continued alliance with the Congress after the Babri fall.
The period immediately after 1992 gave a firm footing for fundamentalist sections among the Muslim youngsters, most of whom were being inspired by the pan–Islamic revivalist slogans current in the state and were also flush with money from the Gulf, sent by their parents working out there.
The early nineties saw the rise of some rabidly communal and obscurantist groups which very soon gained such grassroots support. In a 1995 by–election at Tirurangadi, in the heart of Malappuram, from where chief minister A.K. Anthony sought election to the state assembly, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of Mahdani, the reincarnation of the banned ISS, garnered as many as 15,000 votes. Their campaign showed the dangerous turn the politics of Malappuram was taking and many secular persons became concerned about the ominous portents.
The Indian Union Muslim League, thus far the rallying point of all Muslim sections here, commanding over 90 per cent of the Muslim vote in the area, saw a virtual split in the middle of 1994, when Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait, an influential leader of the party, broke off and formed his own party, the Indian National League. While the IUML was in the Congrerss camp, the INL was keen to form a secular alliance with the CPM–led Left Democratic Front in Kerala and even held a series of talks with CPM general secretary, Harkishen Singh Surjeet. But the CPM later adopted an uncompromising approach towards the INL and Sait was forced to take up more anti–communist and anti–Left slogans in course of time.
Muslim radical and fundamentalist forces were actively involved in all these political developments. These sections were mainly led by the hardcore group that came from SIMI, a fundamentalist Muslim outfit which started out in the seventies as the student and youth wing of the Jamaat–e–Islami, but later broke off and became an independent movement.
The Islamic Sevak Sangh (ISS) and the National Development Front (NDF) are two groups which became active in the nineties, the first in the early years and the second in more recent years. The ISS, which was banned in 1993, evolved itself into a political party — People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — led by Mahdani who is now in jail for his alleged links to the Coimbatore bomb blasts.
The NDF became an all Kerala organisation after the ISS demise and now has branches all over the state. Its grassroot–level activities reveal its obscurantist and fundamentalist outlook in spite of its claims to being a human rights organisation working for the minorities, Dalits and other oppressed sections. It is now one of the main forces behind the Confederation of Human Rights Organisations (CHRO), launched in Kozhikode two years ago and led by Mukundan C. Menon.
The NDF is known to have been involved in many incidents of attacks on individuals, like the Thasni Bhanu case in Manjeri, Malappuram and the murder of a fakir in Kattikkulam near Shoranur. Some cases are also registered by the Manjeri police in connection with the persecution of Thasni, a poor, Muslim college girl, who chose to get married under the Special Marriage Act despite the fierce opposition of young fundamentalists in the area. She had finally to seek help from the Kerala High Court, an incident which exposed the serious threat these groups are posing to Muslim girls who are trying to break off from the traditional constraints imposed on them by society.
In connection with the murder of the Muslim fakir in Kattikkulam, the NDF had to suspend two of its active members in the area who were arrested on charges of murder. It is ironical that these organisations came into existence as a protest against the Muslim League’s submission to the Congress party in spite of grave threats to Muslim interests. They arrived on the scene with honourable slogans in defence of secularism and were even willing to join hands with the Left forces to defeat the Hindu fundamentalist forces. While willing to fight “Hindu fascists”, they have themselves proved not to be averse to using the same strong–arm tactics on members of their own community, as many recent incidents reveal.
Muslim political parties like the INL had to face an internal division over the role of NDF in its leadership. Some leaders of the INL like Jaffer Atholi, a journalist in Kozhikode and the INL founder–secretary, even resigned his post in protest against the way these secretive groups had made their way to the leadership of the party. He has alleged that some of these groups were receiving financial support from foreign countries.
Today, there is a growing resistance to the operations of these obscurantist groups within the Muslim community. There are more and more Muslim women coming into social and political life, thanks to the strict implementation of the policy of decentralisation of power through Panchayat Raj in the state and reservation of 33 per cent of seats for women. In Malappuram, a large number of Muslim women today occupy positions of power and they are now proving a formidable force against the fundamentalist ideas.
In fact, a debate is now on in the Muslim community in Kerala whether Muslim women should be allowed to enter the mosques to pray. The Mujahids and the Jamaat–e–Islami allow their women to go to mosques and pray, but the Sunnis, the major Muslim section in the state, discourage it. A Sunni group led by Kanthapuram A.P., Aboobacker Musaliar, one of the most conservative Muslim groups in Kerala, is firmly opposed to women in public life, or even in mosques.
He has called for the repeal of the provision of 33 per cent reservation for women, as he feels it would drag Muslim women into public life. But others like the Mujahids and the Jamaat–e–Islami are not happy with this line and are actively encouraging them to enter public life, though women are advised to stick to Islamic modesty and dress code. The Muslim League led by the Sunni religious figure Panakkad Shihab Thangal has recently formed a women’s wing, led by Qamarunnisa Anwar, a Mujahid lady who was outspoken in her comments against the denial of entry to Muslim women in mosques. The League formed its women’s wing in the face of fierce criticism from the conservative Sunni sections, who form the bulk of its support base.
The Jamaat–e–Islami has its own girls wing, the Girls Islamic Organisation (GIO), which is also actively encouraging girls to seek modern education and take up paying jobs.
If the fundamentalist forces in the state remained on the defensive at the time, it was only because of the secular cultural heritage of the state. In recent times, however, the atmosphere has undergone an alarming change. Just as many of the younger generation recruits who five years ago would have naturally joined the Left Front are now drifting towards the BJP, the move to unite Muslims on communal lines is being equally aggressively pursued under the leadership of Jamaat–e–Islami.
In many other states of India, the Jamaat–e–Islami, Hind, is seen by many well–informed and well–intentioned people as a relatively harmless, though conservative and obscurantist body. But the West Bengal unit of the Jamaat has an altogether different complexion. It has great ideological affinity and a close working relationship with the Jamaat–e–Islami in Bangladesh, which is notorious for the treacherous role it played during the Bangladesh liberation struggle and is a rabid political force today. Its character in West Bengal is also evident from the role the village ‘courts’ are playing in the border districts. Though the Jamaat is not directly involved in many local bodies, it covertly acts as an inspiring force. It will be no exaggeration to state that the Jamaat–e–Islami is doing in West Bengal what other Muslim organisations, clearly recognised as extremist or fanatical, are doing in other parts of the country.
The sphere of influence of this communal organisation has increased alarmingly in the recent period, particularly in those districts of West Bengal, Assam and Bihar that are on the Bangladesh border and where Muslims are sizeable in number. A survey, only recently completed by the home department of the West Bengal government, has confirmed a rapid growth of mosques and madrassas in the border districts. This growth is not just a passing phenomenon but represents a clear trend in the region.
According to the survey, of the 1,050 mosques in the districts along the Indo–Bangladesh border, the large majority have come up in the last few years. The survey has also reported a sharp increase in the number of unregistered madrassas. The intelligence branch (IB) has also carried out a demographic study of the Indo–Nepal border and has observed that a large number of Muslim settlements have come up on the WB–Bihar border in close proximity to the international boundary which, according to the IB, is a ‘potential hazard zone.’
Most of the settlers are poor and illiterate people from across the border. A sizeable number of Muslims who migrate from Bangladesh do so with the help of the Jamaat that with the help of local political leaders arranges for their stay and ration cards. The Jamaat has no dearth of finances, much of their resources coming from Arabian countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. The tri–junction of West Bengal, Bihar and Nepal with little police vigilance, forms an ideal breeding ground for ‘religious’ activists.
According to a confidential report, an official of the state education department has said that private madrassas are mushrooming and the department was literally flooded with appeals for their registration. A large number of applicants have even moved the courts to get these registered.
The BSF survey has revealed that over 100 new madrassas have come up in Calcutta, Krishnagar and Maldo sectors between 1982 and 1999. During the same period, the number of mosques have gone up by 200.
Propagating its ideology under the guise of Muslim interest and welfare, the Jamaat–e–Islami is leading the community in a most organised way towards religious fundamentalism. A systematic and aggressive campaign of the Jamaat–e–Islami is underway in the area to undermine Sufism — the liberal face of lived Islam in India — and Sufi saints.
As mentioned earlier, the past two decades has seen a record increase in the number of mosques and madrassas in West Bengal. Religious education that is the sole focus of teaching in these institutes teaches children of an impressionable age that Islam and Islam alone is the true religion in the world. The Left Front has failed not only in tackling the resurgence of such institutes, but has also remained inactive despite congregations and public meetings of the Jamaat–e–Islami that are attended by thousands of people coming all the way from distant places.
During the last week of February
1999, the Jamaat–e–Islami, Hind, organised a workshop of Muslims from Assam
and West Bengal at Dhulian in Murshidabad. Nearly 20,000 volunteers participated
in this workshop, of which about 7,000 were women. On February 27 and 28,
a public meeting organised by the group attracted more than 1,00,000 people,
far in excess of the estimates and expectations of the organisers. No outsider
was allowed entry in the workshop that was organised under tight security.
To reach out to a larger numbers of Muslims, the Jamaat also publishes
several periodicals and fortnightly journals, like Kalam, Nutan Gati, Mijaan,
to name a few. The Jamaat advocates women’s participation in the organisation,
but at the same time cautions them to follow Shariat rules that deny gender
Arjun Ghosh, the Murshidabad district leader of the Forward Bloc — a constituent of the Left Front — told the correspondent of Outlook magazine: “We (political parties) all look the other way when it comes to dealing with issues relating to Muslims. I do not have to spell out the reasons. Minority leaders belonging to the Congress, the CPI (M), the RSP and my party are aware of such kangaroo courts and their methods of justice. The Leftists tell me that they cannot ignore religion when it comes to dealing with specific social crimes or offences in the community.”
And Shantanu Roy, local CPI leader added: “This spells danger, as in Murshidabad we have had a long tradition of communal peace and harmony, which will surely be disrupted if such things continue. No wonder the RSS and the BJP are growing more powerful in border areas close to Bangladesh.”
(The scenario is alarmingly similar to the situation in Kerala, where, too, the self–proclaimed secular parties have been turning a blind eye to the Taleban–style functioning of local extremists. “The CPI(M) and the Congress want to appease the minorities and do not dare say a word,” S. Jabbar, himself a Muslim and the Malappuram district secretary of the Kerala Uktivadi Sanghom — Rationalist Association).
Ali Mian, an official of the district council told this correspondent: “Any member of the Panchayat who goes to the village court goes there on his own and not at the behest of the Panchayat”. The district administrator, however, accepts that “many of the judges of the village courts are anti–socials and they control the Panchayat.”
Incidents of rough and ready justice are on the increase day–by–day. The Left Front government and the Left parties have till now been indifferent towards these alarming trends. Only in recent months have mainline newspapers published from West Bengal, brought to public light over 100 such incidents of instant ‘Islamic’ justice meted out in the last two years by village courts in Murshidabad and other districts bordering Bangladesh. Until now, these so–called courts have enjoyed the support of the police and the local Panchayat. Only now, after a spate of news reports, does the administration show some sign of awakening to its duty.
Murshidabad, where these shocking
incidents, mostly directed at Muslim women, are taking place, has had a
tradition of communal harmony. But with the growth of these “Islamic
courts”, the RSS and the BJP influence is also on the increase. Predictably,
it is the BJP that is gaining propaganda mileage out of this situation.
To counter the increasing influence of the Muslim fundamentalists, BJP
is out to organise the Hindus and has already gained a fair amount of support.
In the recent elections, for the first time after independence, BJP polled
nearly 11 per cent votes in the state.
The women have two guests from Australia on that particular day, who have come to “share their experiences with their Indian sisters”. They relate parables of the prophet Mohammed in English, which gets translated by a young girl into Urdu for the benefit of the others. The stories speak of the persecution the Prophet, stoically faced at Mecca before the acceptance of Islam.
Towards the end, the women who are speaking burst out crying, asking for forgiveness of their own sins. “After all, we are all going to die”, they wail. “God save us from hell’s fires! God save us!” The entire room has women wailing or silently crying. For the Prophet? For their own sins? For fear of hell? The reasons may differ, but they all cry earnestly. After a few minutes, the crowd simmers down, prays silently, and short but pleasant conversations are held while moving towards the door for home. Most of them know each other well and will meet again. Tomorrow.
Call it hysteria, catharsis or simply religious awareness, the religious meet serves different functions for different women. For Muslim women in the city, the phenomenon is rather new — a result of a growing compulsion towards ‘knowing’ your own religion in all sections of the community.
“After the riots there has definitely been a spurt in religious activity. The Tablighi Jamaat, especially, has gained a lot of popularity in the city. The persecution of the riots was bound to create insecurity in the community. The Muslim is now looking towards his own community for protection. Simultaneously, there is also the feeling that the community and Islam need protection”, says Farida Lambey, vice-principal, Nirmala Niketan’s College of Social Work.
The result of a spurt in religious activity need not necessarily mean a growth in fundamentalism. However, in this case, there is some indication that such is the case. Says Yasmin Agha of Awaaz–e–Niswan (Women’s Voice), a grassroots level organisation that works with Muslim women, largely to resolve issues of divorce and maintenance, “Earlier, too, the burqa was common, but now we see it on very young girls as well. It has become more difficult for women to go out to work freely in certain Muslim dominated areas”.
Mohammed Aslam Ghazi, assistant secretary of the Jamaat–e–Islami, Hind (Maharashtra), while contradicting any community pressure on women says that though there was some amount of religious revival after the riots, it has now slacked off again. He adds, “After the riots those who earlier called themselves ‘secular’ and who had to face persecution simply because they were Muslims, began to turn back to Islamic tenets”.
Why after the riots? “God has said in the Quran that whenever you move away from My Word, I will send cruel tyrants to rule over and persecute you. That was what was happening. The Muslim was being persecuted by fascist and fanatic forces in the country”, says Ghazi.
The riots, therefore, came to be considered a ‘sign’, Allah’s warning against the decline of virtue and erosion of ‘Islamic values’ in the Muslim community itself. This has had immediate consequences for Muslim women. Says Yasmin, “After the riots some of the maulanas began saying things like, ‘Islam khatre mein hai. Aurton ki badhti azaadi aur behaya’i ki wajah se yeh sab hota hai’. (Islam is in danger. All this is happening because of the increasing freedom and vulgarity of the women).”
Organisations involved in women’s work, never really looked upon with favour, became clear targets. Says Arifa, from the Rah–e–Haq (Path of Truth), an organisation that works with women facing marital disputes, “It has become even more difficult to do our work after the riots. Before, there wasn’t as much problem. Now we have to face quite a bit of opposition. The boys of the area are constantly bad–mouthing us.”
However, this is not a straight tale of chauvinistic oppression. In fact, a large section of women seem to be a part of the religious revival. They hold their religious gatherings separately. Several religious organisations have opened up women’s wings. Madrassas offering alima courses have also sprung up at several places in the city. This five–year course involves the study of the Quran and hadith in detail. These women are required to don a full burqa with naqab, gloves and socks so as to cover every part of the body. ‘Even the finger nails should not be seen’ is the rule.
Of course, these women are exposed only to the Quranic interpretations and religious discourse of the men and most religious organisations use and propagate the more conservative interpretations of the Quran such as those of Abu Ala Maududi, a well–known conservative Quranic scholar.
Nahila Noorani of the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) explains that the women’s wing serves to cater to queries about Islam from women. But, as an organisation involved in research, how much research does the women’s wing contribute? “Well, the research is largely handled by the men”, she says matter of factly.
For Indian women, who have never really been allowed entry into the arena of religious study and religious interpretation, this at least gives them a possibility of a forum, a beginning. Besides, it gives the woman a connection to her community at large, rather than keeping her in segregation from any public contact. However, the women also become tools to ratify the patriarchal version of religion that they are exposed to.
“There are largely four categories of Muslim women”, says Prof. Lambey, “One is the victim who can’t really do much and simply has to follow the rules set by her family or community. The second is the ‘secular’ Muslim woman who is hardly accepted by the larger community. The third is the religious woman, who within the parameters of her religion wants to do something to improve the status of women. And the fourth is the Muslim woman who has turned towards religion in search of her own identity and roots. This is the woman who is joining the women’s wing of various religious organisations. But still, I would not call the Muslim woman a fanatic. She is still more open–minded than the man, who is much more rigid.”
However, a look at Muslim organisations that women are allied to is not very encouraging. The IRF, unlike most other Muslim religious organisations targets the educated Muslim and non–Muslim youth and “has always promoted tolerance” in Manzoor Sheikh’s words. The organisation’s pamphlets on comparative religion, distributed free of charge to interested individuals, become a pretext to glorify Islam in comparison with other religions by taking material out of context from other religious texts and providing simplistic conclusions on that basis. (See box).
The Tablighi Jamaat is not an organisation, but a religious movement of sorts working at a primary level to impart basic religious knowledge. The movement, says Asghar Ali Engineer, is one that appeals on an emotional level and is therefore very successful at the grassroots level.
The Jamaat–e–Islami, Hind, primarily organises seminars on religious issues and publishes books and pamphlets on various aspects of Islam. It is also the founder body of the Muslim Personal Law Board. It was only in the 80’s that the Jamaat declared its belief in secularism, which earlier it considered haram (forbidden).
The Student’s Islamic Movement of
India (SIMI), ostensibly advocates amity between religions and invites
non–Muslims to their symposia on Islam. In effect, however, they ridicule
the belief systems of other religions.
Cultural and character control usually
means control of women. Responding to what he would do if his wife wished
to work and refused to don the burqa, Ghazi replied, “Well, I would explain
to her my position and the injunction of Islam. If she still wished to
work I would insist on her observing the purdah. And if that also she refuses,
then the last measure left to me is to divorce her. Of course, she, too,
has the choice to divorce me if she does not
All these organisations, whether the Tablighi Jamaat or the Jamaat–e–Islami, propagate similar patriarchal positions justified on the basis of religion. These have always existed and are not a result of a call for religious revival, but in the present communal climate, they have managed to garner stauncher support.
Professor Lambey points out that the move towards religion is visible not only in Mumbai, but also in Ratnagiri, Latur, Marathwada, and several other non–urban areas in the State. “And this has lots to do with the riots. Zakir Naik (an Islamic evangelist), for example, has become hugely popular in the Muslim slum areas. His lectures, telecast for two or three hours daily on the cable networks, get wide viewership. His popularity itself is a commentary on the fact that the Muslim lay person is looking at this as one force that is countering Hindu fascism.”
Another aspect of this ‘revival’ is the significant participation of youth. Prof. Lambey explains: “Growing religious conservatism amongst the youth is not found only amongst the Muslims. It is related to the larger issues of unemployment and lack of educational opportunities. That is the reason that the Shiv Sena or the various jamaats can have such a large youth work force. They both tap the anger and frustration of the youth. Young Muslims, who cannot trust the existent political leadership and don’t have any of their own, are turning towards the religious leadership. Besides, these religious organisations, like the Shiv Sena shakhas, are the ones involved in the welfare work for the community that the government should have been doing.”
The insecurity in the community means that any move for reform, especially from outside the community, is opposed vehemently. And if it comes from within the community, chances are it will be considered treachery. In the current political scenario, it is also feared that the call for reforms could become a tool in the hands of the Hindutva brigade. Lambey cites the example of Muslim women’s organisations that had been demanding a uniform civil code for years. “Yet, when the government picked up the issue they did not come forward. Because they knew they were liable to be used as tools against their own community in the process.”
She adds that the move towards rigid assertion of identity is also a reaction to the section of Muslims who, after the riots, joint hands with the aggressors in a bid for assimilation with the mainstream. “They are the section that supported the Shiv Sena. The other extreme took the route of rigid assertion of identity and moved towards religious ghettoisation and dogmatism”.
The more rigid the masses become, the more difficult it is for progressive forces to voice their opinions and gain any hearing. As Asghar Ali Engineer has learnt, it is not easy to speak of reform. His call for reform within an authoritarian priesthood amongst the Bohras (see box), was answered with ex–communication and attempts on his life. He continues his writings and seminars. Though “the response has been tremendous in terms of awareness, in terms of numbers it is disappointing. Nobody will openly speak out against the clergy for fear of ex–communication.” Similarly, says Lambey, not too many would be willing to take on a more scientific or radical approach to the Quran, “because it is considered ‘sacred’ territory which must not be ‘meddled’ with.”
As elsewhere, sects, factions and internal frictions are inevitable in case of doctrinaire faith. Last year, Eid celebrations were disrupted by minor riots between two clear sections in the community — popularly called the chaubees number and the chabbees number (number 24 and number 26). The difference in the groups is that of belief in dargahs and other such rituals or traditions that have always been part of the Muslim community in India and the sub–continent. Though the divide was always there, with the emergence of the Tabligh and other organisations, such as the Sunni dawat–e–Islami, etc., who rigidly believe and advocate return to the ‘pure’ traditions of Islam, the community is facing a growing divide. The call to ‘purge’ religion of ‘foreign’ elements which are rooted in the interaction of the Muslims with the other religions and traditions prevalent in the country, itself reflects the mood prevalent in the community.
Lambey looks to the Muslim woman as the source for positive change. “What is really needed”, says Lambey, “is a third movement, free from fascism, but which does not throw out Islam altogether in the name of secularism. That would be throwing out the baby with the bath–water. We need to build a bridge to the women going to ijtemas and increase interaction with them since their exposure to the world is obviously limited. From there leadership will emerge.” Amen!
N.P. Chekutty in Calicut,
Geetesh Sharma in Calcutta,
and Sufiya Pathan in Mumbai