May 2011 
Year 17    No.157
Human Rights

A century of oppression 0

The Bohra high priest and his hundred years


These days more than a million Bohras worldwide are furiously engaged in celebrating (or being made to celebrate?) the 100th birthday of their religious head, the 52nd dai, or ‘summoner to the faith’. Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin is 52nd in the chain of duat (plural of dai) which started in Yemen with the first dai, Zoeb bin Musa (d. 1151 AD). However, when the political situation in Yemen became difficult to live with, the 23rd dai, Syedna Izzuddin, nominated an Indian named Yusuf Najmuddin as his successor and 24th dai and India has remained the main centre of the dawah, or mission, ever since. The Bohras belong to the Ismaili Shiite branch of Islam.

The Bohras in India are all converts from Hinduism to Islam who belonged mainly to the middle caste of traders. The majority of them are still traders who live mainly in Indian trading centres such as Ahmedabad, Surat, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Pune, Chennai, Cochin, Hyderabad, Indore and so on. They were all converted in Gujarat and speak Gujarati. The word Bohra is most likely a corruption of the Gujarati word ‘vohra’ derived from ‘vyavahar’ (to trade).

Today Bohras live all over the world. Most of them are of Indian origin and speak Gujarati wherever they are. Since they are basically traders, they, like other Muslim trading communities in India i.e. Khojas and Memons, are prosperous compared to other Indian Muslims (There is however a lot of poverty among a section of Bohras, many of whom live in slums in cities like Mumbai.)

The Bohras and Khojas are two communities in Islam that have developed a churchlike structure and are tightly controlled, particularly the former, by the priesthood. It is easier for the priesthood to control a community if it happens to consist largely of traders, as traders possess a very different psychology, that of submission and peace. There is hardly any dissent, as it leads to turmoil and affects the peaceful conditions necessary for trade and commerce. And being historically involved in commerce, they had little or no time for the intellectual activities so vital for dissent.

However, with the onset of modernity in the beginning of the 20th century, dissent did emerge as the younger generation took to modern education and entered the legal, medical, engineering and other professions. Two lawyers from Burhanpur challenged the then dai for his refusal to permit modern education; the dai responded by excommunicating them.

This marked the beginning of the reform movement in the Dawoodi Bohra community, a movement that has continued until today. Modernity created the space for such issues as modern education and other forms of intellectual dissent. The priestly establishment, unused to dissent in any form, required nothing but total submission which was no longer possible. The Bohra religious establishment (called kothar in Gujarati) let loose oppression to deal with the situation.

Moreover, with the growth of modern means of communication like railways, motor transport, the telephone and telegraph under British rule, trade expanded, becoming much more profitable than before. The Bohra dai became much wealthier by extracting more money from his followers and he used this money-power to wield greater political influence. The then dai, Syedna Taher Saifuddin, father of the present dai, shrewdly exploited his increased power to ruthlessly put down dissent in the community. Abdul Hussein Adamjee Peerbhoy – son of industrialist and philanthropist Adamjee Peerbhoy – the man responsible for the construction of the Matheran Hill Railway in the early 1900s, dared to challenge the high priest but was ruined in the process.

Notwithstanding all this repression however, dissent did not disappear; it flourished. When India became independent, reformists had new hope of support from a democratic India. But the priesthood attempted to “manipulate external democracy” (as the American scholar, Theodore Wright Jr, put it) “to frustrate the internal democracy” within the Bohra community. Fat donations to political parties (all except those of the left) bought the high priest their support. Even parties like the Shiv Sena and BJP obliged the syedna.

Worse still, the well-known Sunni ulema and Muslim political leaders all supported the high priest while he made donations to their organisations. The reformists were initially accused of ‘heresy’ and ‘non-belief’ and hence, according to these Muslim leaders, they had no right to challenge the dai. Even when in 1988 the Bohra dai openly pronounced curses on the first three caliphs – highly revered by Sunni Muslims as companions of the prophet – and there were riots between Bohras and Sunni Muslims in Mumbai in which three persons were killed, the Sunni leaders and Congress leaders came to his rescue. He tendered an apology and the matter was hushed up.

The Bohra high priest’s establishment is very powerful and, as we have always maintained, any religion which becomes an establishment loses its religiosity and spirituality and turns instead into a den of corruption. This is the history of all organised religions. Syedna sahib has a large family (consisting of more than 200 members) dependent on the income from seven taxes collected in the name of Islam, which runs into hundreds of crores of rupees every year. This income has multiplied several fold as Bohras went abroad and began to earn in pounds and dollars.

The high priest collects these taxes in ruthless and coercive ways, as shown by the report of the Justice Nathwani Commission appointed by Shri Jayaprakash Narayan (the then chairman of Citizens for Democracy) in 1978. The commission, comprising, among others, legal luminaries and eminent human rights activists like Justice VM Tarkunde and academics like professors Alam Khundmiri and Moin Shakir, concluded that: “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 and his amils [local priests], even in purely secular matters, are subjected to baraat [excommunication], resulting in complete social boycott, mental torture and frequent physical assaults.” (This writer was assaulted five times, including once in Cairo.)

The Nathwani Commission conducted its inquiry into the violation of human rights in the Bohra community in the late 1970s; little has changed since then. The violations go on and hundreds of Bohras continue to suffer.

The reformists want this to stop; they want democratic and accountable functioning by the priesthood. In fact, had there been any degree of religiosity, there would have been humane treatment of followers. The high priest turned 100 (according to the Islamic calendar; he is 96 according to the Gregorian one) but he and his establishment have not mended their ways. On the contrary, he has become much more repressive and now uses modern technology as an effective tool. The kothar has recently issued digital identity cards without which you cannot enter a Bohra mosque or jamaatkhana or mausoleum, and the card is only issued to those who have paid all taxes and not shown any sign of dissent.

On the syedna’s 100th birthday we saw an extensive propaganda campaign launched through newspaper advertisements projecting him as an ‘ambassador of peace, harmony and goodwill’. The Times of India alone carried nine pages of advertisements on the day of his birth and several other English, Gujarati and Hindi papers did much the same thing. Similarly, crores are being spent on several celebratory events and this will go on for a whole year. Are these the ways of a spiritual leader? A man is known by his actions, not by the outpouring of a propaganda machine.

(Asghar Ali Engineer is a noted Bohra reformist and human rights activist.)


Big Brother is watching

New ID cards disconcert Bohra Muslims


Rasheeda, a doctoral student in a university in America, recently received an email with a litany of instructions on how she should get herself photographed: “grey background, full face, front view, open eyes, centre of frame, 25x30 mm, 300 DPI, no flash reflection, ambient light, colour of kurta/ rida should not be grey or golden”.

“Even the US visa office issues fewer instructions,” Rasheeda thought, before dutifully reporting to a local mosque that was running a special photography camp. “I can’t afford to take this lightly,” she explains. “The photograph will be used for a card that’s my passport to my community. Without it, I will be an outcast.”

For the last few months, in different villages, cities and continents, lakhs of Bohras have been racing to get themselves photographed for the new ejamaat card. Ejamaat is an Internet database where every Bohra must enter his or her personal and professional details. The ejamaat card is an electronic encapsulation of this information – a sort of identity card. Both the database and the cards are controlled by the dawah.

The use of newer, more powerful technology has created ripples of anxiety within the community. “Please tell me what these cards are for. Are they like swipe cards to track entry and exit to the mosque?” asked a blogger on a reformist Bohra website. “I am worried about the protection of the information they hold,” said another.

In an emailed response, Qureish Raghib, a clergy spokesperson, described the upgradation of the card as “an expression of joy and gratitude for our spiritual leader”. He also listed the card’s multiple uses: “attending the local masjid, visiting shrines for pilgrimage, getting entry passes for religious and cultural events, solemnising marriage, participating in a community quiz or Koran memorisation competition or a community-organised car rally”.

The only time Abeeda Khokhawala used her previous card was to attend a Muharram gathering at Marol masjid in Mumbai. “With the new card I imagine our presence in the masjid, the number of times we visit, how long we stay, everything will be recorded seamlessly and entered into the database.” This makes her brother baulk. “I don’t go to the masjid often. Will they use the data to penalise me?” Another businessman worries he might get caught for “tax evasion”. He lives in Mumbai but pays religious taxes in his ancestral town in Gujarat. “The tax is 200 rupees in Gujarat but it is 1,000 rupees in Mumbai. The next time I go to pray in a mosque in Mumbai they could track me down using this new technology and confront me for evading tax.”

Many fear the card will unleash an Orwellian nightmare. “Please don’t quote me. I can neither get married nor buried without the clergy’s approval,” says a young student, before narrating how, a week before getting photographed, he stopped shaving his stubble, since adult males in the community are forbidden from trimming their beards. “If you’d noticed, the last line of the instructions says photographs should not be digitally altered,” he says, both amused and alarmed. “That’s a warning to those like me who might try a digital shortcut at getting a beard.”

(Names and identities have been changed or hidden on request.)

(This article was published on The Times of India website on March 6, 011.)

Courtesy: The Times of India;

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