March 1999
Cover Story

Syedna’s slaves 

Being born into a family of Dawoodi Bohras, a sub–sect among Shia Muslims, you do not automatically become a Dawoodi Bohra yourself. You become one on attaining puberty only after swearing an oath of allegiance — misaq — to the sect’s Dai (head priest). The present head priest is named Syedna Burhanuddin. 

On the face of it, this appears to be a fine arrangement — you voluntarily choose to become a Dawoodi Bohra by accepting the oath of allegiance to the Dai. But that is theory. The fact is if you are born into a Dawoodi Bohra, you have very little choice at the age of puberty but to sign on the dotted line. And accepting the misaq is nothing short of agreeing to a state of life–long bondage to the head priest and his agents.

The oath means the acceptance of the Dai not merely as your religious head but also as absolute dictator controlling all aspects of the life of all members of the community. Among other things, the misaq document commits you to the following:

“If a person taking the oath breaks it, all his possessions, i.e., moveables, cash, housing, utensils, jewels, ornaments, carriages, horses, cattle, milching cows, she buffaloes, slaves, males and females, and all worldly material become unlawful for him. All his property is liable to be looted and distributed among the poor and the needy. When he takes the oath again and accepts all the terms of the covenant then his things become lawful to him and then he is entitled to get his things back.

“And if the breaker of the covenant has a wife, that wife becomes forbidden to him. The breach (of covenant) has the effect of the three talaaqs (divorce) against his wife… The woman can never marry him again, neither can he take her as a wife.”

Having accepted the misaq, be sure to seek the raza (consent) of the Syedna or his agents in everything you do. This means that marriage, construction of house, starting a business, opening a school or creating a trust, standing for elections, or even voting for a certain candidate is not possible without prior permission of the Dai. Any member who does not take the raza of the Syedna before any such actions is liable to baraat. 

The breach of oath brings complete social ostracism or baraat. Baraat means total social boycott of the individual. Those socially boycotted can no longer associate with any other Dawoodi Bohra, not even their own family members, nor are they allowed entry in the community mosques or burial in the ancestral grounds.

The use of misaq, raza and baraat is intended to effectively and absolutely enslave members of the Bohra community to the head priest so as to allow him to financially exploit the community to the extent he wishes, and interfere in their social and secular affairs, virtually reducing them to the position of pawns and puppets in his hands. 

To seek escape from the tyranny of the Syedna, reform–minded Bohras approached the human rights group Citizens for Democracy in 1978. The CFD appointed a Commission which came to be known as the Nathwani Commission. On the basis of the evidence placed before it, the Commission found “widespread violation of human rights of Bohra community members and recounted instances of mental and physical torture of those who raised their voice calling for truly religious functioning of the high priest against his authoritarian methods.”

Successive governments chose to ignore the recommendations of the Nathwani Commission even while the Syedna’s tyranny continued. As a result, a second commission comprising of Justice Debi Singh Tewatia, former chief justice of the Calcutta High Court, and veteran journalist and the CFD chairman, Kuldip Nayar was appointed in 1992. After recording evidence placed before it, the Tewatia Commission came to the following conclusions:

“Ours is the second Commission after a lapse of 14 years. It is painful to find that the Syedna has not learnt anything from the criticism that the Nathwani Commission, the first one, made about his working. In fact, he has become worse now, not even bothered about what others say, much less the Dawoodi Bohra community which he heads. No community among the Muslims has suffered so much and for so long as the Dawoodi Bohras have done at the hands of a leader, who continues to be dictatorial, ruthless and unmindful of cruelties he perpetrates.

“The community is not against the office he holds but against his functioning, which indeed reflects a personal rule of a whimsical type. In the name of religion and God, he has structured an ungodly, irreligious and inhuman order, the like of which will shame even the most despotic rulers. That he continues to defy even the minimum norms of free expression and freedom in an open democratic society like India’s is a slur on the nation and that he does it with impunity is a challenge to every thinking person.

“There are some heart–rending accounts of those who have dared to cross his path. He has destroyed families, separated children from their parents, wives from their husbands and sisters from their brothers. He has put up blood relations against one another to act as spies. It is like Big Brother watching you. Even hearsay has been punished severely. He has driven many members of his community to desperation and many among them have gone into oblivion, some have tried to finish their lives. Indeed, it must be crushing for a person, who after having been ex–communicated cannot bury his dear ones in the ancestral grave–yard and cannot expect even his close relations to commiserate with him.

“His mode of working is to strike terror in the minds of his followers. They dare not question the Syedna. Even the highly–placed among them obey him and his petty subordinates blindly. Any tax imposed or money demanded is paid obediently, although most members of the community are aware of the luxuries in which he and his family wallow.
“Yet, some community members have not stopped fighting against the Syedna’s dictatorship. More and more are joining them despite threats to them by their relatives and friends. They want the community’s conscience free. It goes to the credit of reformists that they have created an awakening even among those who once considered their cause hopeless. Even at the expense of all indignities and discriminations, their fortitude and determination remains undiminished. 
“We had the privilege of meeting a few of them in the course of our hearings. Their faith in the righteousness of their cause sustains them. As days go by, their resolve is getting firmer and their optimism stronger. To the extent the rest of the community, more so the nation on the whole, responds to their sufferings, will depend the future of the reformists’ movement. They have borne the burden of Syedna’s tyranny for too long single-handed. The rest of the countrymen have to help them discipline Syedna and his musclemen.

 “Our investigations have revealed that the Dowoodi Bohra Head Priest, Syedna Saheb, has made unbridled use of baraat against those who belong to the reformist Bohra Movement, their relations, their friends and those who associate themselves socially with them. The same is the fate of those who question the head priest’s personal takeover of the community and trust properties, the amounts collected by way of various levies, salaams, nazaranas and the sums obtained from those on whom he confers religious titles. Even such secular activities as the construction of a house, the starting of an association, co–operative society and launching of educational and medical institutions, etc., if done without his raza (permission) also attracted his wrath and consequential social boycott. So did reading of books/newspapers banned by the head priest.

“While examining the concept of misaq, we find that the working is so designed that it reduces a follower to the position of a bonded labourer to the head priest. The administration of oath by the head priest is violative of the provisions of Section 371 of Indian Penal Code as also of the provisions of Article 19 (I) of the Constitution. It is destructive of the human rights of the members of the Dawoodi Bohra community. The obedience to misaq is enforced by the threat of imposition of baraat.

“The imposition of baraat against a member amounts to much more than mere ex–communication. It involves blatant persecution of ordinary people, causing financial ruination, breaking marriages, snapping family relations and likes. Such punishment to a person by his caste, community or sect, is totally against the norms of human rights and civilised social existence. Since the head priest wields a clout in social, economic, political and religious affairs, it is difficult for an individual or group of individuals to match his sway. Therefore, it becomes a constitutional obligation of the state to protect human rights of such citizens in all respects”.

But nearly six years after the Tewatia Commission’s findings were made public, the Bohra head priest continues to treat his followers as bonded labour within the boundaries of free, democratic and secular India.

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