Udaipur History - 1

History of reform movement in Udaipur - Part 1

Udaipur has always been a centre of dissent. But a series of incidents in the early Seventies changed the minds of the Bohras forever. So much so that even the visit by the Sayedna on 7 March 1998 - after 30 years - could not persuade the progressive Bohras from abandoning their path of reform. The following are extracts from The Bohras by Asghar Ali Engineer.

by Ashgar Ali Engineer

Udaipur is a picturesque city of lakes surrounded by rugged mountains. Once the capital of the Ranas of Mewar, it harbors a sizable population - around 12,000 to 13000 - of the Dawoodi Bohras. In terms of population it ranks third after Bombay. Up to 1947 most of the Bohras, in keeping with their age-old tradition, carried on petty or middle level business. However, the partition of the country and consequent inflow of Sindhi immigrants adversely affected the Bohra economy in Udaipur. Many shops were destroyed during the riots in the wake of partition and, apart from this loss, they had to face stiff competition from the Sindhi community which was no less skilled in doing business.

The bohras thus no longer enjoyed the monopoly of business they once had in Udaipur. They had now to explore other areas to keep themselves going. Many of them realized the importance of higher education in the changed circumstances as it could enable them to secure government and other jobs. Moreover, Udaipur, being the capital city of the erstwhile Rana, had good facilities for modern education. Many Bohras thus turned towards higher education and within a decade and a half there was hardly any family without a matriculate or a graduate. The Bohra women too took to education and today there are many graduates among them.

Although education did not breed indifference towards religion or make them rational (I am saying this on the basis of my own field investigations in Udaipur), it did make them conscious of their individual rights and human dignity. Even this much reorientation of attitude on the part of the younger generation was enough to generate pressure in favor of change in the behavioral pattern of the priesthood towards its followers.

They could no longer be treated as mere slaves nor could their rights be easily trifled with, as in the past. It is not insignificant that the whole revolt centered around democratic rights to contest elections or elect members of jamaat and not around any religious question or heresy. In this chapter we shall deal with this revolt and its aftermath in detail as it is an important milestone in the history of the Bohra reform movement.

The reform movement in the early twentieth century or even little earlier had its echo in Udaipur. But, like in other parts of India, it remained confined to a few families. These families were harassed and persecuted. In this connection I talked to some very old persons who knew about these events first hand. Ghulam Abbas Akbar Ali Khakerwala aged 72, and Tiriwala aged 92, were quite knowledgeable. According to them around 90 years ago there was a dispute about the accounts of the jamaat. The Kurawarhwala family kept the accounts. Rajabali Paliwala wanted the Kurawarhwala family to account for the jamaat funds.

On refusal by the Kurawarhwala family to do so, there was a violent quarrel and many people involved in it were jailed by the local ruler. The chief pontiff of that time sided with Kurawarhwala family and he declared ‘salam band’ (it meant excommunication) against the Paliwala family and those who were in his party. Many marriages were solemnized independently by one Shaikh Taiyabali - a rebel priest. Many of these events, as we shall see, had remarkable parallel with the developments in Udaipur.

At that time too, as has happened again, the Bohras of Udaipur divided in two parties: the Kurawarhwala or the Sayedna party and the Paliwala or anti-Sayedna party. The matter went to the court. The jamaat hall was locked and the key was kept with the local police officials. Either party for using the hall or the utensils had to apply to these officials. Rajabali Paliwala maintained in the court of law that they were not bound by every order - religious or otherwise - of the high priest.

Missappropriation of Jamaat funds

Later on, reconciliation took place in both the groups and the Kurawarhwala family not only submitted accounts but also tendered public apology for misappropriation of jamaat funds. All the marriages performed independently by the rebel priest were recognized by Sayedna Badruddin, the pontiff. But the Paliwala family stopped taking interest in the jamaat affairs.

However, the reconciliation did not last much longer. With the filing of the Chandabhai Gulla case in 1917, the Paliwala family came out actively in support of the reformist group. Jeevanali Rajabali Tajkhanwala, belonging to the Paliwala family played a very active role in support of the reformist group in Bombay and Burhanpur. There were violent incidents between the two groups in Udaipur and ultimately Jeevanali and his supporters (some ten or twelve families) had to leave the Hathipole area (where the Bohra mohalla was situated). They were excommunicated. In 1924 Shaikh Rajabali, the rebel priest died. The local 'amil refused to give permission for his burial despite an offer of apology by his sons.

Even the government authorities did not succeed in persuading the 'amil to allow the Shaikh to be buried. At last the Maharaja of Udaipur sent his army to help dissidents bury the body. From then on the Jeevanali party was completely segregated. In 1936 some members of this group formed a society called Anjuman-e-Rifahal Muminin (society for the welfare of the faithfuls). The orthodox followers of the high priest opposed its activities and there were violent scenes. A boy was killed in these clashes. The orthodox party soon established its sway and only a few families remained with Jeevanali. Most of these families migrated to Pakistan after partition. Some of them rejoined the orthodox mainstream in Udaipur as well as Karachi.

Many people who had sympathies with the reform movement hid their feelings until 1970 when things began to take a different shape once again. Moreover, as indicated above, a silent socio-economic revolution was taking place in Udaipur from 1947 onwards. During this period a class of highly educated people (both male as well as female) was coming into existence which no longer depended on petty business for its livelihood. This revolution, naturally, brought about attitudinal changes of a far reaching character i.e., greater awareness of their individual rights and democratic privileges. This class began to resent priestly domination over the secular sphere too in the name of religion.

Matters came to a head in the 1970 municipal elections in Udaipur. It is a well-known fact that the priestly establishment tried to influence the Bohra voters in favour of a political party of its choice - invariably the ruling party i.e., the Congress. There are many instances of letters having been written by the high priest's secretariat (al-Wizaratus Saifiya) to the local 'amils ordering them to direct the Bohra voters to vote in favour of the Congress. In Udaipur there is Bohra majority in four municipal wards. The local priest usually nominated candidates for these wards. In 1970, the local Congress unit requested the 'amil to nominate four candidates to whom party tickets could be given for the ensuing municipal elections.

The 'amil was under the influence of one Zakir Kurawarhwala who was alleged to be corrupt. He recommended four names to the 'amil who forwarded them to the Congress party. The educated youth resented this as the 'amil turned down their request to nominate four candidates who enjoyed the confidence of the Bohras of Udaipur. The Congress of course, gave tickets to those who were nominated by the 'amil as they expected that the Bohras will vote only for those candidates nominated by the 'amil. The Youth Party thus had no other alternative but to set up its candidates independently which they did.

Matter of prestige
The Youth Party was led by Ghulam Husain - a highly popular social worker who enjoyed the confidence of the Udaipur Bohras. Ghulam Husain was politically well connected and used his political influence for helping his co-religionists whereas Zakir Husain Kurawarhwala was alleged to have used the same for personal ends. What was worse, Zakir Husain Kurawarhwala was openly patronized by the high priest's establishment. There was much anger against this among the Bohras in Udaipur.

Thus the municipal elections aroused much passion among the Bohra populace of Udaipur as the verdict at the hustings became a matter of prestige for both the parties. The verdict was clearly in favour of the Youth Party as all its candidates inflicted a crushing defeat on those blessed by the local priest at the instance of the high priest's establishment at Bombay.

The defeat of the candidates officially blessed by the priestly establishment became the turning point of the struggle of the youth for democratic rights denied them for a long time. The verdict at the polls was significant in more senses than one. It should also be borne in mind that the verdict was certainly not against the religious sanctity of the high priest and the Dawat-e-hadiya (the holy mission) represented by him. It was rather against the corrupt practices of certain individuals patronized by the high priest's establishment.

Men and women, old and young alike had voted for the Youth group which, besides service and dedication, stood for democratic functioning. The priestly establishment was aghast at the results coming from Udaipur. All its nominees lost by a heavy margin. The local 'amil was also highly embarrassed by the defeat of his candidates and had to bless the victorious procession of the elected candidates from Bohra ward.

However, the priestly establishment at Bombay was very unhappy at the developments at Udaipur. It treated the defiance of its order to vote for the candidates nominated by the local priest as a defiance against the religious authority of the Sayedna. The elected Bohra candidates were called at Bombay and reprimanded for their “erroneous behavior” in contesting the elections without the permission of the high priest. An apology was demanded from them. The Youth Party refused to tender any apology and maintained that they had informed the local priest of their intention to contest the elections and that it was he who, under the influence of certain elements, turned down their request for the Congress party tickets. The high priest's case was completely unjustified.

To begin with, the high priest, realizing the significance of the democratic rights of the Bohras and the passions aroused by the resentment against violation of their democratic rights, saw no other alternative but to patch up with Ghulam Husain. He was even blessed by the title of a Mulla to placate him and his supporters. But, it is alleged by the Youth Party, that it was merely an outward gesture or a tactical move to bide time. Zakir Husain Kurawarhwala whose overlordship was resented by the Bohras in Udaipur, did not loose favour with the Sayedna; on the contrary he was given the still higher title of Shaikh.

Resentment against Zakir Husain
The priesthood, it is alleged, wanted to maintain close contact with Zakir Husain as he was instrumental in arranging the high priest's visits to Udaipur and also ziyafat (dinner parties) at the houses of Bohras. Though the Bohras of Udaipur had expressed their strong resentment against Zakir Husain through Municipal elections, the priesthood continued to patronise him.

When Ghulam Husain, the leader of the Youth Party, returned from Bombay the Jamaat of Udaipur organised a big reception for him which was attended by the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Mohanlal Sukhadia. Zakir Husain, although he was awarded a higher title by the high priest, was not given any reception; not only that, he was criticized by the speakers in the reception held in honour of Ghulam Husain. This created more bitterness. Zakir Husain in desperation took to some steps which made him more unpopular.

The jamaat had a plot of land and around Rs. 70,000 in balance. It was decided by the jamat committee to construct shops to create a permanent source of income. Zakir Husain, in order to increase his leverage, was planning to utilize this amount for arranging the high priest's visit to Udaipur. The younger people were against “squandering” money on such a visit. In order to forestall construction of shops, Zakir Husain tried to get the plot of land declared as municipal land. This move created much strong feelings against him.

The Bohra youth of Udaipur were no longer prepared to put up with the corrupt practices indulged in by a coterie of people with clear approval form priestly establishment. Moreover, they felt that the priesthood was virtually doing nothing to promote the welfare of the local Bohras although it took away a large sum annually from their town. Thus in 1971, some young educated people met together with the avowed objective of forming the Bohra Youth Association. An ad-hoc committee was framed and its aims and objects were decided. To promote welfare of the community, to spread education and create more awareness about the political, social and economic matters, were some of its aims.

Exposing corrupt practices
The Bohra Youth Association, due to its sincere work, soon became a popular forum for all those who were against corrupt practices and who desired more liberty to work for the betterment of the community. It started a monthly bulletin which exposed the corrupt practices of a small coterie enjoying the Sayedna's confidence. It was because of such public exposures that it became very difficult for this coterie to arrange the high priest's visit to Udaipur. The organ became very popular among the Bohras of Udaipur.

The Bohra Youth Association, slowly expanded its activities and arranged an Eid-Diwali Milan programme in November1972 (this programme went on to be celebrated for many years). Many ministers of the state of Rajasthan were invited to speak on this occasion. The local priest refused to give permission for this function and issued a firman forbidding the Bohras from attending it.

However, the function was held and a large number of Bohras participated in it despite instructions to the contrary by the local 'amil. This was the second instance of defying priestly orders on a large scale, the first being voting against those candidates in the Municipal elections who were blessed by the priestly establishment. The high priest's establishment was aghast at such mass defiance and was waiting for an appropriate opportunity to teach them a lesson.

Meanwhile the Bohra Youth Association gained more popularity among the Bohras of Udaipur due to its activities which benefited a large number of Bohras. It founded the Urban Cooperative Bank in 1972. It made good progress and was given licence within one year by the Reserve Bank of India which was no mean achievement for such a small bank. This bank served the needs of a large number of needy Bohras. All this was in sharp contrast to the activities of the priestly establishment and its coterie which did nothing but extract money from the people.

The high priest, therefore, brought pressure on Ghulam Husain to dissolve the Bohra Youth Association and the Urban Cooperative Bank as well. When questioned, the high priest maintained that the Bohra Youth Association was established without his permission and that interest was forbidden in Islam and so banking too cannot be permitted. The priestly family itself had no hesitation in depositing money in banks and lending it on interest. The motive was to break the back of the Bohra Youth Association.

Ghulam Husain, on behalf of the youth, refused to oblige the high priest and maintained - rightly so - that he was not authorized to carry out the high priest's orders. The high priest's secretariat thereupon issued a firman to dissolve the bank as the same was established without prior permission of the priesthood. The priesthood also insisted on the dissolution of the Bohra Youth Association on the same grounds.

The priesthood was now determined to force its decision on the people of Udaipur. It may be recalled that the high priest and his establishment do not recognize the fundamental rights of the Bohras as citizens of India to form an association or to freely express their views etc., and it was for this reason that Morarji Desai had a