Udaipur History - 2

History of reform movement in Udaipur - Part 2

Moreover, throughout India as well as other countries a priestly firman was issued - mostly by word of mouth so as not to involve them in any legal complications - not to maintain any contacts with the rebel Bohras of Udaipur, to totally boycott them and not allow them entry into mosques, jamaat khanas, religious shrines and other communal properties like rest-houses, etc.

These measures created panic among the Bohras in general, and people of Udaipur in particular. Many Bohras from Udaipur had relatives in cities like Bombay and other places. According to this firman these relatives also could not keep contact with them or else they would also face a similar fate. Only a few Bohras from Udaipur who had supported Zakir Hussain Kurawarwala - and they were very few in number initially, not more than five percent - were issued identity cards and only those who held these identity cards were allowed entry into mosques and other places. This regimentation undoubtedly brought pressure on many people some of whom tendered an unqualified apology to the high priest. We shall discuss this in more detail later.

The events took a violent turn after the Galiakot incident. Zakir Husain Kurawarwala and others who had taken part in attacking and molesting women in Galiakot found it difficult to enter the city of Udaipur for fear of being attacked. The 'amil of Udaipur, Naumanbhai, also could not enter the city as he was instrumental in attacking and provoking other Bohras to molest women. A violent mob chased him away from Udaipur. The Shababis (now the orthodox followers of Sayedna were called by this name as against the Youthis).

It will be interesting to note that Shabab (an Arabic word for youth) organized themselves for planning attacks. Some persons were allegedly sent from Bombay to participate in planned attacks against the followers of the Bohra Youth. Thus violent occurrences became, a daily affair in Udaipur. The peaceful Bohra community, due to manipulations of certain vested interests, was drawn into a whirlpool of conflict. As a result of that hundreds of cases had to be filed in the district and session courts.

Sukhadia, who had been the chief minister of Rajasthan, and was now the Governor of Tamil Nadu, tried to intervene in the dispute in order to resolve it. He sent some office bearers of the City Congress Committee of Udaipur to Rampura with a personal letter of recommendation to talk to the Sayedna. However, Yamani, secretary to the Sayedna, did not permit any such visit saying that he had no time. Thus they returned disappointed from Rampura.

Then Sukhadia persuaded the Bohra Youth leaders to go to Rampura to resolve the dispute. Thereupon about 750 persons from Udaipur hired the buses for Rampura - a town in M.P. - and went there to meet the high priest. This journey was undertaken on 12 April 1973. A mass marriage was taking place in the mosque when the party form Udaipur reached Rampura. To begin with the leaders from Udaipur were not allowed to meet the Sayedna at all.

Thereafter about 10 persons were called. Yamani, the secretary to Sayedna adopted a very stiff attitude and the people of Udaipur were told that there was no question of granting them an apology. On the other hand, the Bohras of Rampura did not allow the guests from Udaipur to rest at a suitable place. They were not even allowed to draw water from a nearby well. The people of Udaipur were thus deliberately humiliated. Seeing no other way out they left Rampura and came to Kukreshwar where there is a mausoleum of a Bohra saint.

All the Bohra Youth leaders of Udaipur now took a pledge collectively not to tender an apology to the high priest individually under pressure. They decided that they will stand by each other in the face of severe persecution. The non-Bohra population of Udaipur showed great respect for the people of Udaipur and they were given all possible facilities. These people returned to Udaipur without any hope of reconciliation with the Sayedna's party.

Reformists attacked by police - June 23, 1973

The violent incidents continued. After Sukhadia had bowed out, Barakat Ali Khan became Chief Minister of Rajasthan. Generally the priestly establishment maintains very close relationship with the important leaders of Rajasthan. It had very close contact with Barkat Ali Khan too. Under his chief ministership they had even obtained exemption from the Wakf Act.

It is alleged by the Bohra Youth leaders of Udaipur that Barkat Ali Khan favored the Sayedna in dealing with the supporters of the Bohra Youth. As an instance they quoted the incident of 23 June 1973. On that day some Bohra Youth leaders and supporters went to the residence of the local 'amil to complain against the violent attacks being often made by the Shababis. While the youths were standing near the 'amil's residence, there started a shower of stones from inside the 'amil's house. The youths retaliated by throwing stones from outside.

The police were then summoned and they stated ruthlessly attacking the Youthis. The police went into the Bohrawadi area and beat up women, children and old people ruthlessly without any provocation from them. The Youth leaders allege that the Superintendent of Police was heard saying that day that he has orders from above to wipe out the Youth leaders and their supporters within 24 hours. Whether this was true or not, the spot interviews indicate that the police used force on unarmed people including women and children, an act that was not at all warranted.

The only result of this unprovoked and unwarranted attack was that the women became more determined than ever to fight against the priestly establishment which was using violence openly to crush their movement for democratic rights. This was the second onslaught faced by them, the first being in Galiakot which was equally unprovoked. The women and children now formed squads to defend themselves against such attacks in future. The mohallas in Udaipur have very narrow lanes and the houses are interconnected.

These squads would come into action the moment police or the Shababis tried to enter Bohrawadi. By throwing stones from house tops or other missiles which used to be supplied by the squad of children, they made it impossible for the police or others to enter. Thus we see that the Bohra women who normally remain confined to their houses, showed great valor and determination to fight when fired by inner conviction and faced with a dangerous situation.

These women devised many ingenious methods to put their enemy to rout. They would blacken their face or apply cowdung over it. They even came out on the streets to fight. The women's participation gave more stability to the reform movement. At other places lack of support from women has been the main weakness of this movement as the mother or the wife forces her son or husband to surrender when faced with social boycott and complete isolation.

Forces of reform and reaction

On 23 June the police also made arbitrary arrests. Helpless people going to hospital or returning from work were rounded up and some 70 persons were arrested. They were kept in jail for 17 days without any formal charges and were later released on bail. Similarly on 10 July 1974 more than 50 supporters of the Bohra Youth were arbitrarily arrested, handcuffed and paraded through the streets of Udaipur. It will be interesting to quote a letter from Udaipur in The Times Of India, 15 September 1974, by Dr. M.S. Agwani who was professor of West Asian studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University and later became its vice-chancellor. This letter was written as a reaction to my article on Bohras which had earlier appeared in The Times of India. Prof. Agwani writes,

“In an otherwise competent, objective and well-documented treatment of schism between the forces of reform and reaction in the Bohra community, Mr. A. Engineer has erred on the side of understatement when he speaks of the attitude of the administrative machinery in Udaipur, the epicenter of the Bohra reform movement. As the one hailing from Udaipur, I wish to invite the attention of your readers to the ruthless manner in which the local administration has sought to crush the morale of the partisans of reform by parading them handcuffed along one of the main streets of the city, even though most of the persons thus humiliated form the cream of Udaipur society in terms of education, professional skills and public service. The question that all thinking people, more particularly the legislators in Jaipur and at the centre, must ask themselves is: are we reconciled to permitting a religious pontiff to flout the fundamental rights of a section of our citizenry?”

Thus it clearly shows that even the non-Bohra population of Udaipur was aghast at the treatment meted out to the Bohras of Udaipur who were supporters of the Youth movement. The role of administration, it is very clear from Agwani's letter, smacked of partisanship. Most of the non-Bohra populace of Udaipur fully sympathized with the cause for which the Bohra Youth was fighting. Bohra Youth became a byword for progressive Bohras in the city of Udaipur. We shall say a few word about this a little later.

Letter to Sayedna

The high priest and his orthodox followers never ceased to hit hard the supporters of the reform movement. All efforts by the leaders of the Bohra Youth and other well-meaning people came to naught. The Bohra Youth leaders themselves were unprepared for a complete break with the Sayedna and his establishment. It was for this reason that the secretary of the Bohra Youth Association, Abid Ali Adib wrote a letter to the high priest on 9 August 1973, with utmost humility, to bring about a settlement of the dispute. The letter makes very interesting reading.

It begins with all the usual titles and epithets used for the Sayedna in all communications. Adeeb says in the letter,

“Revered Sir, you know very well that the Bohra Youth Association is the institution of the faithfuls in Udaipur and almost 85% of whom support it sincerely. Its sole aim is to work for the welfare of the community. In the interest of the welfare of the community it has taken many tasks in its hands with a view to bring about reform. This institution is working well due to your Holiness's blessings. The institution has not done anything deliberately to displease you or to earn your wrath.... We implore you, on behalf of this institution, to shower your benedictions on it and to bless it...”

Although the high priest's younger brother Qasimbhai Saheb had advised them to write such a letter while on a visit to Udaipur, there was no reply to it. The letter was not even acknowledged.

Similarly, some prominent citizens of Udaipur, tired as they were of the frequent violent clashes between the two factions of the community, wrote a letter to the pontiff on 3 July 1973 to end the conflict. Had the priestly establishment desired a peaceful solution, this letter would have offered them the best opportunity for the same. However, it was not to be.

The letter brought a negative reply in which it was maintained that the followers of the Bohra Youth had violated the holy injunctions of the religion and, therefore, unless they repented and tendered an apology and an oath of allegiance (misaaq) individually, nothing could be done. The high priest, contrary to the religious requirement, declares any person who dissents with him even slightly in any secular matter as having ceased to be a Dawoodi Bohra irrespective of the fact that he continues to believe in all the basic tenets of that religion.

Although the whole dispute is secular in nature (as the reformists have not questioned any religious tenet, neither have they challenged any religious authority or even the headship of the pontiff), the high priest and his establishment keeps on indulging in the propaganda that all those who support or even sympathizes with the reform movement or the cause of the Bohra Youth, have ceased to be Dawoodi Bohras and have no right to remain within the fold of the community.

Thus all efforts of the well-meaning people of Udaipur who wanted to end the bloody clashes between the two factions of the Bohra community came to naught due to the wrong and rigid posture adopted by the high priest. It is maintained by some Bohras that in all such matters the present high priest does not have an effective voice or he is not even informed of everything.

It is alleged that all important decisions are taken by Yusuf Najmuddin and a small coterie of other brothers around him. These decisions, needless to say, are inspired more by worldly considerations than the so-called religious or spiritual motives. Dr. Najmuddin maintains relations with important Muslim leaders and other key political figures of our country. It is also maintained by some people that the high priest himself is in favor of following a soft line towards the reformist section but Dr. Najmuddin, who died a few years ago, advocated a hardline and his voice was decisive.

All this happened in Udaipur without the direct involvement of the reformist leaders like Noman Contractor and others from Bombay. It does not mean that Contractor was not aware of what was happening in Udaipur. Husaini Sanchawala, an old reformist and then editor of the Bohra Bulletin, had visited Udaipur several times and had reported the development of the movement extensively. He was also in close touch with Contractor. Contractor who had once withdrawn from the movement under the most trying circumstances but had never changed his conviction became active again. He sent telegrams and letters to the Bohra Youth leaders extending his support for their struggle. The youth leaders of Udaipur were also beholden to the leaders from Bombay for broadening the base of their movement.

'A damsel in distress'

A number of telegrams were sent by the Bombay leadership to the central as well as the state governments to take effective steps to secure the safety of the supporters of the Bohra Youth. Some supporters of the Bohra Youth in Bombay, who hailed from Udaipur, contacted the reformist leaders in Bombay. These leaders readily agreed to extend all possible support to the reform movement in Udaipur. Contractor was also faced with a personal problem in those days. His daughter was to marry but the high priest refused to solemnize the marriage. Miss Yasmin Contractor his daughter, then wrote a letter which was published under the title “A Damsel in Distress” by The Times of India and other papers. Public opinion was so much aroused that the high priest was forced to depute a person to solemnize her marriage. This infused a new life into the reformists movement in Bombay.

The controversy over the marriage of Contractor's daughter stirred the old reformists of Bombay, while others hailing from Udaipur and settled in Bombay also joined them. Again there were suggestions for convening a conference in Bombay. I suggested that this problem is not confined to the Bohra community alone and had to be viewed in a wider social context. It would be therefore, more appropriate to form a broad-based committee including representatives of various organizations engaged in the activities of social reform. The idea was appreciated and a committee under the name, ‘The Society for Eradication of Social Injustices' was formed with Malti Badrekar, a well-known Marathi writer and a fighter for social reforms, as president. A manifesto draft was declared:

Our country is still in the grips of irrational parochial forces. The religious bigotry reigns supreme. In spite of constitutional guarantees and the directive principles enshrined in it, social injustices like rabid casteism, iniquitous treatment of women, cruel exploitation in the name of religion, etc., are rampant everywhere even after 26 years of our political freedom. The untouchability, though now punishable under the law, is still practiced in its most brutal form.

In the pre-independence era, it was argued, the British Imperialists propped up obscurantist practices and encouraged religious bigotry... But our own record, during last more than two decades, has not been glorious. Hypocrisy, it appears, has become the main characteristic of our socio-political system. Though we talk - big our tryst with destiny etc. #173; we act quite to the contrary.

The Society for Eradication of Social Injustices shall endeavor to organize and sustain the forces pressing for change. It would launch public movement to rouse the conscience of people against the inhuman and anti-secular practices indulged in either by politicians or the high priests of various sects and creeds. It would demand the benevolent use of wealth collected by high priests and pontiffs of different sects by way of offerings and religious tithes.

A conference was organized by the Society on 8 December 1973 which was largely attended by the citizens of Bombay. It took place in Cama Hall. Various institutions belonging to different communities and groups wedded to the ideas of secularism and social reform participated. A delegation from Udaipur also came to take part. Abid Ali Adeeb, secretary of the Bohra Youth Udaipur spoke about the persecution of the reformists at the hands of the priestly establishment.

None other than the Bohra high priest took notice of this conference. He launched an offensive against the conference. A few local Muslim leaders were also made to issue statements condemning the conference as a design against Islam. On15 December 1973, a few days after the conference, the Bohra Youth Association was formed in Bombay with Abdul Hussain Nazim as the president and Ismail Attarwala as secretary. Many persons from Udaipur and other places joined it.

At that time some young professionals, many engineers, took active part in promoting the cause of that organization. The members of Friend Circle, Bombay, and some persons from Udaipur held a meeting of the supporters of the Bohra Youth in Bombay. The first ever public meeting of the supporters of the Bohra Youth in Bombay was, in a way, quite successful. The people of Udaipur resolved in this meeting not to succumb to the pressure from the high priest for submitting an apology individually.

Reformists become active again

The movement steadily grew in Bombay and many old reformists were emboldened to become active again. The reformist leaders in Bombay were greatly encouraged to broaden their activities. Meanwhile the priestly establishment tried its best to curb the reform movement. The reformist leaders, in order to give shape to the movement in that critical period, decided to form a central organization. It was decided to name the organization, The Central Board Of Dawoodi Bohra Community. An ad hoc body was formed with Noman Contractor as the chairman. The Bohra Youth Association of Udaipur also declared its affiliation to this central body.

The immediate problem before the Central Board was the pending marriages of more than a 100 couples as the Bohra high priest was refusing to solemnize them. It must be noted here that the Central Board was formed to provide a democratic alternative for the secular affairs of the community. It was not a religious alternative. For this reason the Central Board made it very clear that it had no reservations about accepting religious headship of the high priest. It was only opposed to his total domination over the secular affairs and personal lives of the Bohras. Therefore, the Central Board desired these marriages to be solemnized by the Sayedna Saheb himself.

A memorandum was sent to the high priest on behalf of the Central Board. His headship was unhesitatingly and unreservedly acknowledged and he was earnestly requested to solemnize the long-pending marriages in Udaipur. However, the Sayedna - or rather his dominating brothers - maintained a studious silence on the matter. It was also made very clear in the memorandum that the reformists represented by the Central Board, while acknowledging his religious leadership, wished to put three demands before him:

  1. that the funds collected by way of religious taxes and tithes like zakat, fitra etc., be accounted for regularly and these funds be spent for the needy and poor as prescribed by the Quran;
  2. that a democratic set-up be evolved for the functioning of jamaats at the central as well as local levels and a constitution be drafted defining the rights and duties of elected members vis-a-vis the rights and duties of the chief pontiff in such matters; and
  3. the pending marriages in Udaipur be solemnized and that marriages and burials should not be obstructed as was happening.

As there was no reply from the priesthood despite several reminders both from the Central Board as well as the Bohra Youth from Udaipur, other moves had to be initiated. A deputation of the brides-to-be went to Delhi on 16 April 1974 and met the then prime minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi to appraise her of their woes. These “damsels in distress” were given a patient hearing by Mrs. Indira Gandhi but she could not do much in the matter. Salehbhai Abdul Kadar, a Bohra M.P. from Bombay was asked by her to discuss this matter with the Sayedna and persuade him to solve the problem. However, the latter even refused to meet the Prime Minister's envoy.

Dr. Najmuddin met him and reportedly scolded him for undertaking the mission. Kader made it clear that he had to comply with the Prime Minister's request. The delegation of the brides also met the President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in Rashtrapati Bhavan on 17 April 1974. President Ahmed had a very close relations with the high priest and his family. Nothing came out of that either. However, for the press in the capital it became a front-page news. Various papers vied with each other to carry the story. But the brides had to return without much hope of their problem being solved.

16th March 1975 - Red letter day for Udaipur

It was an event of great significance for the Bohras of Udaipur as well as for all the supporters and sympathizers of the reform movement. Marriage and burial were the two occasions on which the priesthood causes maximum harassment either to extort money from, or to take revenge on suspected sympathizers of the reform movement. A large number of Bohras were now anxiously waiting for the day of mass marriage as it meant a turning point for the movement and a hope for possible emancipation from the tyranny of the priesthood.

Not only this, the whole city of Udaipur was agog with enthusiasm. The people had seen the upsurge of the Bohras of their town for democratic freedom, justice and emancipation from the yoke foisted on them by the priesthood. They had also seen the persecution to which these Bohras were subjected by their priests. Even the struggle for marriages had gone on for two years.

It was thus a red letter day for the people of Udaipur in general. The festivities began a week earlier. A number of key places were illuminated and decorated. The Bhandari Darshak Mandap where the main ceremony was to take place was the scene of feverish activities. A huge pandal was erected to accommodate an expected crowd of 25,000 people. The main building was beautifully illuminated. Various city organizations and committees had erected arches on the route through which the marriage procession was to pass. It seemed as if it was not the cause of the Bohra Youth alone, it was a human cause towards which all the people of Udaipur had sympathy.

Part 3