Udaipur History - 4

History of reform movement in Udaipur - Part 4

Noman Contractor harassed

Before further moves could be made an incident took place. Noman Contractor was returning in his car along with his daughter and son-in-law from Ahmedabad after attending a Lions Club function. On the way he stopped at Godhra, which happened to be his native place. Godhra has a large population of the Dawoodi Bohras and at one time was the centre of reformist activities. Needless to say, his moves were being watched at the instance of the priesthood.

Contractor visited the supporter of the reform movement in Godhra, Saifee Pavagadhwala who stayed close to the Bohra locality. A 3000 to 4000 strong mob surrounded the Pavagadhwala's house in no time, which clearly indicated prior planning. The mob carried kerosene tins and rags to set fire to the house. But the fact that a few more families stayed in the same building restrained their action.

The mob now tried to break open the door and lynch Contractor along with his and Pavagadhwala's family. The police who had arrived on the scene were watching without taking any steps to disperse the mob. The mob which was being led by some hirelings from the local Ghanchi Muslim community allegedly raised the slogan “Police Zindabad”. However, by the time the mob succeeded in breaking the door open, the collector arrived on the scene along with more police. He rescued Contractor, Pavagadhwala and their families and they were escorted away in the police van. After the Collector departed, Pavagadhwala'a house was looted and Contractor's car, along with the furniture from Pavagadhwala's house was burnt down. Later, the police made 52 arrests some of whom were committed to the sessions court for attempted murder. This incident took place on 12 June 1977.

A delegation led by Joshi on behalf of the Society for Eradication of Social Boycott then met the Prime minister Morarji Desai on 4 July 1977 in Delhi. The Chairman of the Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community, also presented a memorandum to the Prime Minister. The delegation made two principal demands:

  1. The government should appoint a commission to inquire into the allegations of violence, intimidation, social boycott and other forms of harassment and persecution of the reformist Bohras at the hands of the Bohra Priesthood;
  2. The government should pass a law in parliament against the practice of social boycott bearing in mind the objections raised by the Supreme Court against an earlier legislation on excommunication.

The Prime Minister listened patiently and said that he was aware of the gravity of the problem and the hardships and persecution supporters of the reformists had to suffer. However, in view of the political complexities involved, it would be better advised if the inquiry is held by a non-governmental institutions like the Citizens for Democracy on whose behalf V.M. Tarkunde had recently inquired into the killings of Naxalites in Andhra Pradesh. He said that the Government could not but take notice of such an inquiry. As for passing a law in parliament against the social boycott, he would have the issue examined by the law ministry. Thus a draft bill was given to him which he promised to pass on to the law minister, Shanti Bhushan. That bill was introduced as a private member's bill by Vasant Kumar Pandit in Parliament.

After meeting Morarji Desai it was decided to meet Jayrakash Narayan as he was then the president of the Citizens for Democracy. Jayprakashji was staying in Express Tower, Bombay, at that time. We met him along with S.M. Joshi and appraised him of the problem. We also narrated to him the murderous attack on Noman Contractor by the followers of the Bohra high priest. We requested him to appoint an inquiry commission on behalf of the Citizens of Democracy of which he was president. Jayprakashji was shocked to hear the painful story of the persecution of the reformist Bohras and he immediately dictated two letters to his secretary, one of which was addressed of the high priest and another to V.M. Tarkunde, the secretary of the Citizens for Democracy. His letter of 14 July 1977 to the Bohra High Priest read as follows:

Dear Sayedna Saheb,

My attention has been drawn to the sufferings of thousands of families due to the social boycott imposed on the Bohra reformists. The reformist Bohras do not challenge your spiritual status but have been striving for preservation of human values. No other consideration, in my opinion, should be allowed to gain supremacy over humanity and freedom of conscience, nor should this issue be considered from the standpoint of political gain or losses.

I would have been very happy if you had publicly condemned the attack on the reformist at Godhra on 12th June. I am aware that no Bohra would go against your instructions, and, therefore, I appeal to you to provide immediate relief to the suffering humanity by arranging to lift the social boycott and advising your orthodox followers to help restore peace and tranquility.

With Kind regards,

Yours sincerely,
Jayprakash Narayan.

On the same day he wrote to V.M. Tarkunde:

My dear Tarkunde,

My friend S.M. Joshi met me this morning and explained to me how the Dawoodi Bohra Community is suffering under the injustices perpetrated on them by their high priest - Bada Mulla ji - of their community. Last month there was a seminar in Bombay to discuss the urgent need of prohibiting the practice of social boycott which prevailed in this country in different communities such as Jains, Bohras, the Savarnas and the Harijans. In 1949 when Shri Morarji Desai was the Chief Minister of Bombay State (sic.) he had passed a legislation prohibiting excommunication which prevailed in the Bohra community and the right to declare such a boycott by their high priest. However, the Supreme Court declared it invalid and hence the need to prohibit social boycott, not restricted to the Bohras only but applicable to all communities in India.

The high priest functions like a state within a state. He levies taxes and penalizes his followers for acts which he considers an offense to him. Recently, a deputation headed by S.M. Joshi went to see the prime minister to appoint a commission to enquire into the grievances regarding the harassment of the reformist section of the Bohra community, mostly young men and women.

The prime minister expressed his inability to appoint a commission on behalf of the Government but he suggested that a non-official committee should be asked to do this work and in this connection the work of our committee in regard to the atrocities perpetrated on the Naxalites in Andhra was mentioned. Shri Joshi suggests that the Citizens of Democracy be requested to appoint a committee to go through the grievances of the Bohras who are struggling to reform their society by getting rid of these superstitions and the atrocities of the high priest who deprives them of their civil rights.

I think that Shri Chandrakant Daru, along with some others, be entrusted with this task. You could request ex-justice Nathwani, M.P., to be associated with the committee, of which Daru may function as the Secretary.

With warm regards,

Yours sincerely,
Jayprakash Narayan

I have quoted the text of both the letters in full as later on a great controversy developed around these. As per J.P.'s suggestion the Citizens of Democracy appointed a committee headed by ex-justice and then member of parliament, Narendra Nathwani, to inquire into the cases of harassment and persecution of the reformist Bohras. The other members of the committee were V.M. Tarkunde, Chandrakant Daru, a well-known lawyer and champion of human rights from Ahmedabad, Dr. Aloo Dastur of Bombay University, Dr. Alam Khundmiri, Prof. of Philosophy, Osmania University, Hyderabad and Dr. Moin Shakir, a well-known scholar of Muslim politics from the Marathwada University, Aurangabad. Daru was appointed as the member secretary.

Two prominent Muslims and a Parsi were specially included so as not to arouse minority apprehensions. But, as we shall see, the high priest exploited this potentiality to his maximum advantage. As the first statement to the press for the appointment of the inquiry commission was made by Tarkunde in his capacity as secretary of the Citizens of Democracy, for a long time the press called it the Tarkunde Commission. It was much later that the commission came to be known as the Nathwani Commission. The priestly establishment took advantage of this confusion in the press and spread rumors within the Bohra community that it did not allow the Tarkunde commission to function and that consequently, the reformists constituted another commission headed by Nathwani.

The terms of reference of the commission were announced which made it absolutely clear that the commission would not touch any religious beliefs or dogmas and would strictly confine its scope to inquiring into the cases of harassment and persecution of those Bohras who are conscientious objectors to certain inhuman and irreligious practices of the Bohra priestly family. The terms of reference were announced by Chandrakant Daru in Ahmedabad and were carried by many national and local dailies.

As indicated earlier, the priestly establishment maintained a very close relationship with the Muslim leadership, both religious as well as political. As soon as the terms of reference of the commission were announced, the representatives of the high priest approached these leaders for issuing statements condemning the commission of inquiry as a blatant interference in minority affa


Maulana Mufti Atiqur Rehman, president of the Majlis-e-Mushawarat, issued a statement (as he told me later that the statement was drafted and brought to him by Col. Zaidi and some representatives of the high priest, and he was persuaded to sign) condemning the commission of inquiry. Referring to the terms of reference of the commission he alleged in his statement that it proposes to inquire into such matters as whether the high priest maintains a separate flag and a separate army etc. In fact the terms of reference did not include anything of the sort. The priestly establishment, it appears, forged some terms of reference and circulated the forged document among some Muslim leaders in order to play up the minority phobia.

Many other Muslim leaders, local as well as of national stature, issued statements opposing the Nathwani Commission saying it amounted to interfering with the minority religion. In fact the issues involved were being cleverly twisted. For example, this fight had nothing to do with the change in the Muslim Personal Law, nor did the leaders of the Bohra reform movement have or ever have any covert or overt connections with the advocates of the uniform civil code like Hamid Dalwai.

But every Muslim leader was told that the reformists' fight was for change in the Muslin Personal Law as well, and that they were hand in glove with Hamid Dalwai and others of his kind. In fact in all the important centres in India posters were put up decrying the reformists as the agents of Hamid Dalwai and his group. Posters were put up in places like Patna and Calcutta where there is a sizeable population of Muslims.

Unashamed and blatant lies

It was not for the first time that the priesthood was resorting to unashamed and blatant lies. All along, right from the beginning of the fight at the turn of the century, they have been doing that. The Bohra priesthood had never shown respect for the truth. For it, retaining hold over the community was more important than anything else, even more than truth and religion. The priesthood knew very well that the Muslims were touchy about the question of change in their Personal Law and the easiest way to get them to oppose the commission was to link it up with that issue.

A campaign to this effect was launched especially in the Urdu Press. Most Urdu periodicals were paid in one or the other form to carry on a campaign against the reformists Bohras who were accused of being anti-Islam. When approached by the reformists with a clarification they would refuse to publish it. Many of them would openly say “We have been paid so much; you pay us more if you want to get anything published.” Of course, it was out of question for us to pay. We were being painted black by the Urdu press but we were helpless. There were very few Urdu papers who stood by us as a matter of principle without demanding any payment.

However, the top Muslim leadership was well acquainted with our problem. We had approached these leaders on several occasions and appraised them of our struggle for democratic freedom from the totalitarian rule of the Bohra high priest. We even requested them to use their good offices with the high priest to end persecution of the reformists and agree to negotiate with them after lifting of social boycott. But they always pleaded helplessness, saying that it was an “internal matter”.

But now these very leaders, without any scruples, started denouncing “the Hindu commission” and saw in its appointment a “conspiracy” to interfere with the religious affairs of the minority community. They knew fully well that there were two prominent Muslims and a Parsi in the commission and by no stretch of the imagination could it be dubbed a “Hindu Commission.” Anyway, the Muslim leadership in India has no reputation for integrity and is as opportunistic as any political leadership could be. In fact, in order to bargain for political sinecures, these leaders have no hesitation in opposing any purposeful change however beneficial it may be for the Muslims in India.

In fact, this opportunistic leadership has always chosen the most obscurantist issues to espouse, as if these are the main issues confronting the Indian Muslims today. As a matter of fact they have acquired a vested interest in espousing such causes as these issues, being highly emotional, help them retain their leadership without doing serious work for the uplift of the Muslim community.

In the Milli convention held in Delhi in the first week of October 1977 and which was attended by all such “Muslim leaders”, of the seven resolutions, incredible though it may seem, six resolutions were related in one way or the other to Muslim Personal Law. The convention was held to draw attention of the newly installed Janata Government to the problems of Muslims and was attended by such representative organization as the Jamat-e-Islami, the Jamiatul Ulama, the Muslim League, the Majis-e-Mushawarat, the Muslim Majlis, the Tameere Millat, the Deeni Talim Board, the Ahle Hadis, the Imarat-e-Sharia and others.

Sultan Shahin writing about the convention (“Muslim Convention - A Critique”) in the Indian Express on 14 October 1977, observed, “Why this abnormal obsession with Muslim Personal Law? This is particularly surprising in view of the fact that at the moment there is no move either by the Government or any section of the people to force any change in the Personal Law. Their concern for the Personal Law which has rightly or wrongly become a symbol of their religious identity is quite understandable. But their obsession with it to the exclusion of all other problems is inexplicable. Obviously the leadership is hopelessly out of step with the real challenges facing the Muslims.”

Worst type of exploitation

Shahin also referred to the Bohras problem in this context as that too was a subject of discussion in the Milli Convention. Shahin wrote: “What are the Muslim leaders doing to eradicate these evils? Nothing. Then what right have they to ask the Government not to interfere into what are called ‘internal matters' of the community? why this ballyhoo on the reported appointment of the Tarkunde Commission (he means the Nathwani Commission) to look into the affairs of the Dawoodi Bohra Community.

“There are strong reasons to believe, at least suspect, that all is not well with the Bohras. Some members of the Bohra Community have alleged time and again the worst type of exploitation by its chief. The people and their representative Government have a right to know if these allegations have any substance. Does the Dawoodi Bohra Community or for that matter the Muslims constitute a nation within the Indian Nation whose “internal matters” do not smack of a belief in the same old, discredited two nation theory.”

I had been to Delhi only a few days before the convention. I met all the important leaders of the Muslim community who later participated in it. Some of those whom I met, were Maulana Mufti Atiqur Rehman, Amir Jamat-e-Islami Maulana Mohammed Yusuf and the Shahi Imam Abdullah Bukhari. I personally explained to them our problem and made it very clear that our movement had nothing to do with the movement for change in the Muslim Personal Law. Our fight was essentially against authoritarianism and exploitation in the name of religion.

I also explained to them that the Nathwani Commission was appointed to investigate allegations of harassment and persecution of the reformist Bohras and has given solemn assurance that it has no intention of touching any religious beliefs. I also told them that hundreds of matters relating to mosques or marriage and divorce etc. are investigated and decided by the secular courts having non-Muslim judges and these issues have direct bearing on religious laws or beliefs. What is wrong if a secular commission looks into the grievances of a section of the Bohra community which is allegedly suffering at the hands of the Priesthood.

However, these leaders, though they did not reply to my arguments in a convincing manner, doggedly maintained that the commission was, to use the words of Maulana Mohammed Yusuf, Amir Jamaat-e-Islami, “a hanging sword” and that it would “open the floodgates of governmental interference into the affairs of the minority community.” I thereupon suggested that the Muslim leaders appoint a commission of inquiry to inquire into our grievances and if a solemn assurance is held out by the Muslim leaders to that effect we would appear before it and request Nathwani to close the inquiry.

To my dismay these leaders did not show any interest. And a couple of days later, these leaders passed the resolution in the Milli convention condemning the Nathwani Commission in strong words. In fact it was projected in the press as the principal resolution of the convention. Not surprisingly the Bohra priesthood bore a day's boarding and lodging expenses for all the delegates.

I had explained in detail all about our fight to Shahi Imam Abdullah Bukhari. He said he had received many letters from the suffering Bohras of Udaipur. But, how could he, a person living in a small room which cannot even accommodate 10 persons, challenge the might of those who live in grand palaces? I was shocked to hear such comments but, nevertheless, told him that he had challenged the former Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi who was much more powerful than the Bohra high priest form this very room. Even a fakir, if he fights for the truth with firm conviction can shake the most powerful monarch; what of the Bohra priesthood, which does not enjoy even political power?

The Shahi Imam felt little embarrassed by these remarks and promised me to talk to the high priest in this connection and persuade him to resolve the matter amicably. And how did he do that? Within a week of my visit he issued a statement to the press strongly condemning the Nathwani Commission which in his words “amounted to blatant interference in the affairs of the minority community.” He called upon the Janata Government to ban this unofficial commission failing which very serious consequences would follow and the Muslims would lose faith in the Janata Government.

The story of the betrayal of our cause by the Muslim leaders is very long and painful. In my opinion these leaders are just not concerned with the plight of suffering Muslims. They have only sought to promote their leadership by espousing a few emotionally charged issues like the Muslim Personal Law, Aligarh Muslim University, recognition of Urdu etc.. as this is the easiest short-cut to power. They are least bothered about the fate of suffering Muslims and their socio-economic plight. As long as they continue to have easy access to the corridors of power and can share the spoils of offer by playing up such issues, they will not give serious thought to the actual problems of their fellow religionists.

The Bohra priesthood saw to it that the din of protest raised by these Muslim leaders reached the ears of Jayprakash Narayan, who had initially suggested this inquiry. The priesthood also organized a well-orchestrated campaign of protest among the Bohras. Who can dare to be defiant to their orders among the Bohras? J.P. was flooded with letters and telegrams of protests against the appointment of the commission of inquiry. Those around J.P. (there were a few Muslims also among the people from Patna, the so-called Gandhians) were also pressured by the mighty Bohra Priest to persuade J.P. to ban the commission or, at least, disown it.

J.P. wrote to S.M. Joshi to come to Patna at the earliest to discuss the matter with him. Responding to the summons from J.P., Joshi went to Patna accompanied by Noman Contractor on 11 September 1977. The high priest's representatives had managed to reach Patna two days before. They had gone with a prepared text of the statement with a view to obtain signature over it. J.P. was reportedly suffering from amnesia and unfortunately his secretary, Abraham who was with him in Express Tower, Bombay, at the time of writing the letter to Tarkunde about conducting the inquiry, was on leave.

Part 5