Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee

Grand old man of Keyna

by Saifuddin Insaf


Alibahi Mulla Jivanjee

Intellectual freedom is not possible under domination of state and religious authority, because it demands uncritical submission. This domination becomes worst wherever the faith turns blind and starts accepting the divine right of the authority.

This is the reason why Dawoodi Bohras generally are not interested in any kind of intellectual pursuit. Only the reformist Bohras are seen struggling for social change and human dignity through their pen and their activities. Zarina Patel is one such shining example.

She is a reformist Bohra, a human rights activist, an environmentalist, an artist and physiotherapist by profession. She has done all reformist Bohras proud by writing a book on “The grand old man of Kenya”, Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee.

Her book Challenge to Colonialism encompasses the struggle of one Bohra Businessman, a philanthropist and a fighter for equal rights in Kenya. She has also used the story of Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, her maternal grandfather, to highlight the story of a people. Through her well-researched work, she has demonstrated the important role played by the Indians in the early resistance to the colonial rule in Kenya.

Alibhai Mull Jeevanjee (AMJ) was born in 1856 in Karachi (now in Pakistan) in a traditional Bohra home where education was almost entirely centered on religion. The Bohra clergy was opposed to the western education and modern sciences restricting the entire community to a narrow intellectual base. It was a time when Industrial Revolution had started bringing dramatic growth in the world trade.

When AMJ was around 20 years old he escaped from Karachi and then, in the school of survival, he learnt to think and act independently. Escaping from the narrow confines of a conservative Bohra society he found a wide world of modern trade opportunities. He was brave enough to take up the challenges of life.

Though not much educated he soon became fluent in English. However, he found two biggest hurdles in his way, first a conscious policy of British government of favoring foreign rather than Indian capital and second the Bohra religious leadership’s desire to dominate and subdue their followers.

After going through various hardships, Jeevanjee’s entrepreneurial ability led him to do business with the Imperial British East African Company and Uganda Railway to built substantial parts of early Nairobi. His success in business can be judged form the fact that at the start of the 20th century he was worth $4,000,00. He was the first non-white appointed to represent the interests of the Indians in the Legislative Council (Legco) which was established in 1905.

Those who appointed him may have expected that a man of his riches would be conservative and protector of the colonial status quo. But he was of a different mettle. The prime objective of this council was to safeguard and champion the interests of the people who emigrated from abroad to settle in Kenya. The racial discrimination denied even to Mr. AMJ the right to live in some parts of the town in which he was greatly instrumental in building.

He entered politics and formed East African Indian National Congress and launched the first important non-white newspaper, The African Standard in 1901, which is present day’s East African Standard.

In her 283 pages book Zarina Patel has narrated the history of struggle of AMJ who moved from rags to riches and again lost it all. The book makes a very interesting reading. The description of events, their intricate details, as well as documented references and the fluent description make you to go through the entire book in one sitting. The book is divided into nine parts and 23 chapters.

Zarina Patel describes the endgame of AMJ’s political career, the Devonshire Declaration, Acceptance of realities and Injection of Radicalism and AMJ’s retirement from politics in Part 6. Part 7 deals with Legal Engagements.

In part 8 in the Social Dimensions of AMJ’s life, Zarina Patel gives an insight of AMJ’s social concern and his philanthropic work. AMJ rebuilt and enlarged the Bohra mosque in Mombasa at a cost of Rs. 50,000 in 1901. But our mindless and revengeful Bohra clergy demolished and leveled this beautiful mosque in1982 which was one of the historical landmark in Mombasa. AMJ’s family could not save it from destruction as UNESCO sponsored “The Old Town Conservation Project” came after three years in 1985.

Strange are the revengeful ways of the Bohra religious leaders. The said mosque in Mombasa that was already existing, was rebuilt by AMJ making it more spacious and a monumental piece of art. The Bohras were offering prayers in that mosque for more than a 100 years, and the prayers were led by the Sayedna’s appointed Amils.

For more than a 100 years no-one found fault with that mosque but in 1982 our present Sayedna Burhanuddin Saheb suddenly found that the Quibla in the mosque was placed wrongly and the whole mosque was razed to the ground. Even if the Quibla was wrongly placed it could have been corrected without leveling down the entire mosque.

The Bohra religious establishment takes no pride in having had AMJ as a member of the community, nor does it recognizes any of his great contributions whether political, economic or philanthropic. Alibhai Jeevanjee has done enormous philanthropic work both for the Bohra community and the general public in East Africa and in India and Pakistan.

Mosques, cemetery lands, community halls, schools, public places like gardens, roads and shops were built by him. Zarina Patel has given a detailed account of his welfare work. His contributed to put the Hakimia Madrasa in Burhanpur on sound financial footing. AMJ was one of the few stalwarts who had publicly stood by the sons of Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy during the trials of Chandabhai Galla case.

Interestingly the second wife of AMJ, Dayambai was from Sir Adamji Peerbhoy’s family. She was bribed and offered a property and large sums of money by Sayedna Taher Saifuddin to take divorce from AMJ but she refused. She was then excommunicated and she and her children were abused and stoned on the streets.

The Ford Foundation had sponsored the research work and the publication of Zarina Patel’s book and it is partly financed by Sir Yusufali Charitable trust. Zarina Patel has done an in-depth research before taking up the actual writing of the book. She has taken great pains in going through newspaper publications in the early part of the century, National Archives in Kenya and in New Delhi, maps and photographs of early Nairobi, library in Malegaon with the Roshan Khayal Jamat etc.

The printing quality of the book is excellent and the inclusion of the photos and illustrations has made it more attractive. As Zarina says, “In this book I have documented AMJ’s historical contribution and placed it within the context of the Asian struggle in, and it’s significance to, Kenya. As we learn more about our past, we are better able to understand the present and plan for the future.”

Published in 1997 it is marketed and distributed in Kenya by:
Publishers Distribution Services (PDS)
P.O. Box 30080, Nairobi.