Aurangabad, 8th November, 2016: In many religious communities, the priestly class exploits the common people, who are powerless to speak out. Take the instance of about 80 Khoja families (Ismaili muslims from Gujarat who are followers of Aga Khan) who are fighting for their fundamental right to worship peacefully in Aurangabad. Their oppressors are Aziz Abdullah Surani who is a local priest called Mukhi and Samir Ramzanali Moti, who is a local priest called Kamadia. The previous Mukhi Ramzan Sher Mohammad Charaniya, and some others who are higher-ups in the Ismaili community, are also part of this religious-economic scam. (Incidentally, Aziz Abdullah Surani is the co-producer of a recent Bollywood release called Chalk N Duster starring Juhi Chawla and Shabana Azmi.)
In December 2015, the priests locked the decades-old Fazalpura jamatkhana or community prayer hall, in order to force Aurangabad's Khoja families to worship at an unauthorized under-construction structure located 12 km away adjoining a forest area at Padegaon. This unauthorized structure is owned by Aziz Shamshuddin Surani, paternal uncle of Aziz Abdullah Surani. In this way, the priests compelled hundreds of Khoja men, women and children to travel twice a day to the distant wilderness in the dark of night and pre-dawn for their daily prayers.
The motive for this? Greed. Plain and simple greed to profit from sale of flats at Padegaon, and later from the sale of the Fazalpura jamatkhana. The Surani, Moti and Charaniya families own about eight acres of land at Padegaon, which they wish to develop and sell. The land-owning priestly families of Surani, Moti and Charaniya will be directly enriched by this forced migration of Aurangabad families.
The way to Padegaon jamatkhana is a lengthy stretch of highway, and another lengthy kuccha road without streetlights, as this videoshows. Padegaon is a hinterland bordering forest areas, and has no water supply, sewage, schools, hospitals and other civic amenities. In September, when heavy rains made the kuccha road almost unmotorable, the Khoja families finally lost their patience and started to plead for reopening of their old Fazalpura Jamat Khana. They organized signature campaigns, and wrote an exceedingly humble letter in Gujarati to the local council President Aziz Bulsara (Pune), the Regional President Aslam Mukhee (Mumbai), the National President Ashish Merchant (Mumbai), as well as the Aga Khan Foundation's India office in New Delhi and global headquarters in Paris, pleading for re-opening of Fazalpura Jamat Khana. The followers also wrote a letter in English to the President of National Council of the Ismaili community.) They held meetings with Mr Barkat Pirani, former President of the National Council and some other leaders mentioned above.
The road to Padegaon is paved with impure intentions.
The followers' pleas fell on deaf ears. The leaders' wall of silence and evasion was unbreakable. Frustrated and exhausted, the Khoja families finally concluded that God helps only those who help themselves. So, in mid-October, they went and re-opened Fazalpura Jamat Khana after writing a Marathi letter notifying the police signed by 50 families. This reopening ended 10 months of forced expulsion from Fazalpura jamatkhana. For the past few weeks, about a hundred members of these families have been peacefully conducting prayer meetings at Fazalpura without their priests. But it is a fragile peace, full of anxiety about possible retaliation, excommunication, ostracism and even fear of violence.
BUILDING CODE VIOLATIONS IN SURANI'S RESIDENCE-JAMAT KHANA
1) The structure was built long before CC was received. The Commencement Certificate (CC) is dated 30th Jan, 2016, but the structure had been completed many months earlier.
2) The [ur=https://app.box.com/s/itspvegnt61z8vw0h36vlantlfh2gjqsl]approved plan[/url] and CC is for Surani's 2BHK residence. However, what actually has been built is a prayer hall. See photos.
Padegaon prayer hall -- built without municipal permissions.
3) Toilets are built externally, encroaching on land belonging to the Municipal Corporation. The toilets and office room were built belatedly in August-September 2016. It is absolutely not as per the plan, and is a major violation. For several months, the prayer hall operated without toilets. See photos of under-construction external toilet blocks and office.
Toilet block being built on mandatory open spaces handed over to Aurangabad Municipal Corporation.
4) The structure does not have Occupation Certificate (OC). It may not get OC, considering the multiple violations. Its continuing use for holding community prayers is unauthorized and illegal.
ARCHITECT SANTOSH SAKHARE'S DISCLOSURES
Architect Santosh Sakhare of Sarthak Associates spilled the beans in a recorded phone conversation. A summary of what Architect Santosh Sakhare said: "Building a community hall required permission from the District Collector, and the council members wanted to avoid approaching the Collector. As the plot belongs to the society chairman, they decided to show the community hall as the chairman's residence. Yes, the construction was not as per approved plan. They kept changing their requirement almost daily.... but we can manage to get the occupancy certificate. The community leaders directed the toilets and society office to be built in the side-margins of mandatory open spaces handed over to the municipal corporation. I did not make any plans and drawings. If asked, I will deny, as I have not recommended these things. Forcefully, the committee members made these changes. They were calling me, but I refused to go and check. We have replicated the structural plan of the community hall of Nanded, following instructions of the council president and others." Architect Santosh Sakhare revealed how the local community leaders – including those from Nanded Council -- took initiative for the unauthorized construction of Padegaon jamat khana.
THREE-PHASE PLAN FOR EXPLOITING KHOJA COMMUNITY
The shift of the prayer hall from Fazalpura to Padegaon was designed to work in this way:
PHASE ONE: Force dozens of families to book flats that the Surani, Moti and Charaniya families build in Padegaon. See the highlighted names of Mr Aziz Shamshuddin Surani, Chairman of The Yuvan Coop. Housing Society Ltd., Mr Samir Ramzanali Moti, Mr Ramzan Sher Mohammad Charaniya, and other members of Moti and Charaniya families who cheaply purchased lands in this title search document.)
PHASE TWO: Get funding from Aga Khan Foundation and Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) for developing inftrastructure. As the main water supply line is 15 km away, Padegaon may take decades to develop. But infrastructure built with Aga Khan funding can speed up development, making the land prices shoot up and enabling the Surani, Moti and Charaniya families to reap huge profits.
PHASE THREE: Sell the old Fazalpura jamatkhana and its land, which is in the name of Aga Khan Foundation. The sale value can be shown at a fraction of actual market price, and Surani, Moti and Charaniya families will pocket crores of rupees in cash and kickbacks. As members of these families keep getting appointed as priests turn by turn, their influence and wealth continually grows, enabling them to buy favours from the community's leadership as well as the Municipal Corporation. They can also cover up each other's misdeeds.
The higher-ups in the community's traditional hierarchy are inaccessible to followers, so complaining against local priests is impossible. One is reminded of the Italian Mafia's Omertà– an unspoken code of honor that ensures silence and non-interference in the illegal actions of others. Those who resist the illegal and unethical actions of local priests fear for their family's lives and their business. They are afraid to come out in the open.
Is Aga Khan ignorant? Or is he feigning ignorance? Where are the high ethics that Aga Khan preaches? The sphinx-like silence and inaction from the top is shaking the faith of Aga Khan's followers.
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