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Zehra Cyclewala: Taking on the high and mighty


Tell the auto rickshaw driver to drop you off at the Red Tower in Zampa Bazar, that is the only tower in Surat, he will know, she said. Fifteen minutes later I arrived in a busy street swarming with people and traffic, a typical late-morning rush of any mid-sized Indian city. There she was, standing across the street:  A bespectacled middle-age woman wearing a cotton shalwar-kameez. We greeted, and made small talk as we took a short walk to her house through the narrow, claustrophobic lanes.

Is this is your first time in Surat, she asked. In a way yes, I said. I had come ages ago to attend a youth camp but had no memory of the city. Her house in Saifee Mohlla was just two houses down Burhani masjid. It was an ordinary, non-descript building but might as well have been a fort, a fortress amid the enemy territory. Who could have guessed that under its roof a rebellion is being nurtured for almost 30 years.

A policeman armed with a gun sits in a plastic chair at the entrance to the building. He gets up as we approach. I requested the High Court to provide me with police protection for these 10-12 days of Moharrum, she said. With Muffadal sahib in town and hordes of Bohras coming down here, I feared for my safety. You know, she said, I’ve a standing order from the High Court, I can ask for police protection anytime I want. She passed this information matter-of-factly, without trying to impress. She didn’t need to. For her police matters, legal battles and working through the tangle of Indian bureaucracy had become part of her life. Like paying electricity bills or getting a plumber to a fix a leaking tap.

An ordinary, non-descript woman who could have lived a normal life of work and quiet domesticity was today a symbol of courage and tenacity. An outlier among Bohras known for their docility and submissiveness. She is, of course, Zehra Cyclewala: a rebel, a soldier, a one-woman-army who time and again has rubbed the nose of the crusty Bohra clergy in the mud. And lived, rather thrived, to tell the tale. I had met Zehraben before a couple times at conferences but had known her largely by reputation. There is nary a Bohra in Surat, or elsewhere for that matter, who has not heard of her.

She makes little of the legend she is. I did not choose to be this way, she said. We were a poor family from Saat Gaam, where education for the girls was unheard of. But my parents wanted me to have an education. I was the first college graduate from my village. But years before, before I was born, my father came to Surat and opened a cycle repair shop. I was born here in Surat. This building, she said pointing to her house, was built in 1955. We have lived here ever since. After the untimely death of my father, it’s my mother who has been my support, my inspiration.

Life was good and simple until 1985, she continued. After I finished BCom, I got a job in Saif Co-operative Society and I used to give private tuitions to Bohra students. All I wanted to do then, said Zehraben, is to make money, lots of money. But in 1985 came the fatwa from the mullahs that interest is haram. Bohras were asked to quit bank jobs. They asked to me to quit also, but I said I cannot. Who is going to feed me and my mother, I asked. They had no answer. Besides, I asked, it is Sayedna sahib who inaugurated this Society 20 years ago. Didn’t he know about interest then? I also reminded them that Dawat buildings are being rented out to banks, and the jamat earns haram interest income from them. They said you talk too much, and declared baraat on me.

That marked the beginning of Zehraben’s battle with the clergy. She and her mother were ex-communicated. The Bohra mohlla was the only world they had known, and now suddenly it was withdrawn from them. Friends and relatives and neighbours fell away. The lives and relationships they had built around them froze overnight, as if an evil wind blew over them while they slept. They woke up to an alien, hostile world. When mother and daughter went out people spat on them. She lost her tuition students and thereby her meagre extra income.

Those were trying times, she said. For a number of years we just managed with one meal a day. I did not know that I had the courage in me to bear that kind humiliation and harassment. But I had the support of my mother. She was unflinching to the end. She said, don’t give in to these crooks. Now everybody knows about my legal victories. But in those early days I was alone, fighting a lonely battle in this obscure corner of Surat.

My old mother and I on one side, and the mighty Kothar on the other: The fight could not have been more unequal. But you have to understand, she said, I was not driven by any grand notion of justice or truth or any of those fancy ideals. For me it was just a fight for livelihood. But as my struggle continued this fight expanded into a larger social issue. I realised that is not just a question of my job, but of my human rights, of women’s rights.

Of course, we had the support of reformist friends like the Kinkhabwala family here and Saifuddin Insaf and Yunus Baluwala in Mumbai. But for the most part I was on my own in those early years, she said. As I started winning cases I gained confidence, and I reached out and joined hands with other groups fighting against injustices. They supported me and I supported them. Today, she added, I just have to make a phone call and hundreds will gather here in my support. When I go the police station, they know I mean business. There was a time when the police roughed me up, and put me in the lockup for no good reason, but now they know better. I have learned the inner workings of the courts, know the law and have a good handle on my rights and the rights of citizens.

Zehra Cyclewala with police escort outside her house in Surat.

Zehra Cyclewala and the "illegal" bridge in the background.

Zehra Cyclewala posing with a Bohra gentleman.

From those tentative and frightful years Zehra Cyclewala has a come a long way. The people who spat on her once now pat her on the back. As we stand in the street outside her building, Bohras pass by and say salaams to her: Zehraben, kem chho. A young Bohra man comes by and chats with the policeman, asks him about the gun, wants to touch it. He wants to take it in his hands and feel the heft of it. And the policeman foolishly lets him. I cringe as the man toys with the gun – the image of a Taliban with a Kalashnikov flashes in my mind. 

It is Ashura day, 12 noon, a bright warm November day. The masjid next door is packed, through the doors and windows white-clad men and rida-clad women can be seen. The voice of Mufaddal Saifuddin over the PA system ricochets against close-set buildings and breaks apart amid the nearly abandoned streets of Zampa Bazar. The staccato style of his delivery, the sharp, short bursts belie the solemnity of the Ashura bayan. Instead of pathos one detects anger and admonition in his tone.

Zehraben and I with the armed policeman in tow (the gun safely back with him) walk towards the main mohlla. Let me show you around, she says. Further down, the street opens up to a square of sorts where all other streets converge. At the far end on the right is another masjid, probably Mufaddal Saifuddin is presiding over the majlis in there. Bohra men spill out on to the street: standing, squatting in front of shuttered shops, idly listening to the bayan which fills the air. The streets are quiet, the sun overhead sharp, and the three of us are perhaps the only people moving. All eyes follow us. The scene is not dissimilar to a Western movie where the cowboy and his sidekick stray into an enemy village, there is an eerie silence and villagers, agog with anticipation, wait on edge for bullets to fly.

I half expect to hear a Western tune and almost look to the sky to find the mandatory eagle hovering there. Zehraben nudges me, they must all be wondering what I’m up to now. She points to me the various landmarks in the area. Says this is the rear part of Jamea Saifia, the Bohra seminary. Yusuf Najumuddin, whose notoriety is part of Bohra folklore, is believed to have turned this august seat of learning into a centre of indoctrination. Graduates from here spread across the Bohra universe, controlling the Bohra mind and justifying a corrupt, retrograde system.

I take out my camera to take pictures. Yes, go ahead, she says. She too starts clicking with her mobile phone. We come under a bridge that connects the masjid with the building across the street. This bridge is built illegally, she says, for Mufaddal sahib. He cannot cross the street, apparently. We had filed a complaint to the city, but nothing came of it. These people have the money, they can do anything, she adds.

Further ahead as we turn a corner, she points to the barricaded narrow street along the masjid. You know, she says, they wanted to buy off this whole street. But this is public space, as it is things are congested here, how can they just buy it and turn it into a private property? We brought an injunction and stopped the sale, she says. But we don’t know for how long we can hold out.

We continued our tour, stopping every now and then, taking pictures and Zehraben enlightening me about this and that. As I walk with her and listen to her, I cannot but marvel at her courage. How she can walk into the lion’s lair, as it were, and all the king’s men with all the king’s presitige and money at their disposal can’t even touch her. On the contrary, they now look upon her with a mixture of awe and fawning reverence – so typical of powerless, defeated people.

On our way back, as we pass again under the “illegal” bridge, outside the main entrance to the masjid we stop by mounds of green coconuts sprawling under a tent. A large burly man who is apparently in charge greets Zehraben. Kem chho, he says. He asks a worker to give us all a drink of coconut water. Zheraben refuses saying she has diabetes. The police guy and I accept. I drink quickly and gratefully. Although I was a stranger I found it odd, and I must confess a slightly unsettling, to be there. This was Surat, Zampa Bazar, the Jamea was only a stone’s throw away. This was the stronghold of Bohra orthodoxy. The thundering condemnation of reformists by Mufaddal sahib on his last visit to Udaipur was fresh in my mind. I wasn’t sure if any reformist other than Zehraben was as welcome here. I wanted to beat a hasty retreat; after all, the armed guard was not obligated to protect me.

Later in her house, she said to me that that burly man was the brother-in-law of Badri Lacewala - the local kingpin who had supposedly sponsored the whole Moharrum “tamasha”. The previous evening I had met a friend, Ghulam Rasool (not his real name), who is on the inside but whose mind and spirit bristle with rebellion. He took me around Zampa Bazar and the atmosphere there was in complete contrast to what we found on Ashura afternoon. The place was teeming with people – a sea of Bohras, men and women, jamming the streets. Road side stalls and restaurants were doing brisk business. People chatting, eating, guffawing and ostensibly having a good time. A hum wafted up from the crowds into the night sky. After the rigours of waaz and maatam, the evenings were a like catharsis of sorts for them. Most of these people were outsiders who had travelled from far and wide answering the call of Maula, following him year after year wherever he went for Ashara.

Moharrum may well be about Imam Hussain and his sacrifice, but the economy of Bohra Moharrum is far removed from the tragedy of Karbala. Getting Maula to choose your city for Ashara Mubarak is akin to winning a lottery. For 10-15 days the economy of the lucky city skyrockets. In Surat hotels were full and every private room/flat was snapped up. Rickshaw drivers had jacked up their fares, and business in Zampa Bazar and nearby malls was roaring. Local Muslim men in the mohlla were recruited to control the crowds and traffic. The disruption to normal life and routine of locals was more than compensated by the boost in the economy. Police were all around keeping an eye on the goings-on.

A giant billboard of Mufaddal Saifuddin.

Ghulam Rasool informed me how local Bohra businessmen were cashing in on the logistics of catering to close to a hundred thousand people. They claim that three hundred thousand have come, but that’s nonsense, he said. People have made crores by just supplying mattresses, he said, so you can imagine how much is to be made in all the rest of the stuff.

Mufaddal sahib, he said, had paid Rs100 crores to Modi to help facilitate this “tamasha”. Ghulam Rasool had many such inside stories to tell, and had a flair for telling them. He said that Badri Lacewala is the man who was in the pheta and cream sherwani  seated in front of the Cinderella air-conditioned buggy in which Mufaddal Saifuddin made the grand entry into Surat. This is how our Dai came, with pomp and show, to commemorate Moharrum, he said disapprovingly. Bohras had lined up the streets to greet him with folded hands and the shouts of Maula, Maula. It might as well have been a court of an emperor returning from battle, triumphant and regal.

Ghulam Rasool prefaced his stories with caution, emphasising their apocryphal nature. I could