Borhras and reform

Reform and social change among Bohras - Part 2


The Bohra reform movement, as emphasized, earlier, is mainly directed against misuse of religion and religious authority and not at reforming the basic doctrines of the Shia Ismaili faith, much less reforming the religion out of existence.

Although it cannot be denied that modern and democratic values - which in a sense though not strictly part of the community's tradition, are certainly not alien to its spirit - they have never wished to touch or alter the doctrinal core of their religion. In this sense their attempts at reforms may even be characterized as non-modernist. The reformists, let it be understood properly, while rejecting the doctrine of total and unconditional submission to authority, have not, at any time, advocated unqualified use of reason for examining their religious beliefs. A critical and scientific scrutiny of the religious tenets is not the moving passion of the reformists. Their moving passion instead, is, misuse of the faith and its exploitation for personal ends.

Thus they plead that since in the constitution the right to free profession, practice and propagation of religion is not absolute but “ subject to public order, morality and health” and this qualifying condition has not been seriously challenged by any minority community or section of a minority community, the state must intervene through appropriate legislative measures to check this misuse of religion. Such legislative measures can not, by any stretch of imagination, be construed as interference into the religious affairs. The reformists, in keeping with this constitutional provision, also argue that there cannot be a blanket application of this freedom to profess and practice religion on all the activities of its followers. One has to distinguish between religious activity and activity associated with religion cannot go beyond the purview of state intervention in the interest of society as a whole. It is precisely in this spirit, the reformists further argue, that the state has enacted Wakf Act, Ajmer Durgah Shariff Act of Tirupati Devasthanam Act without inviting, constitutionally or otherwise, the stigma of interfering into the religious affairs of these religious communities.

Also, it is in this spirit that untouchability was legislated away, although, and it is important to note, it has a religious sanction according to the Hindu scriptures. The reformists an their supporters have been victims of either ex-communication or social boycott (baraat) which as, as such, no religious sanction at all. The reformists want the state to enact a law to abolish baraat (social boycott) in as much as this practice results in severe social disabilities depriving a person so boycotted of all his civil rights within the community in addition to disrupting his entire family life and financial security. A boycotted person is prevented from maintaining contacts with his own family members including his wife, children and parents (Nathwani Commission Report has highlighted several of such instances with documentary and oral evidences) and thus his fate becomes worse than that of an untouchable. He suffers mental anguish which can hardly be described in words. To legislate against such practices is strongly warranted by article 25 and 25(2)(a).

Chief Justice Sinha, in his judgment in the case challenging the prevention of Ex-Communication Act in the Supreme Court had observed: “ Actions of the Dal-ul-Mutlaq(the chief pontiff) in the purely religious aspect are not a concern of the courts, but his actions touching the civil rights of the members of the community are justiciable and not outside the pale of interference by the legislature or the judiciary. I am not called upon to decide, nor am I competent to do so, as to what are the religious matters in which the Dai-ul-Mutlaq functions according to his religious sense. I am only concerned with the civil aspect of the controversy relating to the constitutionality of the Act, and I have to determine only that controversy.” Chief Justice B.P.Sinha has, in above words, as if summarised the case of the reformists Bohras. Upholding the Act he also succinctly observed:

“On the social aspect of Ex-Communication, one is inclined to think that the position of an ex-communicated person becomes that of an untouchable in his community, and if that is so, the Act in declaring such practice to be void has only carried out the strict injuction of Article17 of the constitution, by which untouchability shall be an offense punishable in accordance with law. The Act, in this sense, is its logical corollary and must, therefore, be upheld.”

It is thus obvious that the reformists, without challenging the central religious doctrines of their faith, are (although it is not sine qua non of their struggle) in some leading to grave disruption of social health and which are not integral part of the shi'a Isma'ili faith either. It is also interesting to note here that even the doctrine of t'awil (esoteric interpretation of the Koran) does not empower a Da'i to claim for himself extra ordinary powers to re-interpret the faith and its teaching formulating new practices (in Chandabhai Gulla case the 51st Da'i sought to do so but failed to substantiate his claims and even withdrew them) as, according to the Dawoodi Bohra tenets he is not infallible, the doctrine of infallibility being applicable on to imam who is in seclusion. The present Da'i and his father had sought to claim infallibility but failed to do so firstly because such a position is not supported by the available religious literature of the sect and secondly because such a claim would lead to there being two infallible personalities living contemporaneously which is not admissible proposition.

The reformists, therefore, argue that the practices being imposed by the present Da'i leading to unprecedented social turmoil within the community have, as argued above, neither religious sanction not constitutional validity. The Muslim leaders thus have no case in defending the high priest either on the grounds of non-interference in Muslim personal law or on the constitutional grounds under article 25 which specifically qualifies the freedom to profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality and health.

It should also be noted here with due emphasis that the high priest has been using the weapon of ex-communication or baraat (social boycott) not against religious dissenters (i.e. either those who renounce the accepted tenets and doctrines of the Shi'a Isma'ili Musta'lian faith or those who have innovated new doctrines) but chiefly against those who assert their constitutional right to promote either purely secular activities associated with religion and also against those who demand of him to render accounts of huge collection of funds made by him form the members of the community through highly institutionalised system of taxes in the name of religion. Also, the doctrine of accountability forms integral part of all the Shia Muslim sects as ‘Ali, next only to the prophet in the shia religious hierarchy, is reported to have practiced it most scrupulously. But the Bohra high priest not only refuses to accept this doctrine but socially ostracizes by declaring social boycott against those who insist on its acceptability. It may be recalled that the chief issue in the Chandabhai Gulla case, the major turning point in the Bohra reform movement in the early twentieth century, was the doctrine of accountability and the same was upheld by the judge Martin of the Bombay High Court as in keeping with the religious tenets of the Dawoodi Bohras.

A large number of Dawoodi Bohras are facing severe persecution today at the hands of their high priest not because they have revised or innovated new religious doctrines but simply because they have been insisting on the acceptance of the doctrine of accountability by the Sayedna. Article 27 of the constitution even lays down that “No person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.” The Bohra high priest compels, under the pain of social-boycott, his followers to pay such taxes. The Nathwani commission report also clearly indicates the element of compulsion in collection of these taxes. It would be a sheer myth to maintain that these taxes are voluntary in nature so far as the followers of the Sayedna are concerned.

However, respecting the religious susceptibilities of the Muslim and other minorities the reformists have not invoked the article 27 of the constitutions so far in their campaign. They are, however, demanding from the government to enact a comprehensive act on the lines of the Ajmer Dargah Shariff Act, or Tirupathi Devasthanam Act to control and regulate the huge amounts collected by the Bohra priestly establishment by way of charity and, there are very strong gorunds to believe, the same is being misappropriated on large scale. The article 26 (a) of the constitution, which allowing the right “to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes,” qualifies this right too, as under article 25, with the phrase “subject to public order, morality and health”.And, it is in this spirit, that the Acts above referred to (i.e Ajmer Dargah Shariff Act etc.) have been enacted and it is in this spirit that the reformists want an act to control and regulate the Bohra charitable institutions.

It is also very important to note that the constitutional rights guaranteed to the minorities whether under articles 25 or 26 or any other articles are meant for the welfare of the general members of the communities and not for powerful coteries which emerge within these communities to monopolise these rights and in the process denying helpless members of these communities enjoyment of these rights for whom they are primarily meant. What is happening in the Bohra Community is the best example of this situation. If these rights have to have any meaning for the ordinary members of the community the power of such powerful coteries will have to be broken. The reformists are engaged in the gigantic struggle to break this power so that ordinary Bohras - more than 50% of whom live in dire poverty - could benefit from the huge amount of charitable funds made available by many rich philanthropists.

Role of the politicians

It is obvious that no movement for social change can succeed in the long run without the political will on the part of the political leadership which guides destiny of the country. Theoretically speaking the political leadership stands committed to progressive social change. However, as all of us know, the situation is very much different in practice. Any movement for social change meets with powerful constraints from the political leadership. This leadership is concerned more than anything else, with the power for its own sake i.e. power to control and monopolize resources rather than for bringing about their just and equitable distribution and accelerating progressive social change. In every caste and community, in such a situation, there have emerged powerful groups and coteries which, speaking in the name of their respective caste and community, act as vote banks for the political parties and dictate terms to them. Thus the vicious circle comes into existence. These groups and coteries provide mass votes to enable politicians to win and in return expect the victorious politicians to protect their illegitimate interests.

Thus democracy, in its institutionalized functioning in a situation like that of India where, due to social backwardness, individual consciousness stands super-imposed by communal or caste consciousness which can be easily manipulated by the interested groups, becomes conducive to opposing progressive change. Also, smaller the numerical strength of a caste or community and greater its sense of deprivation, real or imagined, more heightened is communal or case consciousness. It can also be described as identity-consciousness. The Muslim community in India (We are not concerned here, at least directly with horizontal and vertical stratification which undoubtedly exist among them), though numerically not insignificant like Parsis, have strong sense of deprivation and hence have relatively more heightened communal and identity-consciousness.

For understanding the complex process of social change, it is necessary to bear these two factors i.e. numerical strength and sense of deprivation (one factor is physical whereas the other is psychological) as far as the minorities are concerned. It is also important to note that greater or more heightened the communal consciousness, lesser will be the scope for operation of individual rights. This is precisely the situation prevailing among the Indian Muslims today. They have heightened communal consciousness on account of sense of deprivation and hence rights of individuals in the community (whether in matters of divorce, marriage or other social matters) tend to take a back seat. In a ballot-box oriented democracy, heightened communal consciousness can be cleverly manipulated to produce mass vote. The ruling party does precisely that and thus becomes a powerful factor in blocking any meaningful social change.

Case of mdernization and change among Bohras

The case of the Bohra community is, in a way, comparable to that of the Parsi community. Unlike other Muslims, it is numerically much smaller but doesn't live under the sense of grave deprivation and feels comparatively economically more secure. Also, being a business community, it has had some share (obviously I am saying this only in a relative sense) in the fruits of development in the country. Yet, like the Parsis, its insignificant numerical strength i.e. its tiny size makes it more identity-conscious and change resistant. Greater economic property and relatively higher degree of education, at least among its elite, drives it towards change and modernization but its size and sense of preserving its identity compels it to conserve its tradition. It leads to tension but so far this tension has remained within the manageable limits and under the control of conservative forces. The forces of change, in other words, are not strong enough to generate powerful pressures for change.

There are several reasons for this. The bulk of the Bohras are petty traders lining in small towns (it is primarily an urban community. Agriculture is exception rather than rule, among the Bohras). These petty traders hardly feel any functional need for education beyond elementary levels. Their sons join them in their calling after madrasa education (of which the priesthood has taken care to provide a fairly good net work as it helps strengthening the religious identity of the community), which normally coupled with elementary secular education is considered fair enough for the requirements of their calling. The girls of course, after the madrasa education join their mothers in performing household chores and are later marries off.

The level of education among the Bohra women is alarmingly low except in a few major urban centres wherein middle and upper class Bohra families have encouraged their daughters to go for college education. Such a situation helps in keeping the traditional structure of the community intact. This structure for historical reasons as explained above, has been highly centralised and strongly discourages any centrifugal tendencies. Needless to say such a centralized power structure has been a great asset for the community as it saw it through the most difficult circumstances of external persecution and threat to its identity-conscious existence.

However, this strongly centralised structure has thrown up its own problems today in as much as it prevents individuals from exercising their rights and are totally subordinated to the centralised structure. Greater degree of industrialisation and expansion of commerce and trade is bringing more material prosperity to quite a few trading Bohra families which in turn leads to greater assertion of individual rights. This has created a social malaise within the community and the reform movement is one of its symptoms. The priestly family sitting at the apex of the power pyramid, is trying to curb with strong hands the emergence of individual consciousness as it militates against their monopoly of the power over the community. The priesthood, of late, has been taking ruthless measures to strengthen the traditional structure of the community. And, it must be admitted that to meet the challenge of reform and social change which is gathering momentum no doubt, the priestly family has fused this centralised structure more efficiently. Not only this, it is employing modern scientific techniques of organization most methodically to preserve and strengthen the centralised structure which was evolved to suit the needs of medieval ages.

Role of Islamic fundamentalism

The Bohra priesthood, as pointed out earlier, has drawn support from the conservative Muslim leadership in their campaign against the reformists. The demands of the reformists, as analysed above, are essentially non-modernist but, nevertheless, have been inspired by the modern thrust for social transformation and as such is dreaded by not only the Bohra priesthood against whose authoritarianism it is chiefly directed but also try other Muslim ‘ulama and conservative political leadership which looks upon it with suspicion. Although Islam has no concept of priesthood much less churchlike priestly hierarchy, and the thrust of the reform movement is against the hierarchy yet it fails to evoke any response from the orthodox Muslim ‘ulama. Further, despite any anti-Islamic practices (mainly form the Orthodox Muslim point of view) being perpetrated by the Bohra priesthood, the ulama, both for political and personal reasons, tend to support the Bohra pontiff.

The Sayedna, on his part, in order to force closer links with the Muslim ‘Ulama has started emphasizing orthodox practices long given up by the members of the community. In this venture the Pontiff has taken his cue form the wave of Islamic fundamentalism sweeping across the Islamic world. At the end of eighties the high priest issued an edict requiring all the male members to grow beard and wear traditional head gear and all the female members to wear veil. He also issued a separate injunction banning interest (the practice of giving and taking interest is very widely prevalent in the Bohra community in view of its business needs and many members of the priestly family are also known to be indulging in interest bearing transactions) and dissolving co-operative societies giving interest bearing loans to the merchants. The latter directive caused much furore in the community as interest was sought to be abolished without making any alternate arrangements for interest free loans.

The high priest sought to drive maximum propaganda benefit out of these measures among Indian Muslims as well as in the Islamic countries. The high priest's brother Yusuf Najmuddin began to attend international seminars convened by the Islamic countries in search of developing closer links with these countries and using these connections back home to bring pressure on the Indian government not to take any steps against the priestly establishment under pressure from the reformists. In order to refurbish his Islamic image the high priest undertook repairs to a dilapidate mosque al-Jamaica Anwar belonging to the Fatimid period in Cairo. According to the press release the high priest spent 3 million dollars on the first stage of the extensive repairs and an equal amount is planned to be spent on its second stage.

A grand inaugural function was held in Cairo and the mosque was thrown open after the repairs by the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Needless to say, the members of the community had to bear the entire financial brunt for promoting the high priest's fundamentalist image. The high priest, with a view to develop effective counterweight to the reform movement at home, is also trying to promote active relationship with militant Muslim organisations, in non-Muslim countries. He has thus developed close relationship with the leaders of the European Council of Islam. In fact, the high priest got this organisation to launch a signature campaign against Nathwani Commission in 1977 construing the commission's inquiry as an unwarranted interference into the ‘religious affairs' of the Muslim minority community in India.

In the USA the Bilal News, a militant Black Muslim paper - was approached to carry a article against the Nathwani inquiry depicting the same as a grave danger to the identity of Indian Muslims. There are a number of Bohra families in the UK, USA, Canada and countries of the Middle East, East Africa and Pakistan. These Bohras were made to approach the Muslim organisations for a joint protest against the grave dangers to the “Muslim identity” (read the Bohra priestly interests) in India.

It would be seen that the Bohra priesthood has tried to successfully exploit, for its own self-interest on the one hand, what could be described the community's obsession to preserve its historical identity by sharply distinguishing itself from the mainstream of Sunni Muslims in the country in particular and from other sections of population in general (reformists have been posed as obliterating this self-identity of the community) and, on the other, by linking up the issue with the minority rights guaranteed in the Indian Constitution, thus playing up the sensibilities of the Muslim minority to preserve its religious identity in a hostile (imagined or real) environment. Such a course is, of course, fraught with doctrinal contradictions which the reformists have sought to exploit. It would be interesting to throw some light on this aspect also.

The Bohras are strictly speaking a dissident sect within the larger Islamic community. Historically they have been looked down upon - even severely persecuted - for their ‘heretical doctrines' and esoteric beliefs. At best, it could be said to have been maintaining an uneasy truce with the orthodox Sunni Muslims. The 51st Da'i Sayedna Taher Saifuddin, in one of his books compiled by him, through esoteric interpretations of the Holy Qur'an (t'awil), claimed that only those who follow him are true Muslims as he holds one end of the God's string in his hand, all others being misguided lot doomed to end up in hellfire. This book raised a storm of protest from the Muslim leaders and eventually resulted in being banned by the British government. The 51st Da'i in the later part of his reign when he was seeking support of the orthodox Sunni leaders, continued to press such outrageous claims form the orthodox Sunni point of view within community through his sermons although refraining from publicly publishing such views.

The reformists too consider the muslim support vital to exercise pressure on the government to curb the exploitative activities of the Bohra pontiff. They, therefore, frequently expose the pontiff's ‘anti-Islamic' ‘anti-orthodox' activities before the Muslim masses. Thus it would be seen that in an essentially backward society like that of India a movement for social change (and modernising by implication) has to be conducted in an orthodox framework. This becomes a great drag on the movement and results in giving it a very tortuous course. There can hardly be a straight path - let alone any shortcut to social change in such a situation. The fact that even a movement for social change has to be couched in a traditional idiom reflects upon the complexity of the objective situation.

It also must be made clear that the reformist leaders, fully respect the religious sensibilities of the Bohra masses who have great faith in the doctrines of their religion. The Bohras also have shown great degree of tenacity in preserving their sectarian identity and the reformists argue that the present religious establishment has cleverly maneuvered this situation to demand total submission to, and uncritical acceptance of its authority. The rapid social transformation is widening the base for change in the Bohra community also and the social milieu is becoming less and less conducive to such unqualified submission to any authority.

Thus situational dynamics - and its constraints which cannot be ignored either - throws up areas of tension which must be creatively resolved. Static sense of identity would not help any longer. Self-identity must also lead to self-alteration if the group or the community has to find its organic moorings in the new situation. For, the truth (around which a community's identity crystallizes) while based on revelation or intuition cannot be entirely divested of conformity to fact. The community, argue the reformists, must develop respect for fact while having abiding faith in the revealed truth. The two can be integrated harmoniously.

Total submission to authority may provide solace and sense of security - and this eminently suits the pathos of petty traders and hence has been the forte of the priesthood and weakness of the reform movement - but it dulls the creative faculties of the community. The present situation, the reformists feel, is not conducive to dynamic growth for the community although it may have helped preserve its static identity. If the creative energies of the community are released from the bondage to priesthood, the Bohras can contribute much more than what they have been able to do in view of these rigid constraints. The Parsis, smaller in size than the Bohras, are no less obsessed with preserving their identity, have produced many more noted industrialists, scientists, politicians, legal luminaries, writers and artists.

It is high time the Bohras loosen their shackles and begin in right earnest to develop institutional framework for material and spiritual development of the community and for which enough resources are available to it. There are far less educational, financial and similar other institutions to provide, infrastructure for development than needed and whatever are, are under the rigid control of the priesthood which effectively throttles their growth and causes their creative energies to be atrophied. The present well-knit structure of the community is eminently suited for orderly growth and development. What is needed is to liberate it from the rigid control of the powerful priestly interests.

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