Borhras and reform
The wretched of the Bohra commumity
The Bohra community at present is passing through a period of turmoil. (It was true in the early 80s when the book was written as it is now in the late 90s.) Many members of this community, especially those who have taken part in the rebellion against the authoritarian Bohra priesthood, are undergoing intense suffering and mental torture.
Hundreds of families have been separated with little or remote chances of reuniting, at least in the foreseeable future. Even those who have not taken part directly in the movement but are suspected of harbouring sympathy for it have not been spared by the tyrants in priestly robes.
Frantz Fanon, in his well-known book The Wretched of the Earth, has described how the western colonizers humiliated, insulted and tortured - both physically and mentally - the people of the colinial world, permanently affecting their psyche. In a preface to the above book Jean Paul Sartre, addressing the western audience says; “Our victims know us by their scars and by their chains, and it is this that makes their evidence irrefutable. It is enough that they show us what we have made of them for us to realize what we have made of ourselves. But is it of any use? Yes, for Europe is at ‘Death's door'.”
Metamorphically speaking the Bohra priesthood is a colonizer and the Bohras a colonized people. The priesthood humiliates, insults and tortures them and treats them as slaves, like the western colonizers treated their Asian and African people. The Bohras bear permanent scars like the ones Sartre refers to in his preface. These Bohra victims know their priesthood by their scars and by their chains. This evidence of psychological injury is irrefutable proof of their estrangement from the tyrannical priesthood.
Of course, for the colonized people it was a political fight. With the proper leadership and strategy they overthrew the political hegemony of the west, but such a direct struggle against religious authorities is not possible, and even if waged, has very limited chances of success. So also it is with the process of social change. It is extremely difficult to break age-old social traditions which have been elevated to a religious status. These struggles assume a very tortuous course and call for intense suffering and heroic sacrifices. There are instances of people having been driven to commit suicide. Some have become mentally unhinged as a result of suffering.
Here we will describe certain cases to show how the Bohra priesthood has persecuted and terrorized people into submission. The story of this persecution and harassment is very long and painful. It started when some Bohras came forward to work for the cause of secular education in the beginning of the twentieth century. The priesthood opposed the idea of secular education and tried to obstruct their efforts. This brought forth the question of individual rights and the then chief pontiff of the Bohras who denied these individual rights, took it as a challenge to his authority and in order to meet this challenge started persecuting all those who defined his orders.
Many fell in line and those who did not were excommunicated. Excommunication or social boycott works with disastrous efficiency in this small and well-knit community. The excommunicated person is totally isolated even from his own family and if the family chooses to stand by him/her the family suffers the same fate within the community. The list of those who have suffered such a fate is very long. We will choose only a few instances to illustrate the cruelties and the measures taken by the priesthood to harass and persecute those who stand to assert their human rights.
The family of Sir Adamji Peerbhoy was excommunicated in 1917 after Shri Ibrahim Adamji Peerbhoy became party to a suit filed by the then Solicitor General of Bombay province in the Bombay High Court against the then Bohra high priest Sayedna Tahir Saifuddin. The above suit was filed to compel the Bohra chief to account for the money collected form the cash box kept at Chandabhai Seth Mausoleum. This family after its excommunication had to suffer a great deal of humiliation. We cannot go into all the details of this family's sufferings here. I will describe only one incident to show what malice the Bohra high priest bore towards this family.
When Amatalla Bai, the wife of one of the brothers of Ibrahim Bhai died the high priest refused permission to bury her. When all efforts to obtain permission for burial failed she was buried at Charni Road, Bombay, in a private plot belonging to the Adamji family. The priesthood sent some of its followers in the dead of the night immediately after burial to exhume the body of Amatalla Bai. The body was not only exhumed, its shroud was removed and thrown naked on the footpath opposite the Charni Road station. The body was again buried, and police vigilance was kept for several days. This was way back in the late thirties.
Mulla Abbas Aurangabadi was a brave fighter against the tyrannical authority of the Bohra high priest. His family was also put under social boycott. Mulla Abbas was a gifted orator and was a scholar of Isma‘ili faith and because of his oratory, he was able to attract a large number of people. In his sermons he used to criticize the irreligious ways of the high priest and his family. So the high priest bore grudge against him.
Mulla Aurangabadi also published a paper in Urdu dedicated to the cause of the reforms in the Bohra community. The high priest's followers threw acid at him as a result of which the left side of his face along with his left eye, was burnt. After this incident Mulla Abbas Aurangabadi left India and settled in Pakistan. But he continued his crusade for reforms from Karachi. However, the high priest did not spare him in Pakistan either. On 24 June 1966 while sitting in his house in Karachi a few persons rushed in, poured kerosene over Aurangabadi and set him ablaze.
Before his family could arrive the culprits escaped and Mulla Sahib was burnt alive. In his dying declaration he identified some of these culprits and accused the Bohra priesthood of complicity in the crime. A Muslim friend of Mulla Aurangabadi who had known the details of this incident offered to testify before the Nathwani commission. The commission took note of this incident though the witness could not come for deposition.
Sheikh Ahmed Ali, Sheikh Hasan Ali, Sheikh Sajjad Hussain and Sheikh Ali Ahmed were the four eminent teachers in the Jamia Saifiya (Bohra Seminary) at Surat. Needless to say, this seminary also, like other institutions belonging to the community is fully controlled by the priestly family. The above mentioned four teachers were suspected of sympathizing with those challenging the authority of the priestly family. They were also suspected of entertaining the belief that the 47th da'i wasn't duly appointed and hence the present da'i, who happens to be 52nd in line of succession, also does not fulfill the religious qualification of the Nass.
The story of the persecution of these four teachers is horrendous. The narration of some of the incidents is based on personal interviews with Sheikh Ahmed Ali, one of the victims of the priestly fury, and whatever he wrote in his personal diary. The Bohra priesthood incited the students of the seminary to attack these four teachers. They were kicked, hit, and spat upon. Some students and teachers went to the extent of opening their mouths and spitting into them. When they came out of the seminary building they were covered with blood and spit. However, this was not to be the end of the agony. They were dismissed from service and confined within the four walls of their houses, which happened to be in the Bohra Mohalla. They could not come out of their houses although they had done no wrong.
They were being meted out this inhuman treatment on mere suspicion of not being loyal to the high priest. What is worse is that the high priest pardoned them several times but their agony did not end because the high priest's followers continued to terrorize them. There was nothing more these unfortunate teachers could do except tender apologies and appeal for mercy. But these pleas for mercy did not move the tyrants and the poor teachers continued to live in terror. At one time they were called to Bombay and it was said that they would be finally pardoned. The high priest asked them to come to the Safie Mosque where he was to deliver a sermon. These people were to be pardoned that day in the mosque. As soon as they came near the entrance of the mosque some priests in white robes asked them to put their shoes on their heads and appeal for mercy.
The frenzied mob was abusing and insulting them and they were also beaten and spat upon. The high priest pardoned them in this humiliating condition. Even this pardon was no different from the previous ones. They continued to suffer intense humiliation as before. One of these teachers, Sheikh Sajjad Hussain was killed by a frenzied mob of fanantic followers of the Bohra high priest in 1975.
Another teacher, Sheikh Ahmed Ali was taken to Udaipur by the members of Bohra Youth after the revolt against the high priest there. He is now in Udaipur. Two other teachers, namely Sheikh Hasan Ali and Sheikh Ali Ahmed both of whom are now dead had to move out of the Bohra Mohalla and were staying with their sons. I have met them and heard from them the hair-raising story of their humiliation and torture. What I have described is only the tip of the iceberg.
A new wave of terror was unleashed by the high priest after the revolt in Udaipur. Shashi Bhushan's speech came as a godsend to the Bohra priesthood. Those who did not participate in the protest march against Bhushan's alleged remarks were subjected to various forms of harassment and persecution. Professor Muhammad Hussain who teaches economics in the Christian College, Indore, became one of its victims. Hussain, on the day the protest march was organised by the Bohras in Indore, had invigilation duty in his college and so could not participate in the protest march.
The local priest of Indore called a meeting of all the Bohras in one of the Bohra mosques to condemn Professor Hussain and declared social boycott against him. Professor Hussain happens to be a popular social worker and was connected with a number of charitable and other organizations belonging to the community. His sincere services were appreciated by one and all. The local 'amil asked all his friends to curse Professor Hussain and strongly condemn him for keeping away from the protest march. Out of fear they complied.
Then his own father was asked to curse and condemn him in the public meeting. When he hesitated he was sternly warned that all his daughters will be divorced if he did not comply. Not only that, he was told to ask his son Professor Hussain to leave his house that very night along with his wife failing which his daughters would face the prospect of divorce. Professor Hussain, in order not to put his parents and sisters in such a situation, left his own house along with his wife and children. There was no question of any other Bohra giving him refuge.
At last one of his students - a Punjabi Hindu, took him into his house. When I met Professor Hussain in Indore he was staying at his students' house. He stayed there for one year when his parents decided to join him whatever the consequences. The whole family is now facing social boycott and is reported to have changed their religion. No Bohra is allowed to talk to him or his family.
A Bohra widow from Chanda has a son who stays with a Bohra reformist family in Malegaon (Maharastra). The mother was asked not to maintain any relations with her son. However, she used to write letters to him. Some agents of the priesthood bribed the postman and caught these letters. She was humiliated and asked to apologize for not “obeying” the orders of the high priest. She wrote a letter to her son and got it delivered to him through a person of mutual confidence because she was afraid that if posted, the letter would be caught. She has poured out her agony in this letter to her son. This letter was brought to us by a relative of this widow's son from Malegaon.
We were given two original letters exchanged between a couple by some of our sympathizers. These letters tell a heart-rending story. The husband and wife who have exchanged these letters loved each-other intensely. But because the wife's family was sympathetic to the reform movement the priesthood brought pressure on the husband who was under its obligation, to divorce his wife. The husband had no option but to comply. In this last letter which he sent to his wife on the eve of divorce he has expressed his intense feelings of love towards her and has pleaded with her to meet him at a secret place suggested by him. I do not know whether they met, but I know for certain that they were divorced.
This incident relates to Dr. Khadija from Baroda (Gujarat). Dr. Khadija used to teach in the Medical College Baroda and was married to one Fakhruddin Barodawala. Their's was a love marriage. They had been living together for the last 10 years and had two children. Dr. Khadija belonged to Udaipur where her family was connected with the Bohra Youth Association. The priesthood brought pressure on Khadija in Baroda to sever relations with her mother and brothers and to curse them in the presence of the local priest. Dr. Khadija refused to oblige and took a firm stand.
The local priest thereupon asked her husband Fakhruddin Barodawala either to persuade his wife to comply with his orders or to divorce her. When Mr. Barodawala protested and pointed out that he loved his wife and his two children the priest told him that it was a sin to love a wife who does not comply with the wishes of the high priest and that his children in such an eventuality would be considered illegitimate. The husband, however, remained firm for a few months and faced social boycott. But the priesthood now declared an all-out war against his family and started harassing Mr. Barodawala's parents, other brothers and sisters. One of his sisters was harassed as far away as Calcutta.
The parents and sisters of Mr. Barodawala were thus harassed by the priesthood who in turn started harassing and humiliating Khadija. Her husband looked on helplessly. Dr. Khadija besides being highly qualified is a woman with self-respect. She could not stand insults and humiliation for long and left her husband's house along with her children. The happily married couple was thus separated and later divorced.
A young couple was drowned at Aksa beach, Malad, Bombay in 1976 leaving behind a four-year-old daughter. Their bodies were found two days later in a highly decomposed state. The parents of the couple happened to be sympathizers of the reform movement. For this reason the Bohra high priest refused to give permission for burying the dead bodies of the drowned couple in the Bohra cemetery under his control. When the bodies were taken to the cemetery at Kurla it was found to be surrounded by a large number of the high priest's henchmen. These henchmen refuses to open the gates of the cemetery, despite repeated pleas from the mourners. The tragedy with which the couple had met was so heartbreaking that everyone in the funeral procession was weeping.
But the high priest's followers were unmoved and would not let us enter the cemetery to bury the bodies. They even indulged in throwing stones at the coffin to force us to retreat. A number of such incidents have taken place in which the high priest's followers stoned dead bodies and mourners in order to prevent them from entering into the Bohra cemetery. Each time the police has had to either resort to lathi charge or firing. Even the worst enemies would not behave in such an inhuman way on such a tragic occasion but the Bohra high priest does so unabashedly in order to maintain a tight control over the community.
Sometimes people have been driven to commit suicides because of social boycott and its disastrous consequences. Here is an instance. A girl form Poona was married to a boy from the same city. However, the boy's mother was not treating her daughter-in-law well and because of repeated humiliations she decided to separate from her husband. She went back to live with her parents and her parents reconciled themselves to their daughter's fate. They were trying to obtain a divorce. However, the girl's husband approached the local Bohra priest Noman Bhai Saheb and sought his help (allegedly for a consideration) to coerce his wife to rejoin him.
The 'amil called her at his house and ordered her to go back to her husband's house. The girl tried to explain that she was unwilling to go back because while her mother-in-law maltreated her, her husband stood by his mother, but the priest would not hear her pleas and persisted in his demand that she go back to her husband's house. When the girl refused he threatened her and her family with social boycott. The girl desperately pleaded with the priest not to compel her to go back under the threat of social boycott. She also pleaded with the priest that her family was not to be blamed for this and hence not to punish it by declaring social boycott against them. But the high priest ignored her requests.
Then the girl said that she would rather commit suicide than live with her husband. Even then the priest was not moved. The girl, in order to save her family from the curse of social boycott went back to her husband's house and consumed bug poison to end her mental agony. Thus she sacrificed her life to save her family from the humiliation of social boycott. In her dying declaration she put the blame squarely on the priest. This news was carried in headlines by the local dailies in Poona and the situation became so tense that the priest had to flee from there.
In Udaipur, on 18 January 1975 when a large number of the supporters of the Bohra Youth were busy listening to religious sermons inside the Moiyyadpura Mosque, about 400 followers of the Bohra high priest stormed into the mosque armed with knives, cycle chains and batons, and attacked them. A large number of men, women and children were injured in this bloody attack. The walls of the mosque were splattered with blood. The blood stains on the walls of the mosques were visible even after six months when I visited it.
These blood-thirsty followers of the high priest made women and young girls special targets of their attack, molested many of them and hurled them down from the first floor gallery of the mosque. Later, one person succumbed to his injuries. The Sayedna's followers even did not hesitate to launch such a savage attack inside the mosque which all Muslims consider as a holy place meant only for prayers. The attack was launched when the innocent people were busy listening to a sermon.
In Udaipur, an old man who happened to be the follower of the Bohra Youth (i.e. the reform party) died. His son did not belong to the party. He was not only not allowed to take part in the funeral procession of his father but was compelled to marry on the same day in order to express his joy “at the demise of his father.” He dared not defy the high priest's authority.
Akbar Makaty from Jamnagar (Saurashtra, Gujarat) had been sympathetic to the reform movement about 20 years ago but due to social pressure he had apologised and had broken all connections with it. His ailing wife died on 10 July 1977. Makaty approached the local priest for permission to bury her dead body. The local priest refused to give permission on the grounds that he had taken part in the reform movement 20 years ago and that he might be having sympathy with it even today. Makaty tried to convince the high priest that it was not so, but the priest decided not to give permission for the burial and the body remained unburied for more than 24 hours.
When it started decomposing Makaty in desperation requested the Hindus and the Muslims to come to his rescue. Under pressure from the non-bohra public, the priest gave permission for burial but on condition that her husband as well as her sons should not join the funeral rites. Seeing no other way out and in order not to show disrespect to the dead body, the husband and sons agreed. The priest was so heartless that he ordered her dead body to be carried on a hand cart and buried without any religious rites. The local papers from Jamnagar strongly criticized the priest's inhuman behavior.
The few cases mentioned above have been selected from myriads of similar other cases. It has not been possible to give details of all these cases here. Thousands of Bohra families are suffering only because they have chosen to listen to the voice of their conscience. Such suffering families can be found not only in India but in countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, East Africa, the countries of the Middle East, U.K., Yemen etc. There are hundreds of mothers and sisters and wives who cannot meet and talk with their sons, brothers and husbands just because they are on one or the other side of this invisible “fence.”
They are helpless victims of the high priest's government. Yes, it is a government, although without a territory of its own and without authority having been vested by the usual political means. But it is as tyrannical as any authoritarian government can be. The reformists are fighting against this totalitarian priestly set up so that the Bohras all over the world also enjoy the life of a normal human being vested with democratic rights and person dignity. Though their struggle appears to be hopeless in view of an opportunist stand taken by politicians, they continue to fight, driven forward by their convictions.