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Conference 2011: Fight for reforms continues

The Bohra reform movement was hot news from1970s to 1990s. Thereafter nothing was seen in the papers and many people thought that movement must have died down as so many social movements do. However, it is not true. Still it is quite alive and kicking. The proof is, if anyone wants proof, the 14th All World Dawoodi Bohra Conference which was held in Udaipur – the reformist centre – from 11th to 13th February 2011. The inaugural session was attended by more than 700 people of whom about 500 were women. The subsequent delegate sessions on 12th and 13th were also attended by 400 persons of whom 300 were women.

Conference highlights
  • Intellectuals and activists supported the reformist cause and encouraged reformists to bring about social change
  • Conference condemned Baraat and other such brutal practices and urged the priesthood to respect ordinary Bohras’ dignity and human rights
  • Women's role in sustaining the movement was widely applauded, and they attend the conference in large numbers
  • Recent communal riots in Rajasthan were condemned and authorities urged to bring culprits to justice
  • A demand for a Shi’ah Wakf Board was made so that reformist Bohra and Shi’ah properties could be safeguarded
  • A women’s commission was formed to raise awareness among women for their rights and gender justice
  • An inter-faith commission was formed to promote harmony and dialogue among different faiths
  • An intra-faith commission was set up to promote harmony and dialogue among different Muslim sects such as Sunnis and Shi’as, Deobandis and Barelvis
Resolutions passed
Coference 2011: Important resolutions

Women are greater victims of religious exploitation in general and Bohra women in particular. They were beaten up and dragged by their hair by the Bohra High Priests’ goons in Galiakot on March 1, 1972 and they have never forgotten this shocking incident. They were molested and dishonored and this searing experience can leave a permanent mark on women’s psyche.

What is important to note is that the Bohra reform movement is not exclusive i.e. it is not restricted to Bohra community alone. The leadership, from the very beginning, has adopted an inclusive approach. From the very first conference in 1977 prominent writers including Dalit writers like Daya Pawar and others had participated. It was inaugurated by the prominent Hindi writer late Kamleshwar, and human rights activists also have been participating in these conferences.

Justice Tarkunde, Gobinda Mokhoty (unfortunately both have passed away), Mr. Sabastian and others also took active part in this movement. The mass marriage in which about 110 reformist Bohra couples got married and whose marriages were held up by the priesthood for over a year, were solemnized in the presence of priests of all religions in 1975 and more than 5000 people took part in the celebration.

The reformist Bohras are fighting against totalitarianism and for their democratic and human rights which are flagrantly violated by the Bohra priesthood. They are denied all kinds of freedom which include their fundamental freedoms like speaking and writing on corruption within the religious establishment. The religious establishment headed by the priesthood has assumed monstrous powers.

Reformists meet every three years to discuss their problems worldwide. This 14th conference was also attended by delegates from various countries like USA, U.K. Dubai, Kuwait and so on. The conference was inaugurated by Shahid Mahdi, former Vice Chancellor Jamia Millia Islamia. Dr. Tahir Mahmood, former Chairman, National Commission for Minorities and member, Law Commission, was the chief guest. Medha Patkar of Narbada Andolan fame was the guest of honour. Prof. Trivedi, Vice Chancellor, Sukhadia University, Udaipur delivered the welcome address as chairman, Reception Committee.

A day before the conference began i.e. on 10th February, we had organized a national seminar on “State, Religion and Society" so that issues of social reforms could be understood in social and national perspective. Many writers, academics and social activists participated in the seminar. Social reforms became necessary after modernization of Indian society began under the British colonial rule. Social reforms had become necessary even during medieval ages but those mainly took form of Bhakti and Sufi movements to bring about equality among all human beings. The state had no role in these reforms.

However, with modernization of society the state acquired a role, though not as a sponsor of social reform which always came from civil society, but of legislation and of maintaining social order. When Rammohan Roy started his campaign against sati he had to approach the British Government to ban sati through legislation which the British rulers did. But as society was not prepared for the same the British had to face strong resistance.

The seminar was inaugurated by Tahir Mahmood and he threw light on the problems and the odds reformers have to face. It is no tea party, he said. Sir Syed who founded Mohamedan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College to spread modern education among Muslims of India had to face terrible opposition and was even described as kafir by orthodox ulama.

Great leaders and visionaries

Also, any social reform movement is seen as a threat by orthodox leadership as it fears the new leadership would take over power and marginalize it. It is not only a question of ideological conviction but also of interests. If reforms become successful, it is Ram Mohan Roy and Sir Syed who would lead the communities not the orthodox priesthood. Ram Mohan Roy and Sir Syed both went down in history as great leaders and visionaries whereas the orthodox priesthood was marginalized. Their names are also not known to us today.

The state has very limited role in such sensitive matters such as social or religious reforms, particularly in democratic setup. Even kings and dictators find it very difficult to bring about change. The examples of King Amanullah of Afghanistan in the Thirties of last century and that of Shah of Iran in the Sixties and Seventies had to pay heavy price for ushering in modern reforms from above and both had to abdicate their thrones.

Prof. Agwani, former Vice Chancellor of JNU, and Shahid Mahdi brought out these dimensions of movement for social change and enlightened the audience. “The Bohra social reform movement,” Asghar Ali Engineer said, “was the movement against authoritarianism in the name of religion. The aim of the movement was to democratize Bohra society and particularly so as Islam is religion of equality and human dignity and here the priesthood was destroying this very spirit. The priesthood was also destroying the very spirit of the Indian constitution by denying Bohras the very fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. The Nathwani Commission has proved, through its inquiry, the truth of these charges.”

Harbingers of social change

The reformist Bohras are worse than pariah. When the Supreme Court had struck down the Prevention of Ex-communication Act by a majority of four (out of five-judge bench) Justice Sinha, the then Chief Justice of India had written in his dissenting judgment that social reformers will  become social pariah if this Act is struck down. He has been proved right. The reformist Bohras did become social pariah. They cannot enter mosques, mausoleums and jamatkhanas of their own community which either they or their fore-fathers had built.

Ex-communication is not only unconstitutional but also un-Islamic as there is no doctrinal provision for ex-communication or social boycott. In fact it was unbelievers of Mecca who had declared social boycott of the Prophet (PBUH) and his family and companions. In fact there is no concept of priesthood in Islam at all. All the priests are self-appointed. There is no authority of ordination as in the Christian Church. Any individual with proper knowledge can perform all religious rituals.

Syed Shahid Mahdi said in his inaugural address that reformist Bohras, though small in number, are harbingers of social change and are going along the footprints of great reformers in the past and they should not worry about their number. All great changes are initiated by small number of people and others follow them. In Karbala too, there were only 72 persons, including children who courted martyrdom for the sake of Islamic values, along with Imam Husain

Tahir Mahmood also, agreeing with Syed Mahdi, said that it is always persecuted minorities who bring about revolution and usher in new social values. Addressing reformists, he said, “you reformists today are persecuted minority but it is you who will change the society for the better and liberate it from tyranny of priesthood. It is these priests who perpetuate and exploit in the name of religion.”

Inner conviction leads us to peace

Medha Patkar saw the Bohra reform movement in the perspective of people’s struggle for liberation. She urged reformist Bohras to be part of struggle by weaker sections of society and express their solidarity with them. Dr. Engineer said that religion is nothing but quest for truth based on inner conviction. Without truth religion is an empty shell. And truth based on inner conviction leads us to peace and non-violence.

The reformist Bohras have fought their battle strictly on principle of non-violence whereas the Bohra priesthood always resorted to violence and attacked several of our supporters. They think violence will frighten the reformists and silence them forever. However, violence made them more determined to fight. Reformist Bohras are following the way shown by Mahatma Gandhi who propounded and practiced the doctrine of Satyagraha and Ahimsa i.e. truth and non-violence.

This movement has distinction of participation in large numbers by women and their iron will to fight the tyranny of priesthood. It is these women who bore the brunt of violence. Their sacrifices are really inspiring for many of us. Mostly it is blind belief on the part of women that sustains orthodoxy but here it was strong urge of Bohra women for social reforms that gave sustenance to the reform movement.

Since the Bohra reform movement believes in inclusive approach, it formed, in its delegate session, three important commissions i.e. women’s commission, inter-faith commission and intra-faith commission. The women commission was formed to raise awareness among women for their rights and gender justice. It would include women of all communities in general and Muslim women, in particular. It will be headed by Prof. Zainab Bano who is head, department of Political Science, Sukhadia University, Udaipur.

Inter-faith harmony and dialogue

The reformists also give great importance to communal harmony and inter-faith dialogue. Since its inception the reformists have worked untiringly for inter-faith harmony and dialogue but in this conference it was decided to give it an institutional form and form a formal commission for this purpose. It will be headed by Commander Mansoor Ali, a retired military officer. It should be noted that communalism also is a product of misuse of religion for political purposes and results in violence. Reformists Bohras are great votary of justice, peace and security.

Another commission formed was for intra-faith understanding. In many religions in India, especially among Muslims there is intra-faith strife like between Sunnis and Shi’as on one hand, and between Deobandis and Barelvis, on the other. Thus intra-faith dialogue and unity is as necessary as inter-faith dialogue and unity. This commission will be headed by Shri Abid Ali Adeeb, a poet and writer. Through these commissions reformists will endeavour to work towards all round peace and security in our communities.

Among the resolutions passed in the conference one was against the recent communal violence in Sarada, in Udaipur district. In this town 70 houses of Muslims were set on fire right under the nose of district magistrate and superintendent of police. The district magistrate and superintendent of police assured Muslims of full security and took them to Udaipur in buses and then set fire to their houses. In my 45 years of work for communal harmony I never came across any such instance where the D.M. and S.P. of police themselves were involved as in Sarada in getting Muslim houses burnt after evicting them under false pretext.

Shi’ah Wakf Board

What is more shocking was that it happened under a Congress regime and despite repeated representation and my personally meetings, no action was taken against the culprits and no judicial inquiry was held. Again communal violence took place in Jhalawad district after Sarada and Muslim houses were looted and burnt and in Jhalawad too, no action was taken against the guilty, including the police officers.

Another resolution was passed to demand setting up of Shi’ah Wakf Board so that interests of reformist Bohra properties and other Shi’ah properties also could be taken care of. Another resolution pertained to various corruption scandals like in Common Wealth Games in 2G etc. in which both politicians and government officers were involved. While condemning such instances the resolution urged on civil society to work more actively to combat corruption and to usher in clean and transparent governance. A resolution demanding Haj quota for reformist Bohras was also passed.

Overall this was a historic conference, especially because women showed great enthusiasm as always and have also shown keen interest in working for inter-faith dialogue. They also vowed to celebrate major Indian festivals like Deepawali, Eid and national festivals like Republic Day and Independence day etc. jointly with all other communities. They said “we celebrate diversity” and unity in diversity is our profound belief.

Nathwani Commission and Bohra priesthood

The Nathwani Commission which was headed by Justice Nathwani, Justice Tarkunde, Prof. Alu Dastur, Prof. Alam Khundmiri of Osmania University and other prominent academic and legal luminaries were involved. The Commission itself was set up by Jai Prakash Narain, then Chairman of Citizens for Democracy. Though the Commission’s scope was strictly limited to inquire into violations of reformist Bohras’ human and democratic rights, the Bohra high priest, through some Muslim leaders, raised hue and cry that Islam is in danger and outside forces are interfering into Muslims’ religious affairs.

The then Shahi Imam even said that rivers of blood will flow if the Nathwani Commission is not withdrawn and this despite my personal meeting with him and assuring him that no religious matter is being investigated into and that if the Commission does so, I myself will boycott it.

The Commission concluded that “Our inquiry has shown that there is large-scale infringement of civil liberties and human rights of reformist Bohras at the hands of the priestly class and that those who fail to obey the orders of the Syedna (Bohra high priest) and his Amils (local representatives of the high priest), even in purely secular matters, are subjected to Baraat (ex-communication) resulting in a complete social boycott, mental torture and frequent physical assaults.” (the present writer himself was nearly fatally assaulted five times including once in Egypt).

Threat of Baraat

“The Misaq,” the Commission Report continues, “(the oath of unquestioning allegiance to the high priest) which every Bohra is required to give before he or she attains age of majority, is used as the main instrument for keeping the entire community under the subjugation of the Syedna and his nominees. On the threat of Baraat (social boycott) and the resulting grave disabilities, Bohras are prevented from reading periodicals which are censured by the Syedna (such as the Bombay Samachar, The Blitz and the Bohra Bulletin); from establishing charitable institutions like the orphanages, dispensaries, libraries etc. without the prior permission of the Syedna except by submitting to such conditions as he may impose; from contesting elections to municipal and legislative bodies without securing beforehand the blessings of the Syedna; and above all, from having any social contact with a person subjected to Baraat, even if the person is one’s husband, wife, brother, sister, father or son. The weapon of Baraat has been used to compel a husband to divorce his wife, a son to disown his father, a mother to refuse to see her son. An ex-communicated member becomes virtually an untouchable in the community, and besides being isolated from his friends and nearest relatives, is unable to attend and offer prayers at the Bohra mosque. Even death does not release him from the taboo, for his dead body is not allowed to be buried at the community common burial ground…”

The Nathwani Commission Report also enlists many hair-raising cases it investigated. However, the high priest is so influential that nothing happened to him even after the report was published. Top government leaders including prime ministers and other officials publicly patronize him and his family. No political leader, not even of saffron variety, wants to touch him. The priestly establishment is flush with funds and uses his financial resources to promote his interests. To our great surprise the Central Government has postponed school exams for about a month on the occasion of his 100th birthday. No other religious head has ever had such distinction. One can understand his political clout.