Udaipur History - 3

History of reform movement in Udaipur - Part 3

The intellectual community of Udaipur was wholeheartedly one with the cause of the Bohra Youth. As a mark of its support 133 teachers of Udaipur University brought out a printed pamphlet congratulating the Bohra Youth for its courage and determination. The pamphlet was widely distributed. It said, among other things:

“The educated community of this city is fully aware of the activities of the Bohra Youth. It was through the liberation movement of the Youth that the common man became aware of the degree of control exercised by the high priest Sayedna Dr. Mohammed Burhanuddin, over the Dawoodi Bohra Jamaat. A Dawoodi Bohra remains, from birth to death, a slave to the Sayedna's permission. Without his permission, let alone marriage, even a dead body cannot be buried... A Dawoodi Bohra can exist only with his permission. He ceases to be Dawoodi Bohra without his permission...In this way Sayedna Saheb is running a parallel government and is enforcing his own laws as against the representative government of the country... No conscious citizen of this country can accept such totalitarian authority of any religious priest.. We, the teachers of Udaipur University heartily congratulate the Bohra Youth on its first grand victory and wish a happy conjugal life to all those who are getting married today.” The signatures of 133 teachers are appended on this pamphlet.

There was an unprecedented crowd on the day of the mass marriage, 16 March 1975. The pandal which had a capacity of 25,000 proved hopelessly insufficient for the purpose. Police were fully aware of the solemnity of the occasion and were determined to maintain decorum. Seated on the podium were central and state ministers, some political leaders, the Maharaja of Udaipur, leaders of the Central Board and Bohra Youth, Bohra, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian and Jain priests and some other guests. Another unique feature of the mass marriage was that the marriages were solemnized in the presence of the priests belonging to all important religions in India. The Bohra high priest declares even the nikah performed by a Muslim Qazi as haram (illegitimate). On that day three Muslim Qazis performed several nikahs. In all, 107 couples got married after an arduous struggle of more than two years. This unique event was covered by the Indian as well as foreign press and television and B.B.C. and West German T.V. cameramen were present. The Films Division also covered the ceremony.

Also, on this occasion, a declaration was issued by the chairman, Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra community. It will not be out of place to quote a few excerpts from this important document. It began:

The Dawoodi Bohra Community is, as is well known, traditionally a peace loving and small business community. It subscribes to the basic tenets of Islam and takes due pride in the great Islamic culture. However, its schismatic origin and development in Arabia and, later, its transplantation to India gave it a unique character and sense of identity of its own. The Fatimid rulers of Egypt, who are revered as holy imams, created a glorious era of culture which has acquired a place of pride in the history of Egypt. The Fatimid mission was later transferred to India - a country of phenomenal hospitality - where it flourished and grew and created a history of its own. The Bohras, who embraced this faith, are as much proud of belonging to this great country as of belonging the body Islamic...

Thus the declaration, after talking of reform movement in general, comes to the struggle launched by the Bohra Youth:

The name of the Bohra Youth Association, Udaipur, would be inscribed with the letters of gold in the history of the Bohra Reform Movement. Its enthusiastic members, young and old alike, fought with unflinching determination to keep the torch of freedom and dignity burning. They did all the Bohras proud. Their sacrifices and heroic fight constitute a saga of bravery and courage in the history of this movement...The Central Board makes solemn declaration on this auspicious occasion that it would strive to organize the socio-economic affairs of this community on democratic lines and provide a meaningful alternative socio-economic set-up while retaining its loyalty and allegiance to the great institution of the Fatimid Dawat. It would undertake constructive activities to enable the community to play a significant role in the larger interest of its members and that of other fellow countrymen.
The All World Dawoodi Bohra Conference

As stated earlier, so far only an ad hoc committee was conducting the affairs of the Central Board of the Dawoodi Bohra Community. The office bearers and the central executive committee could be elected only in a general convention. Also, a draft constitution was being prepared which could be adopted by a representative gathering. It was, therefore, decided to convene an all-world conference as, apart from India, there were supporters of the reform movement in several other countries as well. The sub-committee appointed for this purpose decided to hold the conference on 17-19 February 1977, in consultation with the leaders of the Bohra Youth. The venue of the conference was also decided, in consultation with them, to be in Udaipur. The response from both India as well as abroad was very encouraging as a large number of people were anxious to participate in the proposed conference.

However, there was an element of uncertainty. The priesthood had started their machinations to sabotage the conference at any cost. They wanted to take advantage of the Emergency in the country to get it banned under the pretext of hurting the religious sentiments of the Bohra community. It may be noted here that as the priestly establishment wielded great influence with the ruling politicians in general and the Muslim leaders associated with the ruling party in particular, the Emergency had gone in its favor. The reformists activities were directly and indirectly suppressed, specially in Udaipur.

In view of this we had the apprehension that the high priest might after all succeed in getting our conference banned. They were using all their sources in that direction. However, fortunately for us, Emergency measures were relaxed and general elections announced on the eve of our conference. Moreover, a large number of foreign delegates were also taking part in the proposed conference. So the government found it rather embarrassing to ban the conference outright. Thus the machinations of the priesthood were unsuccessful


However, the priestly establishment was determined to disrupt the conference by other means. The high priest was brought to Galiakot, a small town having a holy shrine some 75 miles away from Udaipur. The ostensible reason for the high priest's visit to Galiakot was an expected “miracle” in the tomb of the holy martyr Sayyidi Fakhruddin Sahib. Instructions were sent to the Bohras all over India to gather at Galiakot. In Bombay, preparations were made to disrupt the conference. In all some 15000 people gathered at Galiakot.

A day before the conference began at Udaipur, a “miracle” happened in Galiakot. Drops of blood started oozing out from the dome of the martyr's mausoleum. “Lo and behold!” it was said, “due to enemies' attack on our religion even the mausoleum of Sayyidi Fakhruddin was weeping tears of blood.” The Sayedna himself is reported to have preached a sermon and exhorted his followers to be ready for sacrifices to protect the religion. Now the crowd of 15000 persons was ready to enter Udaipur and break our conference even “if rivers of blood flow.”

Plot to kill

We were to start by car from Bombay and the plan leaked out. Our well-wishers among the ranks of the “loyal followers” of the Sayedna secretly warned us on telephone not to proceed by road as a plot was being given final touches to attack our car and kill us after we crossed the Rajasthan border near Ratanpur as the road there was narrow and lonely. We therefore, canceled our journey by road and instead proceeded by air. When we entered the city of Udaipur, it was being heavily guarded by the Jawans of the P.A.C., as if the town was in imminent danger of being attacked. Indeed it was. All the entry points to the town were sealed. The police authorities were allowing only those genuine Bohras who had come to attend the conference after a thorough check. The authorities were determined not to allow those 15000 persons to enter as their intentions were by no means peaceful and their entry would have amounted to sure disaster.

All the participants were under continuous tension. The conference was being held under the shadow of guns and every minute the police officials were on our heads asking us to hurry up. We were not allowed to hold the inaugural function as planned in a pandal constructed for that purpose on the open ground of Bhandari Darshak Mandap. We were huddled in a hall which, although sufficiently large, was not enough to accommodate all the delegates. Many people had to stand or sit on the floor all around. At 9 a.m. the building was surrounded by the police and no one was allowed to enter, not even our genuine supporters. Kamleshwar, the noted Hindi writer, who was to inaugurate the conference, came around 9-15 a.m. and he too was refused entry. He telephoned the district collector who fortunately knew him and with his permission he could enter the hall.

Despite all these precautions which the police took, some thousand persons did manage to infiltrate into Udaipur and they took out a procession protesting against the conference. Such a violent opposition on the part of the high priest was really beyond anyone's comprehension as the reformists had held the conference to adopt the constitution and elect the office bearers of the Central Board and members of its executive committee. But the priestly establishment wanted to crush any such attempt perhaps because they knew that once a democratic organization started working in a section of the community, it will not for long remain confined to that section alone. Any democratic or revolutionary idea cannot be confined to a section of the society; the oppressed and the exploited soon start clamoring for it and oppressors dread this most.

Under pressure from the police authorities, the conference had to be curtailed by a day. It was wound up after two days' deliberations. But the whole agenda had been covered. The conference was presided over by Shri Hatim Durbar from Canada who was an old reformist and was once associated with Mahatma Gandhi and had taken active part in the Quit India Movement and came all the way from Canada to preside over it. Kamleshwar, who had written extensively for the Hindi magazine Sarika made a moving speech while inaugurating the conference. He said that “it was not the problem of Bohras as such; it was a human problem and should be viewed in that light. I am supporting the cause of reform, as the Bohras fight for social justice, not as a follower of this or that religion but as a human being.”


The draft constitution prepared by the sub-commitee was adopted. For the first time in the community - at least as far as the reformist section is concerned - all persons, irrespective of sex, got voting rights. According to the constitution any Bohra above 18 years of age is entitled to vote in the Jamat elections. (Later, the Jamat elections were held on this basis in Udaipur, finally achieving what was rejected by Qaid Jawhar, the high priest's representative, whose inept and arrogant handling of the situation led to this revolt.) The constitution accords complete autonomy to local Jamats, also a long-standing demand the reformists which the high priest had never conceded. Another unique feature of this constitution is that anyone who declares himself to be a Dawoodi Bohra (believing in the Shia Isma‘ili Must‘alian faith) will be treated as such. The high priest, on the other hand, insists that it is his personal preserve to accept or reject a person as a Dawoodi-Bohra.

Election for central body

The constitution provides for a central executive committee comprising 60 members elected from different zones of India as well as abroad. The executive committee, to be elected once in two years, will be the central policy making body and will also run the administrative affairs of the community. Apart from the elected members, the chairman and the secretary-general who are directly elected, shall be the ex-officio members of the central executive committee. In the conference at Udaipur, Ismail Attarwala and myself were elected as chairman and secretary-general respectively. The 60-member council was elected, comprising members from Udaipur (Rajasthan), Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra in India; and Canada, Kuwait, Yaman, Pakistan, U.K. and Sri Lanka from abroad. Ghulam Hussain of Udaipur and Mehfuza Sanwarwala of Bombay were elected as vice-presidents.

The conference was also attended by some well-known Dalit writers from Maharashtra like Babuji Baghulji, Daya Pawar and Arjun Dangle. While speaking at the conference, Baghulji said that the plight of the reformist Bohras appears to be a degree worse than that of the scheduled castes. Untouchables cannot be touched but can be spoken to. Here one can neither touch nor speak with the reformist Bohras. The high priest, he said, is creating another category of untouchables in our caste-ridden country although Islam is against such abominable practices. He therefore, appealed to the Government of India to take suitable measures to put an end to such anti-social practices as they are against the very ideals enshrined in our constitution. He also moved a resolution against the practice of social boycott. The resolution was unanimously passed with great applause.

The entire priestly machinery, after the conference, started working at a feverish pitch to propagate the lie among the Bohras that the conference due to their opposition never took place, that only a few persons held a closed door meeting for a couple of hours and called it a conference. Only when the Dawoodi Bohra Bulletin carried the details of the conference did our sympathizers in different parts of the country came to know the truth. Of course, the national dailies and the local papers of Rajasthan had also carried the news. When the priesthood's bluff was called off, it became highly embarrassing for them. So, in order to divert the attention of the Bohras from the conference, a series of “miracles” were performed at the tombs of various Bohra saints.

It started with Galiakot. We have already referred to it above. The second miracle happened at Bombay at the recently constructed mausoleum of Sayedna Tahir Saifuddin. One day in March 1977, the high priest entered the mausoleum around 10 a.m. and he saw water “oozing out” of the walls of the mausoleum. Lo and behold! it was a miracle. The stones of the mausoleum were “weeping”, remembering the tragic fate of the grandson of the prophet Imam Hussain. Allah accorded this “proud privilege” to the mausoleum of the high priest's father. All the Bohras from the city and suburbs were asked to visit the mausoleum to witness the unusual miracle. In no time thousands of people assembled. The press was also informed and a press party was taken round the mausoleum at about 4 p.m. They found the walls almost dry. They were told by the high priest's representative who pointed out the yellowish trails along which the water had flown that since afternoon had stopped oozing.

Many persons like Dara Cama, a Muslim chemist, Muzaffar Ali and myself, through press statements, challenged the claim. The chemist even said that he could make water appear from any stone publicly. The priesthood was furious. But it could hardly do anything. A suit was filed against the editor of the Bombay Samachar and me for having “incited religious passions and hurt religious sentiments.” However, perhaps for the fear of being challenged in the court for the miracles the suit was not pursued. Thrice I went to the court on the given dates but the plaintiffs never showed up.

At mausoleums in Ahmedabad and other places, similar “miracles” were claimed. The whole community was now busy discussing the miracles. The high priest, at least for the time being and to some extent, succeeded in diverting the attention of the Bohras from the real issues involved in the reformists' fight. Thus as the reformist movement gathers momentum, the priesthood, with even greater vigor, tries to push the community more and more backward. But the priesthood's success in this direction is more apparent than real. The force of change (this is not a cliche, what I am saying is based on realistic assessment) are far stronger than those of status quo.

Prelude to the Nathwani Commission

The All-world Dawoodi Bohra conference was held at Udaipur when momentous political developments were taking place in the country. The Emergency had already been relaxed and the general elections announced (it was one of the reasons why we were allowed to hold the conference though earlier the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Hardeo Joshi, had not taken a very favorable view of granting permission). The Janata Party was voted to power in the March 1977 elections, and Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister. It was a day of rejoicing for the Bohra reformists along with other fellow citizens who had suffered under the arbitrary and authoritarian rule of the Emergency. Desai knew the Bohra problem very well as in 1948 it was he who had piloted the bill prohibiting the obnoxious practice of excommunication in the then Bombay legislative Assembly but which, thanks to our rather conservative judiciary, was subsequently struck down on a narrow technical ground by the Supreme Court in 1961.

The Congress government and its leaders, with the solitary exception of Morarji Desai, had not been helpful to the reformists in their 33 year rule. In fact the then high priest Sayedna Tahir Saifuddin had started building contacts with the ruling party through a well-chalked out strategy. Prominent Muslim leaders like the late Dr. Zakir Hussain, Col. Bashir Husain Zaidi (the latter had a large number of shares in the Asian Electronics - an industry belonging to the Priestly family) and others became instrumental in promoting liaison with the ruling party.

It was with this in view that the 51st high priest had announced a large donation to the Aligarh Muslim University when Dr. Zakir Hussain was its vice-chancellor in the early fifties. Slowly, the priestly family developed close contacts with all the important Muslim leaders and the Congress Party bosses and these contacts always stood them in good stead vis-a-vis the reformists. The reformists' pleas were never heeded although in theory the Congress Party was wedded to the ideals of obscurantism. They always had their eyes on votes and the enormous wealth of the priestly family. Ideals can wait indefinitely, but not so the lure of wealth and power so near at hand.

The reformists rejoiced the most on the defeat of the Congress Party for another reason also. All the prominent Muslim with whom the priestly family had close ties were swept away from the political arena. The high priest had thus suddenly lost all leverage with the ruling elite, which he had bought at a considerable cost. The reformists saw a slight advantage as in the new central cabinet there were quite a few members who had supported their cause when in opposition, for example George Fernandes. In fact in the 1967 general elections, the high priest had openly espoused the cause of S.K. Patil and had issued a secret firman to the Bohras in the Bombay constituency to vote for him and defeat Fernandes. Thus, after the Lok Sabha elections of 1977 the reformists launched a poster campaign. The slogan was: “The nation has been liberated. What about the Bohras who are living in a permanent Emergency? Help liberate them too.”

Meanwhile, in Maharashtra too, the S.B. Chavan ministry had to resign and Dada Patil was installed as the new C.M. The high priest had cultivated relations with Shankar Rao Chauhan but did not have much acquaintance with the new C.M. The reformists, along with some other organizations sympathetic to their cause, organized a seminar on the menace of social boycott on 4 June 1977 in Sunderbhai Hall, near Churchgate. S.M. Joshi, chairman of the Maharashtra Janata Party unit presided and Vasant Dada Patil, in his inaugural address, condemned the practice of social boycott as un-Islamic and pledged his support to those who were fighting against this menace. He also assured the audience that he would soon introduce a bill in the Maharashtra legislative assembly banning this anti-social practice.

Seminar not against religious beliefs

S.M. Joshi said that a great deal of pressure was brought on him by the priesthood and their orthodox followers not to attend the seminar. But he firmly told them that the seminar was not against any religion or religious beliefs but against its misuse by certain vested interests. If at all he found that anyone was using undignified language against the religious head or casting slurs on religious beliefs he would not hesitate to walk out.

Despite this categorical assurance, he told the audience, those people continued to pressure him not to attend the seminar. He was even threatened that his chairmanship of the Janata Party in Maharashtra would be in danger if he insisted on attending the seminar. After attending the seminar Joshi was fully convinced of the reformists' struggle against the misuse of religion by some vested interests. Not only this, he consented to be the president of the Society for Eradication of Social Boycott, formed at the end of the Seminar, for follow-up action. Joshi, as we shall see, played a very active role in helping the reformists in their struggle.

The Society for Eradication of Social Boycott met later under the presidentship of Joshi and decided that Joshi should lead a delegation to the high priest to discuss with him the problem of social boycott. Besides Joshi, the delegation was to consist of Noman Contractor, Prof. S.S. Varde, Sarabhai, myself and others. Joshi addressed a letter to the high priest seeking his appointment for the purpose.

The high priest did not reply. However, after some time the joint secretary of the Shiat-e-Ali (the Dawoodi Bohra Jamat of Bombay), Saifuddin Wakharia, replied. He wrote saying that the practice of baraat (social boycott) was in keeping with the injunction of the Holy Koran and there was nothing to discuss about it. However, if Joshi so desired he could meet the undersigned (Wakharia) at a mutually convenient time and date. There was not mention of meeting the high priest for which Joshi had written the letter.

About the injunction of the Holy Koran for baraat Joshi contacted some scholars of the holy book. On their advice he wrote back to Wakharia saying that he has been advised by those who have profound knowledge of the holy book that there is no provision of baraat in the sense in which it is resorted to by the high priest. Only Chapter 9 entitled “Repentance” uses this word baraat in the first verse and that too in a different context.

The verse reads like this: “A declaration of immunity (baraat) by Allah and His apostle to the violators with whom you have made agreements.” This verse was revealed to the Prophet when the idolators of Mecca broke the agreement they had made with the Muslims. So Allah also absolved the Muslims of this agreement by declaring immunity against it. Both meaning and context of baraat were quite different here. He again repeated his desire to meet the high priest. To this letter Wakharia did not reply at all.

Part 4