Udaipur History - 5

History of reform movement in Udaipur - Part 5

Taking advantage of these two facts the crafty representatives of the high priest obtained his signature on a prepared statement before Joshi, whom J.P. had summoned from Poona, could arrive. Prior arrangements were also made by these representatives of the Bohra high priest to immediately release the statement to press, radio and television through a powerful media man who was holding the highest office in the Information Department in Delhi during the Emergency. In fact, this retired government officer was reportedly doing public relations work on behalf of the high priest in return for a large salary.

J.P.'s brother came to receive Joshi at Patna airport and broke to him the news of J.P.'s having already signed the statement. Joshi was shocked that the statement was issued without consulting him although he was due to arrive today. The statement issued on behalf of J.P. read:

“Mr. Jayaprakash Narayan today denied that he had ever suggested the setting up of an unofficial inquiry into Dawoodi Bohra Muslim affairs. He had also received a large number of representatives from Dawoodi Bohras and other Muslim sects. He said, ‘I wish to make it absolutely clear that I have never advocated interference by anyone in the religious affairs of any community. Our nation's constitution has taken special pains to guarantee this freedom and that is an ideal that must be honoured and cherished by all. I had never associated myself with the so-called inquiry and further make it clear that politicians or political considerations should not be allowed to infringe upon religious susceptibilities or wound them in any way. Every religious community must have the freedom to resolve its internal religious affairs according to the dictates of its faith and beliefs. It is a matter of regret that through a misunderstanding the feelings of the Dawoodi Bohra community in particular, and Muslims in general, have been hurt.' Mr. Narayan appealed to all concerned, including the government, political parties and press not to interfere in the religious affairs of any community.” (Samachar)

Needless, to say, it was a complete volte face on the part of J.P., or at least it appeared to be so on account of his amnesia. The statement was prominently carried by all the newspapers, radio and T.V. Joshi met J.P. and reminded him of the letter he had written to V.M. Tarkunde from Bombay to institute an inquiry into the alleged harassment of the reformist Bohras by the Bohra high priest and also a letter written to Sayedna Saheb by him condemning his silence on the violent attacks on some reformist Bohras at Godhra.

On being reminded of these letters by Joshi J.P. felt highly embarrassed and was angry with those who contrived to obtain his signature. Ajit Bhattacharya, a noted journalist, who was then present there suggested to J.P. to write another letter to Tarkunde explaining his position, but the same should not be released to the press to avoid embarrassment. J.P. agreed to the suggestion and a letter was accordingly addressed to Tarkunde and handed over to Joshi for delivering it to him.

Thus knowing full well that J.P. had written letters to both Tarkunde as well as the Bohra high priest, and requesting the former to institute an inquiry, the Sayedna's representatives put him in an extremely embarrassing situation by obtaining his signature on a false statement. So much for the “upholders of religion and spiritual values”. Not only this, the priestly establishment fully exploited J.P.'s statement for propaganda purposes.

Lakhs of posters in English, Urdu, Hindi and Gujarati were printed and put up in important cities and towns of India. The slogan on these posters was “Beware of the Liars”. Again they got Urdu papers to write editorials thanking J.P. for issuing the statement. Earlier, all sorts of derogatory remarks had been passed by the priestly establishment against J.P. and now he became a hero. After J.P.'s statement a new terror campaign was started against the reformists.

The statement was issued on the eve of Eid Al Fitr. Some of the my close relatives who had planned to meet me secretly (no one can meet, or talk to, a boycotted Bohra) on the occasion of Eid sent me a message that after J.P.'s statement the priestly agents had become much more aggressive and so it would not be possible for them to meet me. Our supporters and well-wishers became disheartened and felt that ours was a truly hopeless task and all our efforts would not mean much in view of the rank political opportunism prevailing in the country.

But we did not lose heart. We had not only full conviction in our cause but also complete faith in those to whom J.P. had entrusted the task of carrying out the inquiry. Persons like Nathwani, Tarkunde and other members of the commission were persons of great integrity who could not be bought at any price. Even the Emergency regime of Indira Gandhi could not buy their silence, much less acquiescence, for her dictatorial pursuits. They were known for their democratic convictions and nothing other than these ideals had inspired Tarkunde to hold an inquiry into killing of Naxalites in Andhra Pradesh in the face of stiff opposition from the state government.

Our conviction was soon vindicated. To begin with Yusuf Najmuddin, younger brother of the high priest and his political adviser, met Tarkunde in the first week of October 1977 in Delhi (in fact, Najmuddin, as per my information from a reliable source, had invited Tarkunde to dine with him) to dissuade him from “interfering in the internal matters” of the Bohra community. Tarkunde was reported to have told Najmuddin in clear terms that the commission did not wish to interfere with the religious beliefs of the Dawoodi Bohra Community but was concerned only with the alleged infringement of human dignity and democratic rights of the conscientious objectors of the Bohra community. In fact, if these allegations were false, Tarkunde is reported to have told the Sayedna's brother, it was a good opportunity for them to appear before the commission and clear themselves. Disappointed, Najmuddin returned to Bombay.

The priestly establishment was not convinced that it would not be possible for them to silence the members of the commission by “soft methods”. It therefore resorted to harassment and intimidation. Joshi, Nathwani, Tarkunde, Dr. Alam Khundmiri and Dr. Moin Shakir started getting thousands of letters and telegrams some of which contained filthy language and threats of murder. Most of the letters carried the same contents, as it was an organised campaign. Even school children, studying in the sixth or seventh standards and who could hardly understand the issues involved were forced to write such letters.

It was made compulsory for parents to contribute a certain amount for sending these letters by registered post. The two Muslim members were made special targets of wrath and the members of their family were repeatedly warned that it they failed to dissuade their son or husband from sitting on the inquiry commission, they would lose them. It must be said to the credit of Dr. Alam Khundmiri and Dr. Moin Shakir that despite such threats, which invariably led to tension in their families, they did not shake in their determination. They put up, equally resolutely, with other forms of harassment, too.

When despite our repeated appeals to the Ulama and the Muslim political leaders they continued to support the Sayedna (the Bohra high priest gives small or large donations to various Muslims political parties and groups as well as other institutions and these ulama and leaders are in one way or the other connected with these parties or institutions) we turned towards the Muslim intelligentsia. I had some friends among the Urdu writers in Bombay, Delhi, Hyderabad, Patna, Calcutta, Aligarh and other places as I also contribute in my own humble way to the world of Urdu writing. Urdu writers, I must say with a sense of pride, have never been moved by narrow communal passion even in the worst days of partition in 1947. They have, by and large, upheld the progressive and secular causes shunning the dark alleys of parochialism.

First, I met my friend Dr. Qamar Rais, Head of the Department of Urdu in Delhi University. He responded enthusiastically. A statement was drafted in consultation with some other Urdu teachers and writers belonging to various institutions. The statement said:

For quite some time we have been reading newspaper reports about the turmoil in the Bohra community. The Bohra community is a small, well-knit and peaceful community. But it appears that certain priestly interests have caused a lot of trouble by resorting to strong regimentation. It is well-known that the Dawoodi Bohras do not enjoy ordinary rights like expressing their opinion freely, raising a charitable trust, establishing institutions, etc. The reformist Bohras who are struggling to end this regimentation and wanting accounts for the money collected by the priesthood from the community are being subjected to great deal of persecution.

The priesthood frequently resorts to social boycott which has disastrous effects in this small community and brings about separation between mother and son, husband and wife and brother and sister. We strongly condemn such outmoded medieval practices to stifle the movement for asserting human and democratic rights and we welcome the appointment of the Tarkunde (Nathwani) Commission which has been set up to investigate into these alleged atrocities being committed by the Bohra priesthood. The whole inquiry will be focused on the issues concerning democratic rights and will have nothing to do with religious beliefs whatsoever. Mr. Tarkunde himself has repeatedly given this assurance. No one, therefore, need raise the issue of interference with the religion of minority community.

The above statement was signed by a large number of Muslim intellectuals and writers of repute belonging to Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia and other institutions. Notable among those who signed from Delhi were Dr. Qamar Rais, Dr. Mushirul Haq, Head of the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia, Dr. Aslam Parvez, D.r Zafar Imam, Dr. A.W. Ansari, all from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Dr. Mujib Rizvi, Ghulam Rabbani Taban and many others of Jamia Millia, Delhi, Dr. Aquil Ahmed, Dr. Rashid Hasan Khan of Delhi University and many others.

I then approached the teachers of Aligarh Muslim University. I had no personal contacts with anyone there. However, I was confident of my cause. To my great surprise, I found that most of the teachers of the AMU were aware of the cause for which we are fighting. It was in this university that Dr. Zakir Hussain had tried to project the image of Dr. Tahir Saifuddin, the then chief pontiff of the Bohra community, by making him the Chancellor. He was the father of present high priest and he did not enjoy much popularity there.

Most of the teachers were, by and large, sympathetic to our cause, and welcomed me enthusiastically. I was gratified to know that most of these teachers knew me at least by name and, therefore, I did not encounter any resistance worth the name against our mission. On the contrary I found ready response to my mission; I also discovered that most of the teachers and students were highly critical of the ways of the Bohra high priest.

Dr. Mahmudul Haque of the department of Islamic studies and Dr. Maqbool Ahmed of West Asian studies readily extended their support to our cause. Prof. Irfan Habib, the well-known historian and the then Head of the Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University, unhesitatingly signed the statement which was drafted and signed by the Muslim intelligentsia of Delhi. Dr. R.R. Sherwani and 30 other teachers of the University followed suit and thus in a couple of hours, I got 40 signatures from Aligarh University.

Similarly, I rallied around the educated Muslims in Patna, Calcutta, Bangalore, Hyderabad and other places without much difficulty. In fact I found that they were generally not happy with the stand the Muslim leaders and Ulama had taken on this issue. They did not think that the probe into the allegations of harassment and persecution of the reformist Bohras by the Nathwani Commission would, in any way, amount to interference into the religious affairs of the minority community. From Bombay, too, many well-known writers like K.A. Abbas, Qurratul Ain Hyder, Aziz Qaisi, Akhtarul Imam, Ismat Chughtai, Rahi Masoom Raza and also Mulk Raj Anand and Sardar Jafri lent support to our movement.

The vigilance machinery of the high priest lent support to our movement. The vigilance machinery of the high priest is so alert that all those Muslim intellectuals who had signed in our support received threatening letters within a week's time. It speaks volumes for the efficiency of this semi-fascist machinery which found out the addresses of these persons spread all over the country.

With the Muslim intellectuals rallying round us our case was strengthened and the impression that the Muslims in general were opposed to the inquiry, created by a few decrepit and opportunist Muslim leaders, lost ground. Now some Urdu paper of Calcutta, Hyderabad, Delhi, Bangalore and other places started writing in our favour. As a result of this the priesthood felt frustrated and in sheer desperation started physical violence. I was thus violently assaulted at the venue of the press conference in Calcutta on November 8, 1977, and was not allowed to carry on the proceedings. They also did not allow me to address a meeting of prominent Muslims of Calcutta at the premises of the Muslim Institute.

Then in December 1977, I was similarly assaulted at Hyderabad outside the hotel on Abids Road where I was staying along with another Bohra supporter from Hyderabad. I had to seek police protection as the high priest's hirelings followed me everywhere. The same day the member of the inquiry commission from Hyderabad Dr. Alam Khundmiri was also assaulted in broad daylight.

Similarly, the Bohra priesthood, when it came to know that I was invited to deliver a lecture on Islam and Humanism, by Bangalore University on 26 November, 1977, brought pressure on the Governor of Karnataka through some local Muslim leaders branding me as “anti-Islam” and got it canceled. It was most unfortunate that the Governor, though the text of my lecture was already with the university, cancelled the lecture without even going through it and finding out whether it really had an anti-Islam slant or not.

When the high priest failed to prevent functioning of the inquiry commission despite all methods, fair and foul, he decided to provoke the entire community to start an agitation against it. A cry of ‘holy war' (jihad) went up in the air. Orders were issued by the high priest to all the 'amils to organise an agitation in their respective towns and cities. Thousands of rupees were collected in each town from the Bohras under the threat of boycott to finance the agitation. Local papers were paid to bring out special supplements denouncing the Nathwani Commission.

A few followers of the high priest issued a statement that they would undertake a fast unto death if the Commission did not stop functioning. That no one ever undertook such a fast shows that such a statement must have been issued under pressure of social boycott. However, relay fasts were undertaken in a number of towns and cities in public places. Due to lack of contact with the reformists quite a few people really did not know what it was all about.

But the educated Bohras who read newspapers were aware of the problem and while under pressure of social boycott they opposed the Commission outwardly, in their heart of hearts they wished for its success. A large number of Bohras either anonymously or through other means kept making anxious enquiries about the functioning of the Communism.

At many stages, the priesthood spread false rumours that the Commission has been disbanded and compelled people to celebrate victory. On such occasions people from far would try to contact us to find out the truth as they were anxious that the Commission should complete the enquiry and submit its report thus exposing the despicable methods used by the priesthood to stifle the voice of conscience. When the Commission invited complaints we were not sure how many Bohras would venture to come forward in such an atmosphere of terror.

The Commission had made it clear that those who did not want to disclose their identity should say so in the complaint and such persons would be examined in camera and their names would be treated in strict secrecy. This announcement had its effect and the response was beyond all expectation. The Commission had to get the forms printed twice and many more people submitted their grievances on plain paper without any printed performa.

In fact, it became a problem for the Commission to sort out these cases. It clearly indicates that the community - especially the educated section - is feeling suffocated in the strictly conforming atmosphere sought to be imposed by the priests and are keen to be liberated from its oppressiveness but are not ready to pay the necessary price.

However, this should not make us oblivious of certain facts. A small but determined section of the community is with the high priest. Like other rulers, the priesthood has shrewdly cultivated this section. The methods are the same old ones employed by other rulers. A few people are given titles by way of special recognition and, like in any other society, there are quite a few who desire this kind of recognition and are even ready to barter their conscience for it. Some of them do so for secular positions in municipalities, state assemblies or parliament.

It should not be a great surprise to note that even some known reformists did so for certain personal advantages, political or otherwise. After all the high priest holds formidable money power which is, more often than not, converted into political power. Such people often came to the forefront to oppose the Nathwani Commission and created more complications for us. But they lacked the moral conviction and consequently any real support from the community, and therefore despite an apparent hue and cry, could not be very effective in forestalling the Commission.

In every town and city, while this opportunist section was busy organising protests against the Commission, an equally determined but silent section, furtively of course, was sabotaging the protest by supplying the press and other non-Bohras sections of the population with the facts of the situation, in many cases without our knowledge or permission. In fact, it was this moral and invisible support which kept our movement going though we were short of human and material resources.

It was for this reason that although the high priest tried his best with all his superior resources, he could not deter us from going ahead with our missions. To oppose the Nathwani Commission the priesthood even organised protests in many foreign countries, at times using dangerous slogans. For example, in California, USA, they raised slogans like “Islam in danger in India”. Reporting about this demonstration Bilalian News from the United States in its issue of 28 July 1977, writes:

“Citing religious harassment in their homeland of India, a group of Muslim demonstrators protested before the Indian Consulate General's office in Chicago recently to make their plight known...

“The protesters, members of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim Community, headquartered in India, declared that in recent months there has been increased harassment of Muslims in India, resulting in numerous injuries and deaths. ‘Islam is spreading in India and there are those who don't want to see it spread,' charged Salman Rashid, president of the Chicago-area Dawoodi Bohra Community.”

Thus, after emphasizing the alleged ‘danger to Islam‘ in India, Mr. Rashid, according to Bilalian News, concluded that “we seek support of the U.S. Government and its people to help establish true democracy in India.” Mr. Rashid perhaps may not know the implications of what he was talking about but the priesthood who provoked him to do so for their own ends certainly did.

This mixture of falsehood and half-truths was deliberately concocted by the priestly family to mislead the black Muslims of the USA who are quite militant. Outside India too the Bohra priesthood was cleverly trying to convert this problem into a problem of the Muslim minority in India, which is far from true. This is something which the Muslims did not do abroad even after the catastrophic riots in Ahmedabad and Bhivandi in the last decade.

Part 6