Udaipur History - 6

History of reform movement in Udaipur - Part 6

The reformist Bohras, too, demonstrated in favour of the Commission in the U.K. and other countries of Asia and Africa. They urged the government of India and the members of the Commission that the inquiry must go on in the interest of suffering humanity. A large number of the Bohras settled in Leisester came to participate in the demonstration in London. These Bohras came to the UK from Uganda and became the targets of the high priest's wrath for their reformist convictions. They submitted a long memorandum to the Indian High Commissioner in London along with the copies of several documents. The copy of the memorandum was sent to the Nathwani Commission also. I would like to quote a few excerpts from it here:

Your Excellency,

We represent the progressive section of the Dawoodi Bohra community in U.K. Our membership is chiefly composed of immigrants from East Africa and India, the majority being from Uganda.

The differences of opinion with our priest class and their oppression of our group date back to the year 1967, until that year the various Jamats (communities) in East Africa worked under a constitution which was negotiated with and blessed by our late Dai, Syedna Taher Saifuddin (A.Q.). The Constitution had helped the jamaats accumulate great wealth, which was used for the benefit of the needy of the community.

... An attempt was made by our present Dai Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin Sahab to introduce a new constitution in 1967. His motive for imposing the new constitution was to take over complete control of the management, the various boards of trustees and the finances and the property which various East African jamaats had acquired, and which amounted to millions of pounds. This attempt did receive partial success in Tanzania, but was vigorously opposed in Kenya and Uganda.

...The constitution referred to in the above resolution was the one which our late Dai had bestowed and blessed on East African jamaats after four years of negotiations. To imply that the late Dai was ignorant of his faith was totally unacceptable to the Dawoodi Bohras of Uganda and was one of the reasons for strong resentment towards the new constitution.... While the old constitution had given free and democratic authority over all its affairs to the duly elected boards of managers and trustees, the new one is in complete contrast. The old constitution had also recognised a born Bohra as a Bohra without any requirement other than the given (giving of) misaq (oath of allegiance) at puberty.

The memorandum then goes on to describe various cases of persecution like holding up marriages, burial ceremonies of the dead, social boycott and so on. All the cases have been meticulously documented. The memorandum narrates an interesting incident worth quoting here.

During his stay in Uganda in 1968, Dr Yusuf Najmuddin, the brother of our Dai, and his special representative, had approached the then Indian High Commissioner in Uganda and had told tales of how we were harassing him. After several interviews, the High Commissioner was convinced that the truth was the reverse and he arranged for an official of the High Commission to accompany us to the residence of the Dai's representative in Kampala. A concealed tape recording was made of the discussions and the tape together with a lot of other documentary evidence was handed over to the High Commissioner for onward transmission to Delhi.

Regrettably, in inspite of the High Commissioner's sympathies and concrete evidence of unfair conduct by the Dai's representative no steps were taken by the then Indian Government. We are not in a position to produce copies of the evidence then submitted as most of our documents have been lost to us during our expulsion from Uganda. However, we are sure Delhi will have the records.

The above memorandum ends with an earnest appeal to the government of India:

“We end in the hope that the Government of India will institute an inquiry to investigate the activities of our Dai and would bring a stop to the sufferings perpetuated for a mere desire of power and lust for money, neither of which become the faith of the Dawoodi Bohras, Islam at large or the image of Indian priesthood abroad and in India. In the alternative, that the Government of India should give its official blessing to the Nathwani Commission and should give effect to the findings of that Commission.”

The memorandum has been jointly signed by F.H. Kapasi, President of the Dawoodi Bohra Jamaat Corporation, Birmingham, and N.T. Vana, President of the Dawoodi Bohra Welfare Society, Leicester.

Similar memoranda were received from many other countries like Sri Lanka, Yemen, Pakistan, Kuwait, etc. The oppressed Bohras of all these countries have pleaded with the Commission and the Government of India to inquire into the causes of their persecution by the Bohra high priest and take suitable measures to bring an end to their painful plight. We are not quoting here from these memoranda for considerations of space. In fact, the Nathwani Commission's records would provide, to those who are interested, a wealth of information on how religion and money can combine to become a formidable power.

Horrendous facts

The official memorandum submitted by the Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra community runs into 19 closely-typed pages and gives a brief history of the reform movement and several instances of harassment of those Bohras who showed the slightest inclination towards it. After placing before the Commission the horrendous facts about the persecution and suffocating regimentation, the memorandum requests the honourable members of the inquiry commission to recommend the following measures, if their findings so convince them, to the Government of India:

  1. Enactment of a suitable Act by the Central Government preventing imposition of social boycott by one member of the community against another member (a draft bill is also enclosed for the Commission's consideration);
  2. Suitable amendment in the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, so that its provisions are made applicable to every citizen of our country irrespective of his religion, caste or creed;
  3. Suitable amendment in the Constitution of India so that while seeking to protect the fundamental rights of an individual the fundamental rights of a large number of people are not infringed upon as has happened due to the Supreme Court ruling in the excommunication case;
  4. Re-enactment of the Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act suitably amended in the light of the Supreme Court ruling so that a religious head, while exercising his right to excommunicate a person, is not able to do so on grounds other than religious;
  5. Suitable amendment in the Public Trust Act so that no single person, however revered he may be, is accepted as the sole trustee nor should such sole trustee be given power to appoint his son or brother as his sole successor in the Trust. All the public trusts must have a Board of Trustees and the beneficiaries must have some sort of a say, directly or indirectly, in the management of such public trusts.

The Commission had now sufficient material before it to start its investigations. The Commission announced that it will hold its first sittings in Bombay on 30 April and 1 May 1978. The high priest's machinery started working at a feverish pitch once again. He had decided not to allow the Commission to have its sittings. In fact, the high priest was shrewd enough not to seek legal remedy for the alleged interference of the commission into the religious affairs of the community as he knew he had no case as the Commission was going to investigate the cases of persecution and harassment in the name of religion.

He issued a firman to the Bohras throughout India to come to Bombay for preventing the commission from holding its sitting and called it a ‘holy jehad'. Hundreds of Bohras were brought to Bombay from various states. The priesthood also tried to bring pressure specially on the Muslim members of the Commission to attend the meeting in Bombay. It even tried to mislead the one by saying that the other was not attending and had resigned from the Commission. But both the Muslim members remained firm and attended the meeting.

Dr. Aloo Dastur - the only woman on the Commission - found her house surrounded by Bohra women brought there at the instance of the high priest on the day she had to attend the meeting of the Commission at Nathwani's house. The women threatened her with dire consequences if she stepped out of her apartment. She summoned the police at last and had to be escorted to Nathwani's house.

Nathwani's house attacked

Nathwani's house was not safe either. Nathwani was to arrive from Delhi by the night flight on 29 April. Not knowing this a crowd of fanatics thinking that he was already in Bombay attacked his house the same evening. The door of his apartment in Bakhtawar building just opposite the residence of the then Home Minister and Deputy Chief Minister, Nasik Rao Tidpude, was damaged. Fortunately, when the crowd was trying to damage the door Nathwani's son was at home and he summoned the police. Before the crowd could ransack his house the police arrived and took 29 persons into custody.

The situation was tense. On the morning of 30 April, when the commission was to begin its inquiry by examining the witnesses summoned for the purpose, a crowd of 200,000 Bohras was expected to attack the premises. The police had clamped Section 144 in the area. To get around the ban on assembly the priesthood tried an ingenious method. Normally the ban does not apply to marriage and funeral processions and religious congregations. The orthodox Bohras were therefore, ordered by the priesthood to wear namaz (prayer) clothes (a long Kurta and a lungi) and carry a copy of the holy Koran and a rosary in their hands. The police, however, did not allow them to proceed beyond the sands of Chowpatty.

Violence could errupt any time. Nathwani, accompanied by Moin Shakir - a member of the Commission - went to see Tipude, the home minister, to seek adequate protection. It seemed the high priest's men had already met the home minister and the Chief Minister Vasant Dada Patil and taken them into confidence. The home minister seemed quite hostile to the idea of holding such a meeting in Bombay and he is reported to have told Nathwani that it is a Janata Party commission and that it were better if he held the meeting in Delhi and not cteate a law and order problem for the Maharashtra Government in Bombay.

Tipude maintained that it would be difficult for him to control the situation. Nathwani thereupon told him that the Commission had nothing to de with the Janata Party (this woeful ignorance on the part of Tipude who was holding the Home portfolio was really surprising), neither did it intend to interfere with any religious matter. Nathwani told Tipude that he would go ahead with the enquiry even if the Government of Maharashtra did not give him protection at the risk of his life. Tipude had received instructions from the centre also to make security arrangements and, therefore, he could not disown his responsibility.

Nathwani met the Chief Minister also. The Chief Minister, too, remonstrated with him that the Commission was interfering with the religious matters of the minority community. Nathwani assured him that it was not so (only a couple of months ago Patil himself had spoken in the seminar aganist social boycott that it was an unIslamic practice and that he would soon introduce a bill against it. Only within a few days after his speech the high priest's representative had met him and taken him into “confidence”).

Nathwani also informed the Chief Minister that there were two Muslim members on the Commission and he need not have apprehensions on that account. The Chief Minister thereupon told Nathwani that these two Muslim members were Muslims only in name as one of them had claimed that he could write books better than the Holy Koran.

This clearly shows that the high priest had been quite successful in moulding the Chief Minister's mind and influencing him by false allegations against the Muslim members of the Commission and that the Chief Minister had readily accepted the high priest's version. Religion (in whatever form) and money, both play very important roles in Indian politics. It is a sorry commentary on our thoroughly opportunist political leadership which allows anything to happen in the name of religion, even the most heinous crimes.

'Spiritual love and compassion'

Later, Patil went a step further and speaking at a function organised by the high priest he said, “I have not seen God but if compassion, humanitarian and spiritual love were the virtues of a godly man I have met him in Dr. Syedna.” Patil spoke these words after knowing fully well that there were serious allegations of inhuman persecution of the reformist Bohras against the Syedna.

Provoked by these remarks of the Chief Minister, Mulkraj Anand, Ali Sardar Jafri, K.A. Abbas and Kamleshwar wrote to him: “We expect this spiritual love and compassion to be extended to the reformist Bohras who, according to many reports, are being persecuted. Social reforms are a necessity in modern times for all communities and religions.”

The Commission held its sitting under the shadow of heavy police bandobust. Hundreds of policemen were trying to stop the menacing crowd of about 15,000 Bohras at Chowpatty. The persons summoned to appear before the Commission, despite heavy bandobust, found it extremely difficult to reach the venue of the meeting. They had to be escorted there with elaborate precautions lest they should be caught and murderously attacked. With great difficulty, of the 18 persons summoned, 14 could manage to reach. They were all examined by the Commission.

The reformist leaders, including myself, were asked by the police not to take any risk and to hide ourselves until the tension defused. We, therefore, could not appear before the Commission and went into hiding. The police was struggling with the mob at Chowpatty. At about 11 o'clock some 40 slogan shouting Bohras suddenly appeared near Nathwani's residence from the seaside (the police had not kept its men on the sea front) and tried to rush into Bakhtawar building.

Fortunately, the police was alert and apprehended them before they could rush into Nathwani's house. Then at about 2.30 pm, the crowd at Chowpatty tried to break the police cordon by throwing stones at the police. Some 14 police officials and several constables were injured. The police then made a lathi charge in which several hundred Bohras suffered injuries. It is worth noting here that except for two local Muslim leaders (both of them hardly have an influence over the Muslims even in Bombay) no Muslims participated in the demonstration thus giving a lie to the high priest's claim that the Muslims in general were opposed to the inquiry and that it was a problem of the minority community as a whole.

The crowd of Bohras also, considering their population and the efforts made by the priesthood (a shrill cry for jehad had gone up) was not as many as expected. More than 50 per cent of those present had come under the threat of social boycott and not because they were really opposed to the inquiry commission.

Part 7