Borhras and reform
Dawoodi Bohras - Borhras and reform

Whither Bohra reform movement?

The bohra reform movement has been going on for more than two decades in its new phase. It gathered momentum when people in Udaipur revolted against the tyranny of Sayedna's establishment.

It enthused many other supporters and sympathisers of the movement also and many reformists in Bombay and other places who had been disillusioned or despaired also joined the movement once again with new hope and enthusiasm. It needless to say, gave a new life to the movement and many people began to hope that the downfall of Kothar's regime is near at hand.

However, as it happens, the reform movement also could not go on at the same level of enthusiasm. Every movement faces ups and downs and goes through different phases. The Bohra reform movement also lost its initial momentum after about one and a half decade. There are various reasons for this. Firstly, psychologically it is impossible to retain same degree of enthusiasm in human beings. They get enthused when some immediate concrete issues and challenges arise. It can therefore, be said that the degree of enthusiasm is directly proportional to the degree of challenge being faced. If the degree of challenge diminishes, degree of enthusiasm also goes down. And the high level of enthusiasm begins to taper off once those issues or challenges no more remain as sharp as they were.

When the people of Udaipur rose in revolt, there was not only great sense of urgency but also the challenges from Kothar were very sharply defined. The degree of repression was also very high. But the challenges also diminish over a period of time and degree of repression also varies with the intensity of the movement. Though basically the repression by kothar is very much there, its degree is not as high as it was during seventies and eighties. Thus the enthusiasm began to tapper of gradually.

Secondly, when the movement is at its high pitch, one has common enemy and internal differences do not get priority as all the energy is engaged in fighting the common enemy with a sense of priority. But once the heat of the struggle is out, these internal differences surface and even become problematic for the movement. This happens in all such organisations, even countries. All the third world countries which were fighting for their freedom went through similar experience. The people united to fight against the colonial masters but began to fight among themselves once freedom was achieved and common enemy was no more. In case of some organisations or countries differences could surface even when common enemy is physically present due to ‘divide and rule' policy of the ruler. When such differences surface before final goal is achieved, the ultimate objective of the movement will suffer. These differences are also likely to surface when the movement is passing through low ebb.

Thirdly, it should always be borne in mind that social reform movement is qualitatively different from political movements. A political change can and does come quite often overnight. However, social changes cannot be brought about easily. It has been observed that old traditions have their own way of asserting themselves and reemerging on the surface, even decades after the reforms have been effected. No wonder than beliefs in religious priests and traditions established by them are hardest to fight.

Fourthly, reformists always appeal to reason and orthodox appeal to sentiments and emotions. As far as common people are concerned, reason is not their strong point. Reason appeals to intellectuals and educated elite. As noted above, it is, therefore, very difficult to break the hold of traditions and traditional priests. Moreover, these traditions also provide a sense of rootedness and security to common people. Since priests often champion these traditions, people like to stick to them. It also gives them a sense of identity and meaning to their life.

Fifthly, to be part of any establishment is always beneficial. One has to suffer in various ways if one breaks away from the establishment. If it is political establishment, those part of it have the benefit of wielding power to various digress depending what echelon of hierarchy one belongs to. If it is religious or social establishment, one derives the benefit of sense of belonging, social intercourse and use of various institutions provided by those establishments. Also, in traditional societies the need for social and religious establishments are very acutely felt by the common people.

Sixthly, fear of persecution always discourage people from breaking away from such establishments. The Bohras have great fear of this persecution from Kothar and all attempts to wean them away from it have met with failure partly, if not wholly, on account of this fear. Large number of persons express their deep resentment against Kothar, but dare not oppose them for fear of persecution.

Strategies for reform movement

Having realised all the problems connected with the reform movement it is important to work out proper strategies for the movement. First of all it is very important for any movement to develop human resources. It should be remembered that human resources are far more important than financial resources. What we mean by human resources is properly intellectually equipped and sufficiently motivated persons both male and female. We should not hesitate to recognise that this is the greatest weakness of our movement. We hardly have even few persons befitting above qualification. By being intellectually equipped what we mean is that they should have adequate religious knowledge both to argue out with those having doubts about our movement and its religious bases and to perform certain essential religious functions. It is most important resource for our movement.

However, there are hardly any willing to spend time on acquiring religious knowledge. Most of the priests, these days, come from poorer sections of society. The educated middle class is most reluctant to go for religious education. It naturally prefers modern lucrative professions like medical, engineering, managerial courses or business. And once they go to these professions they simply have no time for anything else. They give their full attention to their avocation for maximum degree of success. Sufficient motivation for any movement cannot be induced externally. It is born from within. It is this inner motivation which is most important asset for any movement. It is almost totally lacking as far as Bohra reform movement is concerned. The reformist youth also have become indifferent to the movement. Neither they have time nor sufficient motivation to spare for it. Even our sisters and brothers abroad need such hands. If we can provide them it can certainly help our movement. However, for reasons stated there is no easy solution to this.

Also, we lack financial resources. Propaganda work can be further expanded only and only if we have sufficient financial resources. Every reform movement needs its own mouth organ. The Bohra Chronicle serves this purpose but it is always in serious financial trouble. The mounting cost of paper, printing and publication frustrates all efforts to stablise it financially. Also, for lack of human resource, it is not up to the mark. There is no professional touch in it. We do not even receive news and articles for it from our friends and supporters despite repeated requests. One or two persons keep on contributing for it. Any paper needs news and views for its survival.

Propaganda, it should be remembered, is the most important part of reform movement. Without effective dissemination of knowledge, both through personal contact and publications, no reform movement can ever succeed. It has been observed that people read and there is demand for more and more literature. Again, to produce this literature, we need human and financial resources. And this is our main constraint. The constraints need to be urgently overcome for greater success of the movement.

It is suggested by some of our friends that it is violence which will pay greater dividends and we must have some people who will shoot down at least a few culprits and others will learn a lesson. Needless to say it is totally misplaced notion. No social reform movement can ever succeed by resorting to violence. In modern day world, violence has no place even in politics. Those who resort to it in political struggle end up killing hundreds of innocent people. And like love begets love, violence begets only violence and hatred. Violence initially appears to be liberative to the oppressed, but soon it becomes oppressive and the oppressed become oppressor. One should not be violent in thinking, let alone in practice. Violence, if ever resorted, will wipe out our movement. The Bohra reformists have never seriously considered this alternative though some frustrated persons keep on suggesting this course of action from time to time.

Similarly public agitation does play some role in reform movements but its limitation should also be kept in mind as far as the Bohra reform movement is concerned. Many people do not readily come forward to take part in these agitations and they do not create desired impact. It is also very expensive strategy. Moreover, the priesthood can counter mobilise much larger number both through coercive means and by exploiting blind belief of some of its followers. And in democracy, it is number which counts. Thus public agitations though could be certainly resorted to when situation so demands, should not be considered as a major strategy for the reform movement. In fact the reformists have resorted to public agitation from time to time in the past. In Udaipur, the agitation for visiting Galiakot went on for more than a week and later it was staged in Jaipur for a couple of days. Though it did not achieve a final objective, it did attract public attention and media notice. The reformists also showed black flags to Sayedna when he visited Godhra in early April 1995. We have also taken out processions before our world conferences. We did so in Aurangabad in April,1995 just before inauguration of our 8th All world conference. We will resort to it again whenever it is felt necessary.

Legal Alternative

Another course which can be adopted is legal fight in courts. This is also very expensive, time consuming and produces very limited result. The Chandabhai Gulla Case is its best example. Much valuable resources were put into the battle which was one of the longest legal battle fought in modern Indian legal history yet it failed to produce desired impact. Many other friends fought and are fighting legal battles in many district courts for years. The Central Board has also filed a review petition in the Supreme Court against its earlier judgment striking down the Prevention of Excommunication Act passed by the then Bombay Government in 1948. The petition is pending in the Supreme Court for last one decade. There is still no sign of its being taken up. Thus the legal battles should be resorted to only if it is a must. Legal battles eat up much of time and energy and financial resources without producing desired impact.

Propaganda and intellectual persuasions are, in ultimate analysis, most effective means for a reformist mission. However, apart from furnishing intellectual and financial resources for such a mission, it requires inexhaustible reservoir of patience. According to the holy Qur'an, truth and patience go together. One cannot be achieved without the help of other. Any reform movement is inevitably a long drawn affair. Moreover, it is always an ongoing project. One cannot say, in such movements ‘thus far and no further.' It is always a continuing struggle. It is fight for truth, it is fight for social health and it is fight for freedom from mental slavery.

Reform movement also requires great courage of conviction and a burning desire for freedom, freedom of thinking, freedom to act. And this freedom cannot be achieved, much less retained, without sacrifice. As one has to pay for once living unceasingly until one dies, one has to pay price for freedom until one lives. It is not one time sacrifice that can settle the matter. Living freely is also living a life of sacrifice.

Lastly, I would also like to mention here that our friends and supporters from abroad can also do a great deal for the movement in India. There are Bohras who support reform movement in Africa, England, U.K., North America and Canada, apart from some in the Middle East. Some of them are quite well to do. However, unfortunately, adequate help is not forthcoming from our friends abroad. It must be remembered that it is reform movement in India which will sustain reform movement in other countries. Reform movement in India can strengthen and enrich reform movement in other countries. Its base needs to be consolidated in India.


Now another important question is what are achievements of the Bohra reform movement so far? Has it succeeded or has it failed? Or is it in the process of succeeding? These questions naturally occur to any one deeply concerned with the success of the movement.

However, before we answer these questions another fundamental question is what is the criteria of measuring success? Naturally evaluation of such movements tends to be highly subjective. Some people feel movement has failed to produce any impact while others think it is creating desired result. In evaluating reform movement such subjectivity cannot be avoided and it is not possible to devise any criteria which is totally objective. One could, at best asses, what is general opinion. One could, however, say that success of reform movement in a community like the Bohras where fear has gripped their minds, cannot be certainly measured by how many people have joined the movement. All of us know in many cases highly convinced people also feel helpless in joining the movement openly. The only criterion of its success could, therefore, be the extent of conscientisation and awareness created among the people through various means of propaganda - publications, seminars, meetings, workshops, youth camps or conferences. If seen from this perspective, it will not be difficult to establish that the reform movement has largely succeeded in creating widespread awareness among the Bohras. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Kothar to mobilise Bohras for countering activities of the reformists. Also, one finds much greater support for the reformists viewpoint among Bohras today then few decades ago.

It was as a result of sustained propaganda barrage that a section of Bohras of Aurangabad, Hyderabad etc. also revolted and joined the movement. It does not mean that we should belittle their own local struggle; it has its own importance which must be recognised. What we mean to say that the reform movement gave them basic support, courage, hope and an alternative. Recently, there was an uprising in Ujjain. It is a welcome move. It may subsequently result in some people in Ujjain joining us. For various reasons, the progress of reform movement in attracting people openly may not be very rapid; but it is undoubtedly a movement which people, while breaking from the Kothar can fall back upon. It is there to provide them with the infrastructure they need, a forum they desire, a sense of identity they want and fulfills their urge to belong. A moral and material support is quite valuable for those who dissent and break away from the parent body. Many dissenters today look to The Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community with great hope.

There was time when there were just four persons in the reform movement. Today we are more than 20,000 in the open. It is by no means very impressive growth taking the Bohra population as 1.2 million. But in terms of conscientisation and awareness the number may be certainly more than half a million. This number can certainly be said to be with us with their heart and soul but not with their bodies.

Our struggle is the future of the community and will certainly succeed, Insha Allah. Let us have faith in Allah and our struggle. Faith, hope and struggle are our main weapons. Allah Ta'ala emphasises in the Qur'an ‘adl, ihsan, rahmah and hikmah (justice, benevolence, mercy and wisdom) and the reformists have to fight with wisdom for justice, benevolence and compassion and future is ours, Insha Allah. All those who fight for human rights and dignity of human person are with us and shall always be with us. It is our greatest support.