Borhras and reform
Dawoodi Bohras - Borhras and reform

Fighting on

At the KC College public meeting (last month), they came with black masks. On Saturday (March 4, 2000), at the Kalina campus, though their faces were uncovered, they refused to give their full names. Yet, it is their steadfastness that keeps the Bohra Reformist movement alive.

"If our wives weren't reformists, we wouldn't be able to fight," said those attending the seminar on Bohra reform organised by the Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community.

The reason for this is two-fold: Reformist Bohras face social boycott that divides families, and is more difficult for women to bear; second, women are devout. That's also why, say reformists, when women find that the person they worship almost like God has feet of clay, their rebellion is permanent.

Shahnaaz married into a Reformist family, but faced no official boycott until her daughter's marriage. Her Bohra neighbours realised she was one of "those" when the wedding card didn't carry the slogan `Abde-Syedna', meaning `slave of Syedna', nor did it prescirbe the dress code for invitees.

Since then, the boycott has been complete. Fortunately, her daughters stood by their parents. The eldest refused all offers from orthodox Bohra families, unwilling to obsereve the restrictions they were subject to. The younger, still in shcool, remains unfazed by her friends' sudden cooling off, and is amused by the way her classmates kiss the Syedna's picture before starting an exam.

One woman joined the Reformists when her husband died. "Are you willing to support me," She asked the Syedna's Amils or priests, "a widow with two kids," when they objected to her moving in with her Reformist sister.

While her children became Reformists, her sister's son went back to the Syedna because he wanted to contest elections. Having failed to convince his mother to join him, he now speaks to her only on the phone.

That even second generation Reformists are not immune to the pain of social boycott became clear while talking to a woman from Malegaon. There are about 20 Reformist families there, and 40 orthodox. "They are growing, but we've remained where we were," she rued.

Orthodox Bohras from outside sometimes marry their daughters into Malegaon's Reformist families, for lack of an educated match in their circle. Those daughters are promptly ex-communicated. Longing to re-establish live contact with their families, they get a chance to do so only when it's time for their daughters to marry. They send their girls back into the orthodox circle they grew up in, only to find it to be of no use: they themselves continue to remain ex-communicated. "we meet clandestinely, wearing black burkhas, or in common friends' homes," she said sadly.

Moiz Mediwala meets his brothers in hotels when he happens to be in their city. The only one in his family to revolt against the "exploitation" by the priesthood, Mediwala and his parents were forced to live in separate wings of their ancestral home in Jamnagar. When Mediwala did not stop writing against the priesthood, he was assaulted, twice almost fatally, and even implicated. The magistrate acquitting him advised him to file a defamation case, but Mediwala preferred to accept a job transfer to Udaipur and turn his back forever on his hometown, not going there even when his parents died.

"The Amils told my family to call me, but I knew they would insist on my begging forgiveness before allowing my parents to be buried in the Bohra cemetery."

More heartbreaks were in store: his wife left with their two little daughters when the Amils' pressure on her father became unbearable, and was forced to divorce him.

The man who has pursued the Syedna with defamation suits and other litigation over the last 22 years is Rasulbhai Engineer of Lathi, Saurashtra, who managed to get legal permission to pray in the local Bohra mosque.

"I had two ambitions in life: to see my daughter happily married, and to see the Syedna in jail," says this frail 87-years-old, who was once given an Assembly ticket by Morarji Desai. The first has been accomplished; he's still running around for the second. He's set his hopes on a forthcoming case in which, he says, the Syedna will not be able to avoid appearing in court "and standing in the dock like any accused."

Rasulbhai claims to have spurned six offers of money from the priesthood to withdraw his cases. He has set just one condition: lift the social boycott on the Reformists.

But there have been Reformists who've left the fold. The biggest such exodus was in '98 in Udaipur, where about 200 of the 400-odd Reformists there, belonging to two leading Reformist families, crossed over when the Syedna visited this Reformist bastion after 25 years.

"To expand their business, they deceived the community they had led," says Fakhruddin Habib, a third-generation Reformist trader from Udaipur's Bohriwadi.

What of the allegation made by the Syedna's followers that the Udaipur Reformists attack the Syedna's followers, and levy the same taxes as the Syedna does? "If someone comes at me, am I supposed to sit quiet?" asks Habib angrily. Mediwala points out that ..... (words missing) unafraid of fighting, unlike the Gujarati Bohras, who were Brahmins.

"Yes, we pay the same taxes, but while I pay Rs 300 annually in Udaipur, I would have to pay Rs 3,000 if I was one of the orthodox, apart from the chillar I would have to keep shelling out throughout the year. Orthodox Bohras have no idea where their money goes. But in Udaipur, we know the money is being used to run our mosques, library, banks, school, medical centre and free blood bank," says Mediwala proudly.