Borhras and reform
Dawoodi Bohras - Borhras and reform

21st Century and the Bohra reform movement

In the opening address Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer described in detail the various aspects of the Bohra reform movement. He said that the reform movement in the Dawoodi Bohra community started at beginning of 20th century on the issue of modern secular education.

The Seminar was chaired by Justice H. Suresh and attended by a sizeable number of people.

Modernist Bohras established a Hakimia Coronation High School at Burhanpur, which was vehemently opposed by the Bohra religious hierarchy. The determination of the modernists was crushed by the invention of a rigid imposition of Misaq (oath of allegiance) and excommunication. In order to exploit the community's material resources to build his own empire the Bohra religious head claimed such powers which were unprecedented. He claimed to be 'Ilahul-Ard', the God on earth and having equal powers to that of the Prophet Mohammed to win a case known as 'Chandabhoy Galla Case' filed against him to be accountable for public money which he had refused.

Engineer gave an extensive account of various legal battles fought by the reformists against the oppressive policies of Bohra religious hierarchy and the untold sufferings that the reformists had go through. Engineer showed how the religion that combined with black money becomes formidable.

He described how the Bohra priest (Sayedna) converted his defeats into victory by false propaganda each time reformists mad any gains. The long drawn battle for reform and aggressive attempts by the vested interests to crush it was shocking for many participants in the seminar.

He said after India's independence in 1947 the community got some relief as the state of Bombay enacted thePrevention of Excommunication Act' curbing Sayedna's monstrous powers. But it was short lived as the Supreme Court of India struck it down in 1962, on a narrow technical ground.

This majority decision was anti-reform and Sayedna unleashed a terror in the community thereafter and enslaved the whole community.

Engineer then gave an account of the mass revolt in Udaipur in 1972; the united efforts by the reformists world-over under a central organisation 'the Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community'; appointment of two inquiry commissions and reopening of excommunication case in the Supreme Court.

Human rights

He said the demands of the reformists from beginning are accountability of public funds, human rights and human dignity and democratisation of secular affairs of the community. Lastly he pointed at polarisation of communal forces and need for the secular forces to unite and fight it out.

Justice Suresh said the demands of Reformist Bohras are just - they are concerned for violation of their human rights and forcible collections of funds by the Sayedna and its gross misuse. He said he met Justice Verma, the chairman of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and told him that the 'police encounters' is not only case of human rights violation. There are various other cases which the commission must look into. Human rights of the Dawoodi Bohras, is one such case.

He said that our Supreme Court has taken unparalleled initiatives and it must now empower the NHRC to fight to fight against injustice, otherwise mere pointing out the violation of human rights makes it a farce.

He said the government would not bring changes that go against its own interests. It is the duty of the Supreme Court. NHRC has been constituted under 'Protected Human Rights' and for the first time human rights have been defined - including all the rights defined in the International Declaration - political, social and cultural. Since these rights are statutory they must be protected. The government must be compelled to enforce them.

Instruments of violence

He said recently 'Peoples' Union for Human Rights' has been constituted and we all must join it. He said the Misaq, which is taken at an early age make a Bohra enslaved for life time - it is against human rights and human dignity. The condition of Misaq that to consider someone an enemy who disagrees with Sayedna and then wage a war against him and loot and destroy his property certainly makes it an instrument of violence. He further said that on the secular aspects of religion a separate law must be enacted to control the funds collected in the name of religion on the basis of public morality.

Sandan Shiv - former member of Law Commission, said the Bohras have to fight as conscientious reformer and not as conscientious dissenters. They should have faith in human rights and human dignity. There is no sizable support to reform movement from the community. The writings and the views of the reformists are not reaching the community. Either there is no penetration of reform or people are of closed-mind. The close-mind makes the task of reform more formidable. Formidable forces are built upon religious faith.

He said as I see Bohra reforms have 4 questions:

  1. Question of constitutional laws,
  2. Question of statutory laws,
  3. Question of taxes and
  4. Question of faith. It is the faith, which complicates the above three questions.

Talking about constitutional law he said the judgement of 1962 given by the Supreme Court is a shocking one. Under article 25, 26 and 27 such type of judgement cannot be given. He said as a practicing lawyer of the Supreme Court I feel in some cases the Supreme Court is the highest court of injustice in this country, and 62 judgement is one such case. The writ in this case is pending since 1968, must be taken up on top priority and we must all pray that the Supreme Court gives a progressive judgement this time.

Action points

He said the second issue is the law or an enactment regarding 100 crores rupees that Sayedna collects every year. Whether it is his individual property, or an individual property of an institution? The Trupathi Temple and Ajmer Dargah have a locus, a center, but whether Sayedna has a legal institution? Religious institution and legal institution are two different things. He said emphatically that no constitutional provision stops you from social reform, social welfare and the regulation of secular matters even of a religious institution.

He said the Bohra community is well-knit, well-fed, well-clothed and well-dominated and, therefore the reform movement is like a cool-wave not an upsurge. He emphasized the need to form a committee with outside support to find action-points and then to implement them.

Father Francis D'Britto said there was same kind of persecution in the Catholic Christian community some sixty years ago but today the functioning in the church has been democratized. How?

The reformation in church came from lower level as well as top level. The masses and the intellectuals asked for a change in Europe and percolated in the Indian community. Poland was the center for strong struggle for human rights and reform and now since the Pope is from Poland there is a change from the top also. He constantly writes and talks about human rights. There is no more excommunication. The priests and other functionaries of the church are accountable to the local finance committees. The funds are regulated through trusts and charity commissioner.

Oppressive instituions

He said he is closely observing the Bohra reform movement and felt that their task is a Himalyan one. It is because the oppressed Bohras do not realise that they are exploited. They are passionate as get security in the larger society. It is the vested interests that keep the Sayedna going and it has nothing to do with religion. Religion has become an oppressive institution. If Bohras do not feel injustice they cannot fight against it.

The Sayedna has become worse than a dictator. Is there a way for a dialogue, he asked. In reply Engineer said that there is no culture of listening to other man's point of view. There is total arrogance on part of the religious establishment. Bohras are seething with anger but they feel impotent. They do not want to take a stand and suffer.

Yogesh Kamdar said I had come there for two reasons. One that he was associated with Nathwani Commission of Inquiry and secondly now that Sayedna has unleashed a fresh reign of terror he thought it is a time that all people who have respect for human rights and human dignity must show solidarity with reformist Bohras.

Three things are clear today, he said. One the political corruption that prevails today was not there earlier when S.M.Joshi and Jaiprakash Narayan made it a national issue and Morarji Desai, as Prime Minister took a stand. Today certain issues have become politically incorrect. Attack on Prof. Musheerul Hasan, the pro-chancellor of AMU after a statement he made regarding Rushdie's controversial novel. Today Samjwadi Party, Muslim league, Haj Committee all have clubbed together have said the attack on Sayedna is an attack on them.

Dark ages

He said as Bal Thakrey and Pitambara are not the spokesmen of Hindus, by the same token the Sayedna and Abu Asim Azmi are not the spokesmen of Muslims. Nothing should be termed as internal affairs of a community, he said. When it is question of individual rights all must fight unanimously for it. Bohras are still in the Dark Ages and it will take time for them to come to 21st Century. The Title 21st Century and Bohra reform movement is in fact a title for all reform movements in 21st Century.

A. G. Khan Surguru said he had some misgivings that need to clarify. Zakat. Sila, Fitra, which Sayedna collects, are as per the Quran. So do the other Muslim organisations. So how can we object to it. What is then the alternative?

Engineer replied that we are not objecting to the collection, of course we object to forcible collection, but Sayedna must account for it. The Quran has also specified eight objectives on which Sayedna is required spend that money. He does not do that. If someone puts his entire wealth at feet of Sayedna we don't mind but the money collected from people must be accounted for.

Lajpat Rai said I have great respect for religion but I refuse to get exploited by any religion.

Greatest democrat

Advocate Nilofer Akhtar said Islam is the only religion, which has no concept of priesthood. Meaning that the very status of Sayedna is anti-Islamic. Islam teaches to rely on the Quran and Hadith and not on any personality. Even the Prophet of Islam relied on the Quran. He was the greatest democrat and used to always sit among the common people on ground. She said she knows as a member of Muslim Personal Law board that there are many anti-Islamic practices in the Bohra community. She said, recently when a Bohra friend died the family had to pay Rs 3 lakhs for burial and 11 lakhs as wajebat taxes to Sayedna. This is against the very spirit of Islam, which prohibits materialism.

Mr. Gatkari said that today the whole atmosphere is charged with communalism. Therefore all secularists must meet once in two months and chart out a programmme of action after reviewing the situation. He said he sees a major revolt against Sayedna in near future.

Mr. Ravindra Nath, Mr. Masood Pesh Imam, Rasool Bhai Engineer, Safia Bahen Malegaonwala, Sayeeda Sayyadi, Asad and Insaf also spoke.

Finally Justice Suresh concluded the Seminar and said that broadly we can summarise the deliberations as follows:

  1. Problems of Bohras is a problem of Human Rights.
  2. Educating Bohras to make them aware of their rights
  3. Encourage Bohras to file cases against the Sayedna and their men who exploit them.
  4. Formation of legal cell to fight out cases at a minimum cost, and look into the charity matters of various Bohra trusts under the Sayedna's control.
  5. Misaq, a charter of slavery must be brought to notice of NHRC and followed vigorously.
  6. All help to activate the writ pending in the Supreme Court regarding Excommunication.
  7. Compel government to take action against the Sayedna.
  8. Mobilise public opinion to institute a law for the funds collected by the Sayedna
  9. Muslims should give assurance to Bohras to help them in burial, marriage etc.

On a suggestion by Insaf it was also decided to publish a small booklet clearly guiding Bohras how to take police or legal help in case of their harassment.