Golden Jubilee of Bohra Reform Movement in Udaipur
(Secular Perspective May 1-15, 2018)
Islam in popular perception is a very orthodox, conservative and even fundamentalist religion which brooks no change. Sections of Muslim community are not entirely free from the blame for the perception. They resist reasonable changes in accordance with the changing times. However, the fact is that there have been many reform movements within the Muslim community in India and other countries. Struggle to understand the Quranic message has always been an ongoing process and the challenge has been taken up by every generation. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who established the Muslim Anglo-Oriental College which now is Aligarh Muslim University, Maulana Shibli Numani contemporary of Sir Syed, Maulana Mumtaz Ali who wrote extensively on rights of women in Islam, the great poet philosopher – Iqbal and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad are some names that come to mind.
Bohra Reform Movement in Udaipur
The Bohra Reform movement in Udaipur will be completing its Golden Jubilee in 2020. The reform movement under the aegis of Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community, has commenced the Golden Jubilee celebrations and the inaugural function was on 29th April 2018. Dawoodi Bohras are a sub-sect of Shias and follow the High priest whose office is known as Dai ul-Mutlaq or one who summons to faith. Dawoodi Bohras are made to believe that the Dai is owner of their mind, body, soul and property. Every Bohra is administered an oath of allegiance to the Dai, which is called as misaq. The oath administered is worst than charter of slavery. Nathwani Commission Report has translated the oath of allegiance. One of its clauses states that if the Dail calls upon the follower to wage war against the enemy, then s/he would, that the follower would accept the order of the Dai in all things. The follower would love those whom Dai loves and be enemy of those with whom Dai is hostile and there will be no contact with him/her openly or secretly in any form whatsoever. The further enjoins the follower to spend her/his life and property in the cause of the Dai who is the master of life. If a person breaks the oath, all his possessions, including movables, cash, house, utensils, jewels, ornaments, carriages, horses, cattle, milch cows, she buffaloes, slaves and all worldly materials become unlawful to her/him and liable to be looted.
Bohras of Udaipur wanted to encourage modern education in English language for their advancement. Members of the community registered Bohra Youth Association to give scholarships to encourage members of the community to undertake modern education. This triggered off confrontation between the members of the community and the Pontiff who was deeply suspicious of the effect of modern education. He thought that would weaken his following. The Pontiff asked office bearers of the Bohra Youth Association to wind up the organisation as the same was without his permission. Bohra community is populated in four Municipal wards of Udaipur. In the Municipal elections in the year 1970, the local Bohra priest recommended four persons for nomination by the Congress as their official candidates. However, these candidates were unpopular among the Bohras. Four Youth leaders who worked for the community and were very popular, contested elections as independents against the candidates recommended by the local priest and they inflicted a crushing defeat on the local priest’s candidates.
The Bohras of Udaipur had taken two more steps for the welfare of the community. First, they established a Cooperative Bank – The Udaipur Urban Cooperative Bank – to meet the financial needs of the community. The Bank was well managed and was popular among the community. The Second step was electing a committee for management of the community affairs, including community properties and funds. The Pontiff did not like his followers running the institutions democratically. He was used to nominating his henchmen to run the affairs of the community in the manner he pleased and to maximize financial gains for himself and his large extended family. The henchmen would have their own personal interests in the community property and would whisper into the ears of the Pontiff’s minions accordingly. The Pontiff would grant audience to henchmen as they would facilitate the Pontiff’s visits to Udaipur and ensured that he would collect maximum funds from the followers. Thus Pontiff and his henchmen would ensure they took care of each other’s interests and in the process ensured that the followers were well submissive.
The Pontiff issued firmans dissolving the elected committee to manage the affairs of the community halls and property (called jamaat) and nominated a committee with his own henchmen. He further called upon the leaders of the Bohra Youth Association (BYA) – Ghulam Hussain Manager and Abid Ali Adeeb to dissolve the Bank as well as the BYA on the grounds that prior permission was not sought from the Pontiff to establish these institutions. The leaders of reform movement refused. Their plea was that no permission of the priest was required in secular affairs of the followers. When the popular leaders of the reform movement refused to comply with the Pontiff’s firmans, the Pontiff and his henchmen attacked the members of the community inside one of the most revered shrines of the community in Galiakot, about 75 kms from Udaipur. Large number of Bohra women were also attacked and molested inside the shrine. When the women appealed to the Pontiff, believing that the attacks on them were without his knowledge, the Pontiff looked the other way. That day women became strong supporters of the reform movement. The Pontiff resorted to social boycott of reformists and barred any Bohra from maintaining any contact directly or indirectly with the reformists. He refused to solemnize marriages of reformist Bohras, barred their entry into any mosque, community hall or shrine of the community. Despite all the atrocities and oppression of the Reformists, often invoking his political influence and might of state power, the reformists stayed their course and are strong.
Achievements of the Reform movement in 50 years
Fifty years is a long time for any movement to have sustained. In itself this is an incredible achievement. During the struggle to resist oppression of the Bohra Pontiff, the reformists succeeded in retaining the Jamat Khana, three mosques and right to pray in half portion of a fourth Mosque, though the responsibility to maintain the fourth mosque also falls on the reformists. The mosques are maintained by the Jamaat democratically. Regular elections are held and well contested. Campaigning for Jamaat elections are not only on the basis of credibility of the candidates as to their honesty and dedication to public service, but also along lines of religious perspectives. Debates on religious perspective ensures that religious doctrines are not imposed from the top but the learned from the community are involved in debates and in evolving understanding of Dawoodi Bohra religious doctrines. The understanding of the religion and religious tenets among reformist is therefore more than the blind followers of the Pontiff. Most followers of Pontiff merely follow the orders without understanding. This culture of blindly following has been consciously and systematically inculcated by the Pontiff. This enables the Pontiff to arbitrarily enforce behaviour to ensure that his establishment (also called as kothar) rakes in moolah and no one is supposed to ask any question.
The arbitrary firman issued and enforced by the kothar include compulsory subscription of tiffin boxes by all Bohra houses. The food is so bad that all Bohras have resisted receiving the tiffin boxes. Kothar enforces burqas for women and saayo (typical long white dress) for men along with beard and cap. These days the kothar is entering every home to inspect toilets enforce the Indian toilet pots are installed in place of western ones. Much before Aadhar cards were issued by the Govt. of India, kothar issued smart cards which records how often one has attended mosques to listen to sermons which are more praises and narrations of greatness and magical powers of the Pontiff and very little about Allah, his messenger and one of the most revered religious Imam Hussain.
While the kothar coercively collects religious taxes from the followers, the Bohra reformists in Udaipur depend on voluntary contributions of the members of the community. However the voluntary contribution is enough to maintain the mosques, jamaat khana, two schools, one sports training institution and well equipped medical centre with various equipments. The Udaipur Urban Coop. Bank too is one of best managed cooperative Bank in the country and has received awards for its performances.
During the recent inauguration of the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the reform movement, when I asked women what difference the reform movement made in their lives, and whether they were willing to give oath of allegiance to the pontiff, they assertively said no. They said they felt the freedom and pitied their counterparts in kothar who were coerced in so many ways to follow the numerous diktats of the Pontiff and kothar. They could wear the clothes they liked, educate themselves, take up jobs and livelihoods, participate in management of the community affair etc.
However, there were many challenges ahead for the reformists. The foremost challenge is nurturing new leadership to carry the baton of reforms. Reform is not one time event but an ongoing process as frontiers of knowledge develop. Of course reforms within the limits set by Allah, namely, treating all human beings as equal, loving all creations of Allah and dealing with everyone justly. To establish just society is and struggle for justice is one of the duty cast on all faithful. Pursuit of knowledge and truth is another duty cast. The old leadership which fought for their freedom 50 years ago has to educate the younger generation of history of the reform movement which is sadly wanting. The younger generation has taken advantage of and breathed in free air but are unaware of the sacrifices made by the older generation. Lack of awareness may mean losing of gains of reform movement out of carelessness. Kothar is trying its best to break the movement luring reformists with all kinds of deceptive sops. The movement has to produce new visionaries like Asghar Ali Engineer.
Women have been a strong backbone of the movement. I have rarely seen social movements in which women continue to participate in equal numbers. There is no reformist function in which women’s participation is less than men. However, the leaders of the movement haven’t given importance including women in the leadership and in decision making. As a result, women’s issues aren’t the focus of reform movement as much as it should. Though one sees women’s participation the programmes organized by the reformists, they continue to be relegated to traditional roles within their families and suffer discrimination and exclusion. Triple talaq in one sitting is neither practiced nor accepted as irreversible divorce within Dawoodi Bohras. Polygamy too is virtually not practiced and discouraged. However, practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is widely prevalent and the reformists have not yet officially taken up the issue decisively. The manner in which iddat (period of 4 moths and 10 days after death of husband or three months after divorce when a woman is not supposed to remarry) is practiced makes life of woman in iddat worse than hell. She is virtually isolated and not supposed to see face of or talk to any male who is not within prohibited degree of matrimonial relations, including a child. She cannot see Television or peep out of window or look at the sky. Though women can observe iddat as period during which they do not marry. Reformist need to include women in their leadership and address gender issues. Taking up such issues will only strengthen the movement with women backing it strongly.
The reformists need to set up religious institutions where Islamic studies and research are undertaken in order to understand the Quranic message in the present context.
The reformist also need to maintain the existing institutions – the mosques, jamaat khana, medical centre, coop bank, schools and continuously modernise them making them world class. It is easy said with resource lacking. However, if we have the vision, we should reach there some day.