The Bohra reform movement was a hot news during 1970s to 1990s. Thereafter, nothing was seen in papers and many people thought that movement must have died down as so many social movements do. However, it is not true. Still it is quite alive and kicking. The proof is, if anyone wants proof, the 14th All World Dawoodi Bohra conference which was held in Udaipur – the reformist centre – from 11th to 13th February 2011. The inaugural session was attended by more than 700 people of which about 500 were women. The subsequent delegate sessions on 12th and 13th were also attended by 400 persons of which 300 were women.

Women are greater victims of religious exploitation in general and Bohra women in particular. They were beaten up and dragged by their hair by the Bohra High Priest’s goons in Udaipur on March 1, 1972 and they have never forgotten this shocking incident in their lives. They were molested and dishonored and women can never forgive if they are molested and dishonoured.

What is important to note is that the Bohra reform movement is not exclusive one i.e. is not restricted to Bohra community alone. The leadership, from the very beginning, has adopted an inclusive approach. From the very first conference in 1977 prominent writers including dalit writers like Daya Pawar and others had participated. It was inaugurated by prominent Hindi writer late Kamleshwar. Human rights activists also have been participating in these conferences.

Justice Tarkunde, Gobinda Mokhoty (unfortunately both have passed away), Mr. Sabastian and others also took active part in this movement. The mass marriage in which about 110 reformist Bohra couples got married and whose marriages were held up by the priesthood for over a year, were solemnized in the presence of priests of all religions in 1975 and more than 5000 people took part in the celebration.

The reformist Bohras are fighting against totalitarianism and for their democratic and human rights which are flagrantly violated by the Bohra priesthood. They are denied all kinds of freedom which include their fundamental freedoms like speaking and writing on corruption within the religious establishment. The religious establishment headed by the priesthood has assumed monstrous powers.

The Nathwani Commission which was headed by Justice Nathwani, Justice Tarkunde, Prof. Alu Dastur, Prof. Alam Khundmiri of Osmania University and others, quite prominent academic and legal luminaries were involved. The Commission itself was set up by Jay Prakash Narain, then Chairman of Citizens for Democracy. Though the Commission’s scope was strictly limited to inquire into violations of reformist Bohras’ human and democratic rights, the Bohra high priest, through some Muslim leaders, raised hue and cry that Islam is in danger and outside forces are interfering into Muslims’ religious affairs.

The then Shahi Imam even said that rivers of blood will flow if the Nathwani Commission is not withdrawn and this despite my personal meeting with him and assuring him that no religious matter is being investigated into and that if the Commission does so, I myself will boycott it.

The Commission concluded that “Our inquiry has shown that there is large-scale infringement of civil liberties and human rights of reformist Bohras at the hands of the priestly class and that those who fail to obey the orders of the Syedna (Bohra high priest) and his Amils (local representatives of the high priest), even in purely secular matters, are subjected to Baraat(ex-communication) resulting in a complete social boycott, mental torture and frequent physical assaults (the present writer himself was nearly fatally assaulted five times including once in Egypt).

“The Misaq” the Commission Report continues, ‘(the oath of unquestioning allegiance to the Head Priest) which every Bohra is required to give before he or she attains age of majority, is used as the main instrument for keeping the entire community under the subjugation of the Syedna and his nominees. On the threat of Baraat (social boycott) and the resulting grave disabilities, Bohras are prevented from reading periodicals which are censured by the Syedna (such as the Bombay Samachar, The Blitz and the Bohra Bulletin. From establishing charitable institutions like the orphanages, dispensaries, libraries etc. without the prior permission of the Syedna except by submitting to such conditions as he may impose; from contesting elections to municipal and legislative bodies without securing beforehand the blessings of the Syedna and above all, from having any social contact with a person subjected to Baraat, even if the person is one’s husband, wife, brother, sister, father or son. The weapon of Baraat has been used to compel a husband to divorce his wife, a son to disown his father, a mother or refuse to see her son…An ex-communicated member becomes virtually an untouchable in the community, and besides being isolated from his friends and nearest relatives, is unable to attend and offer prayers at the Bohra mosque. Even death does not release him from the taboo, for his dead body is not allowed to be buried at the community common burial ground…”

The Nathwani Committee Report also enlists many hair raising cases it investigated. However, the high priest is so influential that nothing happened to him even after the report was published. The high government leaders including prime ministers and other officials publicly patronize him and his family. No political leader, not even of saffron variety, wants to touch him. The priestly establishment is flush with funds and uses his financial resources to promote his interests. To our great surprise the Central Government has postponed examinations on his 100th birth day after about a month. No other religious head has ever had such distinction. One can understand his political clout.

The Reformists meet every three years to discuss their problems worldwide. This 14th conference was also attended by delegates from various countries like USA, U.K. Dubai, Kuwait and so on. The conference was inaugurated by Shahid Mahdi, former Vice Chancellor Jamia Millia Islamia and Dr. Tahir Mahmood, former Chairman National Commission for Minorities and member Law Commission, was the Chief Guest. Medha Patkar of Narmada Bachao Andolan fame was the Guest of honour. Prof. Trivedi, Vice Chancellor, Sukhadia University, Udaipur delivered the welcome address as chairman, Reception Committee.

A day before the conference began i.e. on 10th February, we had organized a national seminar on “State, Religion and Society’ so that issues of social reforms could be understood in social and national perspective. Many writers, academics and social activists participated in the seminar. Social reforms became necessary after modernization of Indian society began under the British colonial rule. Social reforms had become necessary even during medieval ages but that took mainly form of Bhakti and Sufi movements to bring equality of all human beings. State had no role in these reforms.

However, with modernization of society state acquired a role though not sponsoring of social reform which always came from civil society but of legislation and maintaining social order. When Rammohan Roy started his campaign against sati he had to approach the British Government to ban sati through legislation which the British ruler did. But as society was not prepared for the same the British had to face strong resistance.

The seminar was inaugurated by Tahir Mahmood and he threw light on the problems and odds reformers have to face. It is no tea party, he said. Sir Syed, the founder of Mohamedan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College to spread modern education among Muslims of India had to face terrible opposition and was even described as ‘kafir’ by orthodox ulama.

Also, any social reform movement, is felt as threat by orthodox leadership and feels new leadership would take over power and marginalize them. It is not only question of ideological conviction but also of interests. If reforms become successful, it is Ram Mohan Roy and Sir Syed would lead the communities or the orthodox priesthood. Ram Mohan Roy and Sir Syed both went down in history as great leaders and visionaries whereas the orthodox priesthood was marginalized. Their names are also not known to us today.

The state has very limited role in such sensitive matters as social or religious reforms, particularly in democratic set-up. Even kings and dictators find it very difficult to bring about change. The examples of king Amanullah of Afghanistan in thirties of last century and that of Shah of Iran in sixties and seventies had to pay heavy price for ushering in modern reforms from above and both had to abdicate their thrones.

Prof. Agwani, former Vice Chancellor of JNU and Shahid Mahdi brought out these dimensions of movement for social change and enlightened the audience. The Bohra social reform movement, Asghar Ali Engineer said, was the movement against authoritarianism in the name of religion and want to democratize Bohra society and particularly so as Islam is religion of equality and human dignity and here the priesthood was destroying this very spirit. He is also destroying the very spirit of Indian Constitution by denying the Bohras very fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. The Nathwani Commission has proved, through its inquiry, the truth of these charges.

The reformist Bohras are worse than pariah. When the Supreme Court had struck down the Prevention of Ex-communication Act by majority of four (out of 5 Judge Bench) Justice Sinha, the then Chief Justice of India had written in his dissenting judgment that social reformers will become social pariah, if this Act is Struck down. He has proved right. The reformist Bohras did become social pariah. They cannot enter mosques, mausoleums and jamatkhanas of their own community which either they or their fore-fathers had built.

Ex-communication is not only unconstitutional but also un-Islamic as there is no doctrinal provision for ex-communication or social boycott. In fact it was unbelievers of Mecca who had declared social boycott of the Prophet (PBUH) and his family and companions. In fact there is no concept of priesthood in Islam at all. All the priests are self-appointed. There is no ordinating authority as in Christian Church. Any individual with proper knowledge can perform all religious rituals.

Syed Shahid Mahdi said in his inaugural address that reformist Bohras, though small in number, are harbingers of social change and are going along the footprints of great reformers in the past and they should not worry about their number. All great changes are initiated by small number of people and they others follow. In Karbala too, there were only 72 persons, including children who courted martyrdom for the sake of Islamic values, along with Imam Husain

Tahir Mahmood also, agreeing with Syed Mahdi said that it is always persecuted minorities who bring about revolution and usher in new social values. Addressing reformists he said you reformists today are persecuted minority but it is you who will change the society for the better and liberate it from tyranny of priesthood. It is these priests who perpetuate exploitation in the name of religion.

Medha Patkar saw the Bohra reform movement in the perspective of people’s struggle for liberation. She urged the reformist Bohras to be part of struggle by weaker sections of society and express their solidarity with them. Dr. Engineer said that religion is nothing but quest for truth based on inner conviction. Without truth religion is an empty shell. And truth based on inner conviction leads us to peace and non-violence.

The reformist Bohras have fought their battle strictly on principle of non-violence whereas the Bohra priesthood always resorted to violence and attacked several of our supporters. They think violence will frighten the reformists and silence them forever. However, violence made them more determined to fight. Reformist Bohras are following the way shown by Mahatma Gandhi who propounded and practiced doctrine of Satyagraha and Ahimsa i.e. truth and non-violence.

This movement has distinction of participation in large numbers by women and their iron will to fight the tyranny of priesthood. It is these women who bore the brunt of violence. Their sacrifices are really inspiring for many of us. Mostly it is blind belief on the part of women that sustains orthodoxy but here it was strong urge of Bohra women for social reforms that gave sustenance to the reform movement.

Since the Bohra reform movement believes in inclusionary approach, it formed, in its delegate session, three important commissions i.e. women’s commission, inter-faith commission and intra-faith commission. The women commission was formed to raise awareness among women for their rights and gender justice. It would include women of all communities in general and Muslim women, in particular. It will be headed by Prof. Zainab Bano who is head, department of Political science, Sukhadia University, Udaipur.

The reformists also give great importance to communal harmony and inter-faith dialogue. Since its inception the reformists have worked untiringly for inter-faith harmony and dialogue but in this conference it was decided to give it an institutional form and form a formal commission for this purpose. It will be headed by Commander Mansoor Ali, a retired military officer, will head it. It should be noted that communalism also is product of misuse of religion for political purposes and results in violence. The reformists are great votary of justice, peace and security.

Another commission formed was for intra-faith understanding. In many religions in India, especially among Muslims there is intra-faith strife like between Sunnis and Shi’as on one hand, and between Deobandis and Barelvis, on the other. Thus intra-faith dialogue and unity is as necessary as inter-faith dialogue and unity. This commission will be headed by Shri Abid Ali Adeeb, a poet and a writer. Thus the reformists will work dedicatedly for all round peace and security of the country.

Among the resolutions passed in the conference one was against the recent communal violence in Sarada, in Udaipur district. In this town 70 houses of Muslims were set on fire right under the nose of district magistrate and superintendent of police. The district magistrate and S.P. Police assured Muslims of full security and took them to Udaipur in buses and then set fire to these houses. In my 45 years of work for communal harmony I never came across any such instance that D.M and S.P. Police themselves were involved as in Sarada and getting Muslim houses burnt after getting them evicted under false pretext.

What is more shocking was that it happened under a Congress regime and despite repeated representation and my personally meeting the Chief Minister Mr. Ashok Gehlot, no action was taken against the culprits and no judicial inquiry was held. Again communal violence took place in Jhalawad district after Sarada and Muslim houses were looted and burnt and in Jhalawad too, no action was taken against the guilty, including the police officers.

Another resolution was passed to demand setting up of Shi’ah Wakf board so that interests of reformist Bohra properties and other Shi’ah properties also could be taken care of. Another resolution pertained to various corruption scandals like in Common Wealth Games in 2G etc. in which both politicians and Government officers were involved. While condemning such instances the resolution urged on civil society to work more actively to combat corruption and to usher in clean and transparent governance. A resolution demanding Hajj quota for reformist Bohras was also passed.

Everybody agreed that this was a historic conference and especially because women showed great enthusiasm and they showed equal enthusiasm in working for inter-faith dialogue too. They also vowed to celebrate major Indian festivals like Deepawali, Eid and national festivals like Republic Day and Independence Day etc. jointly with all other communities. They said ‘we celebrate diversity’ and unity in diversity is our profound belief.

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