June 27, 2011

The Tyrant who rules over the Dawoodi Bohras

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 26, Dated 02 July 2011



The iron grasp of the high priest

Dawoodi Bohras have always been known for their business gene. But few know they are being choked by a tyrannical and all-powerful religious head. Anumeha Yadav reports how every attempt to rein him in is crushed

THE BOHRA Muslims have always been read through a dominant stereotype: their capacity for business. That’s probably one reason why even chief minister Narendra Modi has found it convenient to reach out to them as part of his PR measures to improve his scoreboard with Muslims in Gujarat. But few Indians would know that the Dawoodi Bohras have been living with — and fighting — deeply suffocating customs under the regime of their spiritual head, the 100-year old Syedna Mohamed Burhanuddin.

This story is not a new one. Three decades ago, the Janata Party-led government in Gujarat allowed the Nathwani Commission, set up by then PM Morarji Desai, to examine complaints of civil rights violations by the Syedna. But even after 1979, when the commission published its findings, the priest and his family have continued to wield overwhelming power over the community through the threats of baraat (community boycott), of denying ruqo chitthi (a letter obtained from the Syedna at a hefty sum so that the dead may enter heaven) and seven kinds of taxes arbitrarily levied on all, including foetuses.

This February, when the Syedna turned 100, one of his seven sons, Huzefa Mohiuddin, walked in for the celebrations in Ahmedabad with Chief Minister Narendra Modi and BJP leaders Vijay Rupani, Asit Vohra and Jayanti Barot. Inside the brightly- lit hall, Mohiuddin praised governance in ‘vibrant Gujarat’. Modi related anecdotes about his closeness with the Syedna over the years. Cell phone cameras clicked. Jointly holding the knife, Modi and Mohiuddin cut a cake to chants of Allaho- Akbar, and congratulated each other.

Modi’s attempts to appear more palatable to minorities by playing footsie with this sect are fairly recent. But those Bohras, who have been trying to resist the Syedna’s chokehold over their civil rights, say they have for decades witnessed their priest grow more powerful with covert support from various state and Central governments and corporate giants. Political expediency takes precedence over reform. (See pictures on next page)

Dawoodi Bohras are predominantly traders concentrated in western India — Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra — and Madhya Pradesh. The men wear distinctive white-and-gold caps while the women wear colourful burqas called rida.

They believe their Imam represents the Prophet on earth and that their 21st Imam had to go into exile in the 12th century. The Syedna, appointed hereditarily since the present Syedna’s grandfather’s time, is supposed to be the spiritual representative in the Imam’s absence.

Blind faith The Syedna, at 100 years, commands a large following that keeps the faith — mostly out of fear

Udaipur has been a centre of reformist struggle since the early 1970s, when a section of Bohras defied the Syedna’s choice of candidates to nominate their own candidates in civic elections. In Bohrwadi, Udaipur, sitting in the reformist Dawoodi Bohra Youth Association office, Zehra Naaz, in her mid-40s, describes how the Syedna’s men attacked a Moharram majlis (assembly) at Moiyyadpura mosque in 1975. “They pushed me from the second floor. I was 14,” she recalls. Her spine was damaged so badly that she could not stand up for two years, having to drop out of school. Now, when the call for the namaz is heard at the mosque at 2 pm, the reformists are confined to a small enclosure.

The Syedna, who claims ownership over the minds and bodies of his followers as well as all communal property, staked claim to the mosque, the largest of eight in the city, in an Udaipur civil court in 1984. When a violent clash broke out during Ramzan in 2004, the administration divided the prayer hall. Reformists got a small portion behind iron bars.

“The Syedna insists that all mosques and communal property be vested in him rather than waqf boards. Last September, through an RTI, we found that he and his coterie submitted a forged certificate in 2000 to the municipal corporation to get permits for new properties,” says Yusuf Ali RG, a reformist whose father defied the Syedna. The family has been socially boycotted on the Syedna’s orders since.

Bohras need the Syedna’s permission to start a school, a charity, marry, even bury their dead

Reformists say the Syedna runs a parallel autocratic government. All Dawoodi Bohras, including those in the US, UK, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Indonesia, Thailand and the Gulf, must pay taxes to the Syedna but cannot ask what is done with the money. They need the Syedna’s permission to establish charities, start a school, marry, even to bury their dead. “The priest charges Rs 2-10 lakh for permission for burial in Bohra cemeteries even when the land is leased from the municipal corporation. The Bohras cannot have what the Constitution allows them because we need the Syedna’s permission for everything,” says Asghar Ali Engineer, a Mumbai-based reformer, who says he accepts the institution of the Syedna, but is fighting for civil rights.

Taxes and control of finances of charities or trusts form the financial basis of the Syedna’s empire. The 1979 commission, led by retired judges NP Nathwani and VM Tarkunde, pointed out, “All trust properties of the community are at the Syedna’s disposal, whether he is legally the sole trustee or not. Thus, he can take decisions as to the application of the income of any trust for such purposes as he considers charitable. Any person challenging his decision has to face the consequences.”

THE COMMISSION’S estimate was that trusts the Syedna controlled in Maharashtra alone were worth Rs 50 crore. It recommended that these trusts be regulated by laws similar to those which govern other Muslim trusts such as the Dargah Khwaja Sahab Act. Norman Contractor, a Dawoodi Bohra businessman and reformist who died in 1983, alleged that the Syedna and his family were embezzling charity funds. Reformists requested the Central government to probe financial details of two trusts headed by the Sydena — Dawat-e-Hadiya and the Syedna Taher Saifuddin Memorial Foundation — in 1977, alleging the priest was investing in industries that followers were then forced to buy shares in.

“In private, income tax authorities told us they cannot investigate this, given the pressure from higher authorities,” says Saifuddin Insaf, general secretary of the Dawoodi Bohras’ Central Board.

The government stayed silent even when the Tanzanian government expelled the Syedna for his alleged complicity in transferring money out of that country in 1967, and nine years later when Sheikh Abdul Qayum Kaderbhoy, the Bohra priest in Sri Lanka, was caught smuggling jewels in his robes by the Sri Lankan government.
Anil Ambani Mukesh Ambani Prithviraj Chavan
top cop LK Advani Narendra Modi

Appeasing the gods (from left) Anil Ambani, Mukesh Ambani, Prithviraj Chavan, top cops, LK Advani and Narendra Modi pay obeisance to the Syedna. This deals a further blow to reformists’ attempts to bring transparency and democracy

Photo: AFP

In fact, 1967 was when the present Syedna imposed a new Constitution on the community. He took over all secular powers vested in local panchayat-like councils, the jamaat. On reaching puberty, a child must take misaaq, an oath of allegiance to the Syedna. With this oath, he signs off all his rights — religious and secular — and agrees that if he disobeys the Syedna, he will have to divorce his spouse, or give up his property, and be cut off from the community as the Syedna wills. This oath was originally a way to assert one’s loyalty for the Ismailis, who were part of an underground movement against the Abbasid Empire. Ironically, a custom that originated during a reform movement has become a tool in the hands of a theocracy.

A glimpse into how the Syedna operates his empire is possible from a UK government inquiry into the Dawat-e-Hadiya trust, of which he is the sole trustee. In July 2001, Charity Commission UK began investigating this public trust with an annual turnover of £2 million (approximately Rs 15 crore). The commission found that of six nominees appointed to administer the trust, four were Syedna’s sons. It ordered them to pay Rs 3 crore back to the trust because the Syedna and the nominees had made payments to themselves, violating their fiduciary responsibilities.

Besides money from taxes and public trusts, the Syedna and his appointees charge money to make appearances. A follower must pay a minimum of Rs 5,000 to apply to see the Syedna at his Mumbairesidence Shaify Mahal in Malabar Hill, where he lives with 300-odd members of his family. A mail circulated prior to Syedna’s visit to California in May asked every household to pay $14,000 ( Rs 5.6 lakh) for the Syedna’s youngest son to inaugurate a mosque in Los Angeles.

The Bohra situation is not a remnant of archaic despotism, it was exacerbated by the greater affluence that came with economic changes post-independence. The threat of social boycott has remained powerful because the community, estimated to be a little over a million, is still fairly insular, often choosing to marry and do business within the community.

“A few years after I returned from the US after completing my PhD, they declared a baraat against me for not wearing the Dawoodi Bohra dress. They asked Muslim civic organisations I was active in to expel me. They tried to target my cousin Ismail Kanga, then India’s ambassador to Yemen, to make an example of what happens if the theocracy is not obeyed,” says professor JS Bandukwala, a prominent social activist and physicist at MS University, Vadodara.

DAWOODI BOHRA l ocalities resound with stories of being threatened, ostracised, beaten and in some instances even being driven to suicide. “My siblings, my relatives, neighbours, everyone stopped talking to me. Some Bohras even tried to burn the house I lived in with my aged mother,” says Zehra Cyclewallah, who lived under police protection in Surat for 14 years after going to court against the Syedna.

Cyclewallah invited the priest’s wrath when she refused to step down as manager of a cooperative bank that the Syedna first inaugurated and then several years later tried to shut down with a fatwa, accusing it of charging interest. The priest and his coterie had similarly tried to shut down Bombay Mercantile Cooperative Bank in Mumbai in 1982. The chairman of the bank, Hoseini Doctor, had then accused the priestly family of trying to gain control of the bank by forcing Bohra employees in the bank to resign or face a social boycott.

Recognising that social boycott is a weapon to deprive Dawoodi Bohras of their constitutional rights, the Bombay State Legislature had passed the Prevention of Excommunication Act in 1948. The Bombay High Court upheld the law but in 1961, a four-member Bench of the Supreme Court accepted the Syedna’s contention that excommunication on religious ground was his prerogative. In a dissenting judgment, then Chief Justice Sinha expressed his discomfort with the judgment. “I am not satisfied that the right to excommunication is a purely religious matter… one is inclined to think that the position of an excommunicated person becomes that of an untouchable,” he remarked. Reformists’ appealed for a review of the verdict but a hearing has been pending for 15 years.

The Syedna, who is the wealthiest of all Muslim clergy, has used his ties with Muslim leaders to serve his own ends, resisting any government scrutiny by raising the bogey of interference in minority culture. In cities with a history of reform within the community such as Udaipur, reformists’ numbers have dwindled. Even former leaders such as Ghulam Hussain, a former president of reformist Bohra Youth Association, have had to apologise and seek refuge with the Syedna.

“If they don’t obey the Syedna, they are not Dawoodi Bohras. Our trusts are run as per India’s laws,” says Quresh Ragib, the Syedna’s public relations officer.

Engineer, who led the movement despite six incidents of physical attacks, including a stabbing attempt in 1976, reels off a list of the high and mighty to whom he appealed to end the Syedna’s chokehold. “Indira Gandhi, Zail Singh, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, VP Singh, Rajiv Gandhi. I stopped trying after Narasimha Rao,” he says. He acknowledges that the underground movement is dead. “Hundreds used to collect in secret meetings in Ahmedabad, Indore, Kolkata. Now 10-15 people turn up. They say they are sympathisers but the fear of punishment is too great,” he says.

If the movement is completely snuffed out, what do the reformists ultimately lose? “The freedom to do what our conscience says, to live with dignity,” he says.

Anumeha Yadav is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.