PUCL Bulletin,

September 1987

The Bohra High Priest and his oppressive taxation system
-- By Asghar Ali Engineer

Morarji Desai had once described the rule of the Bohra High Priest as 'government within government', Nothing could be more true. Along with the coercive powers of Indian government, the coercive powers of the Bohra high priest has also grown. Same could be said about the taxation. Both have grown apace. Many readers may be alarmed at the mention of taxation system enforced by the Bohra high priest. Could it be possible? Can any private agency levy a parallel taxation system? Is it permissible? Permissible is certainly is not. Yet no one can deny its existence as far as the Bohra are concerned. Not only this, it tends to be highly oppressive, and of course, no less exploitative. Oppressive in the sense that these taxes are collated ruthlessly at the pain of social ostracism.

Uptodate records are maintained in the most scientific manner. No 'defaulter' an ever escape from his dragnet. There is no exaggeration in this statement. Many Bohras jokingly but privately say that the Government of India must learn from our priesthood how to collect the taxes efficiently. Before we go into collection aspect we would like to throw some light on the nature and categories of taxes collected by the priesthood.

A Bohra has to pay to the high priest even before he is born and continues to pay until after he is dead. Thus the taxation is levied on the foetus as well as on dead ancestors. Taxation on foetus is a novel idea hardly tried by any government in the world. Perhaps, the family planners can learn an idea from this. The levy on foetus is called hamal (literally pregnancy). A separate column is provided for in the taxation form. Regular printed forms are provided to the collectors.

In all, seven taxes are levied on a Bohra during his life-span before his birth and after his death. They are as follows:

(1) Sila: Sila literally means keeping contact. This is supposed to be collected as an offering for a hidden Imam who will appear one day & the amount would supposedly be passed on to him. However, it goes into the private coffer of the priest family. This is unique to the Bohras and is not found in any other Muslim community, nor has it anything to do with the teachings of Islam as such.

(2) Fitrah: It actually means payment at end of fasting month of Ramadan. This was ordained by the prophet and is meant for the poor so that they can also partake of id celebrations along with the others. Its quwantum is supposed to be a few measures of grains or monetary equivalent thereof and is a humanitarian measure. The general Muslims pay fitrah directly to the needy person a day before id. However, the Bohras are compelled to pay to the priesthood in cash which goes straight to line the silken purse instead of to the needy. This year the priesthood is charging this at the rate of Rs. 28 per head. The rate is enhanced every year in vies of the inflationary pressures.

(3) Zakat: This obligatory payment enjoined by the holy Quran and the prophet fixed it at two & half percent of ones wealth and income at the end of an year. It is supposed to be spent on the poor, the needy, the orphans. The widows, the travellers, for manumission of slaves and for paying off debts of indebted. As per the Quran it is taken from the rich as an obligatory levy and paid to the poor and needy. It is, as it would be seen, a great humanitarian and welfare measure which was conceived by Islam much before the concept of welfare state came in existence. It was no charity but a compulsory levy for the rich. Generally the Muslims (Pay Zakat) directly to the needy in a country like India. But the Bohras are not free to do so. The payment is to be compulsorily made to the Syedna who adds it to his family's income without any compunction. The poor and needy among the Bohras and there are hordes of them contrary to general impression cannot dare ask for their share which is their due.

(4) Khums: It literally means one fifth. As per the Quran the one fifth of the war booty was to be taken by the Prophet for his family's maintenance and also for performing functions of a head of community. However, it remained prevalent among the Shia communities. The Shia used to pay one fifth of sudden gain to their Imam from the progeny of the Fatima the Prophet's daughter. The Bohras of course now pay to the high priest who is not Imam ( but a dai i.e. his deputy)

(5) Haqqun nafs: It literally means payment for the salvation of the soul. It has nothing to do with Islamic teachings. There is no mention of it in the Quran. This was invented by the da'is. No dead among the Bohras can be buried without paying this tax. On paying this tax the priest gives ruku chitthi (note to Allah) for the salvation and for entry into the paradise. This note is kept on the chest of the deceased and buried. A Bohra, the priesthood insists, cannot enterparadise without this note from the da'I addressed to God, even if he had been highly virtuous and pious. Payment to the high priest is a must. The extent of payment generally depends on the financial status of the deceased and real hard bargaining is done by the priesthood in the matter.

No Bohra can ever be buried without this payment The relatives of the dead face lot of harassment and forget their own sorrow, and worry more about this payment. It is most inhuman practice and deserves to be strongly condemned. It amounts to dishonouring the dead and the sentiments of the bereaved for personal greed. It can be compared with the sale of indulgences by the Pope during medieval ages. Perhaps it is more inhuman. Many dead bodies remain unburied for hours until the bargaining is finalised.

(6) Nazar muqam: it is a vow money kept aside in fact for payment to the needy. The present high priest takes it away too and now in the form of compulsory levy. He regularly exhorts the Bohras not to insure themselves or their business as the same is haram (prohibited) in Islam. Instead they should spare vow money and pass it on to him. Every Bohra family is coerced into paying some amount of nzar muqam every year. This also has nothing to do with the teachings of Islam. It was more of an individual belief converted into compulsory levy for the priestly family's unsatiable greed for wealth.

(7) Salam and payment for titles: In addition to all these compulsory levy a Bohra also has to give 'voluntary' personal offering to the high priest which may vary from a few rupees to a few lakhs of rupees depending on the financial capacity of the person concerned. The high priest may also decide to award a title to any rich or middle class Bohra and demand capricious sum for it which also may run into few thousands to few lakhs. It becomes for a Bohra a question of his izzat (social respect and prestige) and he can hardly refuse.

Taking population of the Bohras (roughly about a million) into account it is safe bet to say that the high priest and his family yearly collects not less then Rs. 20 crores by way of these taxes and 'voluntary' payments. As pointed out above, the collection of these taxes is done very efficiently and systematically. Like the government taxation authorities notices are issued to the 'assessee' and he is required to pay up before the given date. If he fails to pay, marriage, burial or any other function in the 'defaulting' family held up. If one goes for marriage or burial outside the domain of the high priest's authority i.e. in or through reformists or other community, the person would face total boycott which is most dreaded by the Bohras. Thus the Bohras have no option but to pay ua. Thus there is hardly any 'defaulters'. All the payments are of course in black money. More they collect more their coercive power increases.

Can any religious or other establishment collect taxes? It is for the constitutional pundits to answer but the fact is that a Bohra has to pay double taxes. All the money so collected, needless to say, goes into the private coffer of the Syedna. Part of it finds its way in foreign banks, part is spent on his family's luxurious living and a part is spent of course on buying political support. Many chief ministers and governors line up before the high priest as it is too tempting to resist his money power. Last year the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh sent plane to take the Syedna to Indore and accorded him the status of state guest. In March this year, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan Shri Hardeo Joshi also accorded the same status to the high priest and at his behest stopped the reformists from visiting the Galiakot shrine grossly and unabashedly violating their constitutional right. Mr. Arjun Singh, the then Congress (I) Vice President, rushed to receive Syedna at the Indore airport. Official and unofficial 'donations amounting to lakhs of rupees are made on such occasions.

The reformists have repeatedly urged upon the Government to institute an inquiry into the financial empire of the Syedna, but with no result. The Syedna's exactions go on unrestrained and his coercive power goes on ever increasing. The Syedna also lends unqualified support to Muslim fundamentalists and makes donations to their organizations to brace himself up further. Can the Government touch him?

Home | Index