PUCL Bulletin, August 1982
By Kalpana Sharma
The demonstrations held outside the head office and several branches of the Bombay Mercantile Cooperative Bank by orthodox Bohras in mid-May symbolised one of the central aspects of the on-going struggle within the Dawoodi Bohra community. Ostensibly the demonstrators only wanted the bank to stop giving interest because they claimed this was against Islam. The Mercantile Bank, the demonstrators insisted, was a Muslim bank and therefore should adhere to Islamic tenets.
The covert motivations of the orthodox Bohras demonstrating outside the bank, or those who were instrumental in organising the demonstrations, tell another story.
There has been a struggle for reform within the Dawoodi Bohra community for many years. This small Muslim sect, numbering around one million and spread over 35 countries, dates back to the 10th century AD when the Ismailias organised a secret religio-political movement in Iraq because of the prevailing circumstances of the Abbasid empire. The nature of the sect required that every member take a secret oath of allegiance - called a Misag - to the head of the community. This oath covered not just religious matters but encroached upon many other aspects of life.
Breaking the covenant was not just frowned upon but involved serious repercussions for the transgresser. For instance, it could mean that "Whatever he owns from property, assets, real estate, wealth, jewels, agriculture, milch cattle . Will be seized and distributed among the poor, needy and indigent Muslims and nothing out of it will return to him whatever ruses he adopts." Furthermore, "all his wives and whom he will marry in future will be treated as divorced."
Essentially the same structure and a similar oath have continued to be an intrinsic feature of the Dawoodi Bohras who are directly descended from the Ismailia sect. The Dai-ul-Mutlaq, or the head of the community, appoints a successor. At the age of 15 every Bohra has to take the Misaq. This oath of allegiance to a living human being and the concept of a priestly class marks the Bohras as apart from the rest of Islam.
The Bohra chief, or the Syedna, has extraordinary powers of control over the community. For instance, he collects taxes which exceed Rs.11 crores each year from his half million followers in India. How these funds are used is left tohimto decide. Bohras questioning either the Syedna's lifestyle or the necessity for such a far-reaching oath in these times, have been subject to social boycott officially sanctioned by the Syedna and threats and harassment of an extreme nature. The combination of this control over the minds of his followers, as well as of their pocketbooks, makes the Syedna practically invincible. Being the head of a minority community means that he can safely assume that no ruling political party will touch the issue of reform within the Bohra community for fear of exciting communal passions.
With this knowledge the Syedna lives in a palatial mansion in Malabar Hill and chooses to spend Rs.4 crores to build a mausoleum in the memory of the last Syedna, while students of a Bohra college, the Burhani College in Bombay reveal through a survey that more than 50 per cent of the Bohras in Bombay live below the poverty line and are housed in slums.
The attack on the Mercantile Bank also revolves around economic control. This bank is the largest urban cooperative bank in the country. It started out in 1939 as the Muslim cooperative credit society founded by a group of reformist Bohras. In 1941 it became a full-fledged bank and after 1947 shed its Muslim bias. At present it claims to be a secular bank.
In any event all banks, irrespective of the community they serve, have to follow rules set out by the Reserve Bank of India and cannot arbitrarily decide they will stop giving interest. Besides there are a number of other Muslim banks that also follow the Reserve Bank directives but the orthodox Bohras have not taken any objection to their activities. Therefore, why the Bombay Mercantile Bank?
Mr. Hoseini Doctor, Chairman of the Bank, opined in an interview to "The Economic Times", in July that behind the demonstrations are a few members of the priestly family who either want to gain control of the bank through coercion or want to project the image of being the leaders of Islam in India, thus enhancing their image in the Islamic world.
Mr. Doctor's apprehensions are based on the attempts of the orthodox Bohras to get shareholders to transfer their shares. The demonstrations in May were not merely extolling the tenets of Islam and pointing out how the bank had violated them. The orthodox Bohras expressly attempted to get employees of the bank to resign or face social boycott, asked Bohras to close their accounts and also distributed blank transfer forces to shareholders; the threat of social boycott was held out against those refusing to transfer their shares. Between May 14 and 25, 584 accounts were closed and an amount of Rs.19 lakhs was withdrawn from the bank.
The Bombay Mercantile Bank has sued four of the Bohras who demonstrated outside the bank and the case is before the Bombay High Court. Meantime the court has prohibited the Bohras from demonstrating outside the bank's premises.
There are many ironies in this situation. Three members of the Syedna's family manage businesses which have taken loans on interest from different banks. The father-in-law of one of the Syedna's sons holds a high post in a foreign bank in Bombay. The account for a scholarship established by the previous Syedna in with the Mercantile bank and the present Syedna gave a Silver Plate to the bank in 1972 in appreciation of its services.
These are just some of the facts that give a lie to the orthodox Bohra stand that they object to the bank giving interest and have no other ulterior motives. The May demonstrations have also drawn attention once more to the issue of the authoritarian internal structure of the Bohra community and whether reformist Bohras, as citizens of a democratic country, can legitimately demand that the Government insist on internal changes in the community's set up.
One attempt was made in 1978 by the Janata government when it set up a commission headed by Justice N. P. Nathwani to look into the complaints of Bohra reformists that their civil liberties were being infringed upon. The Nathwani Commission had concluded that there was "large-scale infringement of civil liberties and human rights of reformist Bohras at the hands of the priestly class and those who failed to obey the orders of the Syedna and his Amils (priests), even in purely secular matters are subjected to Baraat (social boycott) resulting in complete social boycott, mental torture and frequent physical assaults." Amongst other things, the Commission recommended that Baraat should be made illegal.
Nothing was done, however, about the Nathwani Commission's recommendations and to this day reformist Bohras cannot be married by their priests, cannot have their family members buried in the community's burial grounds and suffer direct and indirect attacks just for questioning the validity of a structure which to them seems an anachronism.
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