Theatre of Absurd: Modi and the Dawoodi Bohra Pontiff

The invitation by the High Priest of Dawoodi Bohras, a Shia Muslim sub-sect, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address their religious congregation on 14 September 2018 on the occasion of Muharram, and the PM accepting the invite, can only be described as the theatre of absurd. Prime Minister Modi is the leader of a right wing Hindu supremacist party which thrives on the ideology that Muslims are foreigners in “their land” and whose right place is either Pakistan or kabristan (cemetery).

Muharram is period of grief for Muslims to remember the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. Imam Hussain preferred to uphold the principles of Islam and refused to give oath of allegiance to a tyrant, the Caliph of Umayyad Dynasty, Yazid I. Yazid commanded a powerful and well equipped army of over a thousand whereas Imam Hussein’s 72 followers included women and children, youngest of them being the six month old Ali Asghar. To refuse oath of allegiance was tantamount to embracing death. For the Dawoodi Bohra Pontiff to invite the Prime Minister who headed the Gujarat Government in the year 2002 when Muslims including members of the Dawoodi Bohra community were massacred is against the spirit of Muharram and martyrdom of Imam Hussain. Imam Hussain defended the principles of Islam—humanity even at the cost of his life and speaking the truth even in the face of a tyrant. On the other hand, when Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he justified the anti-Muslim pogrom, saying that it was a reaction to the burning of a train in Godhra on 27 February 2002 which caused the deaths of 58 kar sevaks. The Modi-led state government allowed post-mortem of the 58 charred bodies to be carried out in public view in the railway yard. Then, instead of handing over the bodies to their relatives for last rites, they were handed over to belligerent members of Hindu supremacist organisations seeking revenge for the deaths. The bodies were then taken in procession from Godhra to Ahmedabad. Humanity was buried during those days of riots, and Modi was certainly on the wrong side of the history.


Why did the Bohra Pontiff invite PM Modi?


The Bohra Pontiff’s financial empire runs into hundreds of billions of dollars. His extended large family lives a luxurious life. The luxuries that the entire family enjoys would shame any medieval king and give the richest families in the world a run for their money. The only source of income is ‘taxes’ levied by the kothar, that is, the Pontiff’s establishment, and zealously collected through coercive means. The ‘taxes’ include zakat, sila, fitra, nazar muqam, haqqun nafs, shabil, etc. collectively called as wajebat. Middle class individual families can be coerced to contributing a couple of lakhs of rupees annually (though some do escape paying a few thousand after a great deal of argument and persuasion).

Three consequences visit if the ‘taxes’ levied by the kothar are not paid—obstruction to entry inside mosques and various religious shrines maintained by kothar; obstruction or holding back or even refusal to solemnise a marriage within the family and finally, refusing access to burial when there is death within the family. Besides, a Bohra has to seek razaa (permission) of the kothar for many other activities—organisation of religious ceremonies and life cycle rituals from birth to death. For all such ceremonies, the priest would ask for the green card which is issued to all those who have paid up their wajebat. This writer was also asked for the green card on the death of his mother. When I told the priest that I hadn’t paid any taxes at all, I was refused access to the burial grounds of the Bohra community. Those who question any practice of the kothar or ask for accounts or those who do not act according to the religious edicts issued by the kothar are socially boycotted. The edicts can include whom to vote for and which newspapers and magazines should not be read and even not taking up certain jobs—for example, jobs in the Bombay Mercantile Cooperative Bank. Since Bohras are a tightly knit inward looking community with little or no socialisation with non-Bohras, social boycott practically means civil death. In certain cases, the goons of kothar have even resorted to violence and rioting. There were 6 attempts on life of Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, because he fought against the absolute hold of the Bohra Pontiff over the community. His house and office were completely destroyed on 13 February 2000. This writer was also beaten up for attending a reformist Bohra conference in Mumbai in the year 1981. Women in Udaipur associated with the Bohra reform movement there were molested inside the Galiakot Shrine in presence of the Pontiff and Pontiff’s goons beat up people inside a mosque in Udaipur.

The Nathwani Commission appointed by Jayaprakash Narayan’s Citizens for Democracy to look into atrocities committed by the kothar and violations of the human rights of Bohras by them described the kothar as a “state within a state”. All these violations have been challenged by the reform movement within the Bohra Community. They have drawn attention of the Governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan as well as the Central Government towards the violations of various laws by the kothar.

This massive empire can function like a state within a state only in violation of human rights and various laws of the country. In order to sustain this empire, the Pontiff and his establishment require protection and patronage of the state. To obtain the patronage of the state, the Pontiff’s establishment contributes generously to the ruling party and even promises votes. The contributions are so generous that even those who are ideologically inclined towards the reform movement and sympathise with their cause find it difficult to resist offers. Reformists approached Morarji Desai, when he was the prime minister, with the Nathwani Commission Report, seeking action. In spite of expressing sympathy, the Janata Party Government did nothing. Similarly, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi governments also did nothing. When the Hindutvawadi NDA Government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to power in 1998, the reformists approached Vajpayee, but he too expressed his inability to do anything. Bal Thackeray rarely stepped out of his home, but he went to the Pontiff’s palatial residence in Malabar Hill in Mumbai to be felicitated and that too after the communal riots in Mumbai in 1992–93. The Pontiff was appeasing the tiger to keep him off his empire; so much for the tiger’s ideology.

The Pontiff spends these huge amounts from the hard earned money of Bohras not protect their interests, but to protect the interests of the kothar. Bohras are basically a business community, and they were badly affected by demonetisation and GST. For a common Bohra, BJP would be her last electoral choice given its anti-minority rhetoric and communal violence, its discriminatory exclusion of the minorities in governance and its economic policies that favour big business over small and medium enterprises.

The Pontiff must have expended huge political capital to get the prime minister to address the event organised by his establishment. The Pontiff sends members of the community for all public events of Modi. He even sent Bohras to the Madison Square event of Narendra Modi.

When a prime minister of the country associates with the Pontiff, message goes down to the bureaucracy not to investigate any violation. The Pontiff reaffirms his authority over the community, he appears invincible to members of the community. They have no other option other than submitting to the Pontiff’s whims and edicts, because the price to be paid for disobeying is very heavy—social boycott by all relatives and friends. Most people do not have nerves of steel as Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer—he stood up to the Pontiff because of his social commitment, and belief in truth and Allah. The practical businessman prefers to ‘buy peace’. Some other successful Bohra business families buy status and social recognition by contributing huge amounts as wajebat.


Why Modi praised the Bohra community?


Hindutva has always branded Muslim identity and culture as foreign to Indian culture and having a separatist mindset, and stigmatised the community as terrorists. The moderates among them called for forceful integration of Muslims into Hindu culture and obliteration of all vestiges of Muslim culture. The extremists among them called for their physical elimination from Indian soil—either by physically eliminating them, or forcing them to emigrate to other Muslim countries, particularly Pakistan.

Has Modi changed? He showered showering praises on the Bohra community and called them honest traders, and praised Imam Husssain’s teachings as ones that upheld peace and justice. The PM praised the Pontiff for inculcating the values of peace, sadbhav (goodwill), satyagrah and patriotism within the community. He tried to endear himself to the Bohras assembled at the congregation by saying that he felt “part of the Dawoodi Bohra family” and that his doors were open for their family members as well. We do not think that Modi has changed his views, he has only caliberated them a bit to suit his purpose in an election year—both the Madhya Pradesh state elections as well as the general elections are scheduled to take place in less than a year.

Those within the Hindu supremacist fold who are practical know that it is impossible to eliminate a 172 million strong community (the Muslim population in India as per the 2011 census). They propose two alternatives. One is to divide the community along sectarian lines, and deal with the different factions separately. Hindu supremacists have been trying to leverage the Shia sect against Sunni Muslims as a part of their divisive politics. Falling prey to this divisive agenda, the Shias have been claiming that Babri Masjid land is a Shia Waqf property and that they are ready to settle the Babri Masjid–Ramjanmabhoomi dispute by allowing construction of a Ram temple on the land. The other alternative being proposed by other important RSS leaders like Rajiv Malhotra (the US based Hindutva idealogue) is that the RSS should encourage Muslims to indigenise, and that the RSS would have no problems with indigenised Muslims praying to Allah and observing other religious rituals. By indigenisation Malhotra means ‘de-Arabisation’ of Muslims and their virtually accepting Hindu supremacy. Malhotra’s solution is only an extension of Golwalkar’s solution of relegating adherents of ‘foreign religions’ to second class citizenship; he propounds that ‘nationalised’ Muslims should severe all relations with the religio-cultural centres of Islam, that their sources of knowledge should be from within the pitrubhoomi (fatherland). Bohra community and the Pontiff fits this description, and is therefore called patriotic.

Dawoodi Bohra community’s headquarters have been in Mumbai for centuries, and overwhelming majority of them are Gujarati speaking. The Pontiff’s sermons are also in Gujarati, albeit with some sprinkling of Arabic words. The “family” Modi is referring to in his address refers to their Gujaratiness. Locating patriotism in a small Gujarati speaking Shia Muslim community rather than in all citizens of the country is inherently problematic. It implies that non-Bohra and non-Gujarati Muslim communities are problematic, foreign, Arabised and therefore less patriotic. Modi sailed through three elections in Gujarat by invoking Gujarati asmita (dignity or pride).

The frame of reference still privileges communities over individuals and locates values like honesty, goodwill towards fellow human beings, satyagrah and patriotism within communities. Accident of birth in a community shapes and determines every individuals. The Indian Constitution, on the other hand, recognises only its citizens and privileges citizens with fundamental rights of equality, liberty and dignity, and guarantees protection of these rights. The only groups the Constitution recognises are those that are educationally and socially backward and who have been oppressed and discriminated against, for affirmative action, and minority groups, to protect their cultural rights.

The Urdu speaking, or Tamil, Bengali, Malayalam, Assamese or any other Indian language speaking Muslims may be different from Gujarati speaking Muslims, but are not any less patriotic, less indigenised Muslims than Bohras and Shias. This artificial attempt to divide the Muslim community along sectarian lines will have other serious complications. Urdu is not a Muslim language, it is an Indian language and draws from local culture. No Muslim in India is Arabised. On the other hand, all kinds of foreign cultures, including Western, Arabic and Persian, have influenced not only Muslims, but also Hindus and all other communities. Ghazals are written in many Indian languages, including Gujarati. Many English, Arabic and Persian words have been part of Indian language vocabularies and these languages would be poorer without them.


Bohra women, Pontiff and Modi


On the Triple Talaq issue, the Modi government claimed to be championing the cause of Muslim women. Modi castigated the Congress for appeasing only Muslim men. The Bohra Pontiff discourages education of Bohra women, compels women to wear purdah and in order to promote a separate identity, has banned black coloured veils. He discourages Bohra women to undertake employment or earn their livelihood. In one video, he is heard advising the men to throw out their women if they do not listen to them! In another video, the Pontiff has also personally defended female genital mutilation practiced in the community without naming it.

How can a prime minister attend the religious function of such a leader when his own slogan is beti bachao beti padhao? Is the PM’s claim of championing the cause of Muslim women mere rhetoric? It is evident that Hindutva does not respect any principles except one—supremacy of the Hindu upper castes and creation of an authoritarian cultural state that would defend the privileges of the Hindu upper castes. Rest can be compromised.

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