Theatre of Absurd: Modi and the Dawoodi Bohra Pontiff
The invite by the High priest of Dawoodi Bohras, a Shia Muslim sub-sect, to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address their religious congregation on 14th September 2018 on the occasion of Muharram, and that the PM should accept the invite can only be described as theatre of absurd. Prime Minister Modi is leader of 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 kabrastan (cemetery).
Muharram is period of grief for Muslims to remember martyrdom of Imam Hussain. Imam Hussain preferred to uphold the principles of Islam and refused to give oath of allegiance to a tyrant Caliph of Umayyad Dynasty – Yazid. 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 was 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. As the then Chief Minister he provided justification to the anti-Muslim pogrom. He said it was reaction to burning 58 kar sevaks in S-8 compartment in Godhara on 27th February 2002. Imam Hussain defended the principles of Islam – humanity even at the cost of his life and had the courage to names the tyrant on his face. Whereas, the then Modi Government had allowed post mortem of the 58 charred bodies to be carried out in public view in the railway yard and then the bodies were handed over not to their relatives for last rites but 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 luxurious life. The luxuries that entire family enjoys would shame any medieval king and give the richest families in the world run for their money. The only source of income is ‘taxes’ levied by the Pontiff’s establishment known as “kothaar” 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 contribute couple of lakhs of rupees annually while some do escape paying a few thousand after a great deal of argument and persuasion.
Three consequences visit if the taxes levied by kothar are not paid – obstruction to entry inside mosques and various religious shrines maintained by kothar; obstruction or holding back or even refusal to solemnize a marriage within the family and finally refuse access to burial when there is death within the family. Besides, a Bohra has to seek permission or razaa of the kothar for many other activities – organization of religious ceremonies and life cycle rituals from birth to death. For all such ceremonies, the priest would ask for green card which is issued to all those who have paid up their wajebat. This writer was also asked for green card on death of his mother. When I told the priest that I hadn’t paid any taxes at all, I was refused access to burial grounds of 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 not to read and even certain employment that must not be undertaken – e.g. jobs in Bombay Mercantile cooperative Bank. Since Bohras are a tightly knit inward looking community with little or no socialization 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. His house and office were completely destroyed on 13th February 2000. This writer was also beaten up for attending a reformist Conference in Mumbai in the year 1981. The women in Udaipur were molested inside Galiakot Shrine in presence of the Pontiff and Pontiff’s goons beat up people inside a mosque in Udaipur.
Nathwani Commission appointed by Jayprakash Narayan to look into atrocities committed by kothar and violations of human rights of Bohras by kothar described the kothar as “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 Central Government towards 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 reform movement and sympathise with their cause find it difficult to resist offers. Reformists approached Morarji Desai, when he was PM with Nathwani Commission Report (appointed by Jayprakash Narayan). In spite of expressing sympathy, the Janata Party Govt. did nothing. Similarly Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi Govt. did nothing. The Reformists had high hopes from Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Govt. as they did not depend on Muslim votes. Moreover, Vajpayee’s Govt. could be relied on to take on their ideological and political opponents – Muslim fundamentalism and forces that promote separatist and exclusivist Muslim identity. However, Vajpayee also expressed his inability to take any steps when reformists met him. Bal Thackeray rarely stepped out of his home but he went to the Pontiff’s palatial residence in Malabar Hill, Mumbai to be felicitated and that too after communal riots in Mumbai in 1992-93. The Pontiff was appeasing the tiger to keep off his empire and so much for the tiger’s patriotism and ideology. The tempting contributions are from the hard earned money of the Bohras.
The Pontiff spends this huge amount from hard earned money of Bohras not protect their interest, but to protect the interests of the kohtar. Bohras having larger proportion of business than other communities was adversely affected by demonetization of GST. For a common Bohra, BJP would be her last electoral choice given its anti-minority rhetoric and communal violence, but also the discriminatory exclusion of minority in governance by the BJP and its economic policies that favour big business over the small and medium enterprises.
The Pontiff must have expended huge political capital to get the Prime minister to address the event his establishment organized. The Pontiff sends members of the community for all public events of Modi. He sent Bohras in Madison Square event of Narendra Modi.
When 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 and to members of the community he appears invincible and the only option left for them either submit to the Pontiff’s whims and edicts or pay a heavy price for disobeying – social boycott and civil death being practically cut off from all relatives and friends; at times even face violence as this writer and Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer and many others did. Most do not have nerves of steel as Dr. Engineer did have on account 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 always branded Muslim identity and culture as foreign to Indian culture, having separatist mindset and stigmatized the community as terrorists and inimical to Hindu culture. The moderates among them called for forceful integration of Muslims within Hindu fold and culture and to obliterate all vestiges of Muslim culture. The extremists among them called for their physical elimination from the Indian soil – either by physically eliminating them or forcing them to emigrate to other Muslim countries, particularly Pakistan.
Has Modi then changed while he was showering praises on the Bohra community and calling them honest traders, praising Imam Husssain’s teachings as the ones that upheld peace and justice. The PM praised the Pontiff for inculcating the values of peace, goodwill (sadbhav), satyagrah (sic) and patriotism (sic) within the community. He further tried to endear himself by saying that he felt part of the community and that family, and his doors were open for their family members as well. We do not think so that Modi has changed his views, he has only caliberated a bit to suit his purpose in election year – both the Madhya Pradesh state elections as well as general election which will be there in less than a year.
Those who are practical within the Hindu supremacist fold know that it is impossible to eliminate 172 million strong community according to the last census. They propose two alternatives – divide the community along sectarian lines and deal with them in parcels and force them to assimilate. Hindu supremacists have been trying to leverage Shia sect against Sunni Muslims as a part of their divisive politics. Shias e.g. are claiming that Babri Masjid land is a Shia Waqf property and they are ready to settle the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi dispute by allowing construction of Ram Temple on the land. Other important RSS leaders like Rajiv Malhotra are demanding that RSS should encourage Muslims to indigenise and RSS would have no problems with indigenized Muslims praying to Allah and observing other religious rituals. By indigenization Malhotra means ‘de-Arabization’ of Muslims and virtually propounds accepting Hindu Supremacy. Malhotra’s solution is not different from Golwalkar’s solution of relegating foreign religions to second class citizenship. Malhotra propounds that ‘nationalized’ Muslims should severe all relations with religio-cultural centres of Islam. Their sources of knowledge should be the pitrubhoomi (fatherland). Bohra community and the Pontiff fits the description and requirements of Hindutva and is therefore called patriotic.
Dawoodi Bohra community’s head quarters are now 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 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 (sic) and patriotism (sic) within community. Accident of birth in a community shapes and determines every individuals. The Constitution on the other hand knows only its citizens and privileges citizens with fundamental rights of equality, liberty and dignity, and guarantees protection of these rights. The only group Constitution recognizes are those that are educationally and socially backward, oppressed and discriminated for affirmative action and minority groups to protect their cultural rights.
The Urdu speaking or Tamil, Bengali, Malayalam, Assamese, and other Indian language speaking Muslim may be different than Gujarati speaking Muslims but are not any less patriotic, indigenized Muslim than Bohras and Shias. This artificial attempt to divide the communities along sectarian lines will have more serious complications. Urdu is not Muslim language, it is Indian language an 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 would the language poorer without them.
Bohra women, Pontiff and Modi
On the Triple Talaq issue, the Modi govt. 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 be wear purdah and in order to promote 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! The Pontiff has also personally defended FGM practiced in the community in a video without naming it.
How can a Prime Minister attend 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 upper caste and create an authoritarian cultural state that would defend the privileges of upper caste. Rest can be compromised.