It is not very often that one comes across a small community with a collective sweet tooth that would rival all of Bengal’s formidable sugar-lust. Indeed, it’s little known that Dawoodi Bohras often start and finish their meals with a large bowl of different flavours of ice creams, with multiple courses of rich spicy food in between. And that is just one of the many unique factoids about the one lakh-strong closely-knit, inward-looking community in Mumbai. It is impossible to not notice an individual Bohra or family at any public place—men dressed in western outfits with a traditional white and gold topi and women in the most brightly coloured ridas one can find. A sort of burqa, the ridas are lacy, and have motifs of everything, from roses to strawberries and apples. Thus attired, their presence at malls and hotels is conspicuous, also because they mostly seem to be en famille. In the bylanes of Bandra, old Bohri couples on their scooters, out on ‘marketing’, or on an evening walk, are an age-old sight that characterises the area.
A community that loves its colours, mutton (in every possible cuisine) and sweets (of all kinds), and has largely remained “non-controversial and pragmatic” for decades suddenly came under the spotlight when the 52nd Dai—the hereditary leader of the community—Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin passed away last week. Thousands made their way to Saifee Mahal, at Malabar Hill, where the Syedna lived and breathed his last. They wanted to get a last glimpse (deedar) of their beloved Bade Mullaji before he was buried at the Raudat Tahera mausoleum. As a massive crush built up on the narrow street, the gates of Saifee Mahal were shut. Chaos erupted. The stampede that followed killed 18 and injured over 40. The funeral procession was said to be only second in size to that of Bal Thackeray’s.
Amidst the mourning, factionalism and a brewing storm, the English speaking, educated, easy-going yet conservative Dawoodi Bohras seem to be at a crossroads. Yet the importance of the Syedna in their lives can’t be overstated. “For most of us, our Syedna is the deity that we have gone to since we were very little. Whatever he has done for the community is extremely good. Before him most people did not know who we were. Because of him we came to be known as a separate sect (among Muslims),” says a proud Zahra (name changed), a 26-year-old Bohri girl who works as a management executive in a private firm. “He promoted education among women. He taught us patriotism. He taught that whichever country you live in, you owe an allegiance to that nation. That’s why youngsters are attracted to him,” she says.
Community elders, some of them established businessmen, credit the 52nd Syedna and his father for uniting the community. Practices such as wearing the topi (even for children) and the beard also started under his nearly five-decade-long regime, thus creating an instant recognisability. The prosperity of the community and the Kothar grew after the World Wars, say experts. With rapid industrialisation in Mumbai, the community—originally from Gujarat; Bohra derives from the Gujarati ‘vyavahar’, or ‘trading’—settled down in pockets of Mumbai like Bhendi Bazaar, Mazgaon, Andheri, Kurla, becoming successful businessmen. Considered to be more ‘modern’ than other Muslims, their religious head was known to maintain relations with several politicians, including Bal Thackeray and Narendra Modi.
The proof of Syedna Burhanuddin’s love for the community is now immortalised in establishments such as the Saifee Hospital, the ongoing Bhendi Bazaar cluster redevelopment project (under the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust) and the lavish Raudat Tahera mausoleum, said to be adorned with inscriptions of the Quran in gold. However, the recently-deceased Syedna’s influence exceeds these achievements. Every Bohra you meet talks about a gilded presence that captivated a community that educates its daughters, gets them married early, yet, albeit grudgingly, allows them to work. “Syedna was an extraordinary influence in my life. I cannot explain in words. It was always so special to meet him. Spiritually, he was such a guiding force that every individual Bohri felt connected to him,” says Ghoolam Vahanvati, the attorney-general of India.
It is contradictions such as these that are explored and opposed by the reformist Bohras, of whom there are only about 100 in Mumbai. “Modernity does not mean speaking English. It means being liberal, it means an ability to think and question. Bringing them under this close-knit group only makes it easier to control them,” says Irfan Engineer, a reformist Bohra scholar and son of Asghar Ali Engineer, who in his lifetime had been attacked several times for questioning the Kothar. “We are believers too and follow all tenets of Islam, which is an extremely liberating religion, but we question the accounts and cash transactions of the Kothar. We challenge the authority of the Syedna as the supreme leader, or ‘aqa maula’. It is not about religion; it is all about power and money, don’t you get it?”
The community is silent on whether it understands. While many privately admitted that they have frequently had to pay more money for some occasion or the other, no one has challenged it. “The fear of ostracisation is very serious. For a group that socialises only within itself, a boycott ordered from the Masjid has serious implications. One gets very lonely. They cannot take that chance. Also, it is easier to just pay the money required on various occasions and lead a relatively trouble-free life,” says Engineer. Several others echo him, complaining about the Kothar’s policies, and yet have considered Syedna to be the answer for all their problems.
“I have so many questions. Why give education and then encourage girls to sit at home? I love my religion, my community that is so very well-behaved, and has money. But then why am I not getting married at 26? Why is my partying a reason to be termed ‘modern’ among neighbours?” asks Zahra, a “confused Bohri”, as she calls herself. “But all said and done we don’t bother with questions so much. Kidu che toh karvanu che (if it is said then it has to be done). Simple.” A sense of resignation that many in this small community can identify with.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
The spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community is the Da?i l-Mu?laq (Arabic: ???? ?????? "Unrestricted Missionary") so if someone "challenges the authority of the Syedna as the supreme leader" then why is there voice considered every time a news article publishes about Dawoodi Bohra's?
3. The Soopernatural
Majority of Dawoodi Bohra's understand that Khuzema Bhaisaheb is on the right path but they are afraid to speak because of the fear psychosis.The Kothari Machinery is very ruthless and would leave no stone unturned in destroying the person who has the courage to speak.The Kothar's army consists of the so called honorary members who would execute the dirty deeds.they are called the taulebah members(note the similarity with the word taliban)The support that Muffadal Saheb seems to be enjoying of the Bohra community is because of this fear psychosis perpetuated,Bohras understand everything but are scarred of the consequences if they openly support Khuzem Saheb.The dreaded Midnight knock is not uncommon in our community and I had an unwelcomed guest yesterday night wanting my signature attesting my unconditional support to Muffadal Saheb.I had no choice but to sign the papers.This is the unfortunate truth.
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