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Ways Of The Bohras
“As my name suggests, my family has been traditionally engaged in the arms and ammunition business,” says Arif Bandukwala, who lives in Mumbai and is the managing partner of a packaging and printing unit, The Paper Print and Products. The founding partner is London-based NRI, ‘curry king’ Lord Gulam Noon, a cousin, who established the company in 1969. It clocked a turnover of Rs 25 crore last year, making it one of the bigger firms in an industry dominated by small-scale units. The only member of Bandukwala’s family still engaged in the family’s old arms and ammunition trade is his sister in Mumbai.
As a Bohra Muslim, Bandukwala is part of a small and tightly-knit community tracing its roots to western India—mostly Gujarat—since the 12th century, but which now has a global footprint. Gujarati-speaking and largely engaged in trading and merchant-oriented activities, with a culture that is an amalgam of Yemeni, Egyptian and Indian influence, the Bohras join Gujarat’s two other prominent mercantile communities—the Memons and Khojas—in boasting enormous success over the ages. In turn, the Bohras are further split into Dawoodis, Sulaimanis, Alavis and others.
Being educated, often erudite, and successful in trade, the Bohras have traditionally done better compared with other Muslims in India. The aura of prosperity about the community is fuelled by the handful of well-known, successful Bohra businessmen, such as the scientist Yusuf Hamied, whose father started the generic drugs company Cipla in the 1930s, and Habil Khorakiwala, who founded Wockhardt and merged it with his father’s chemical and pharmaceuticals firm in the 1960s. Wipro chairman Azim Premji is another famous Bohra.
“Right from the beginning, Bohra Muslims were engaged in business as well as agriculture, but the latter section adopted Sunni Islam; so there was a split in the Bohras,” explains Asghar Ali Engineer, the reformist writer and activist from the community, who leads the Progressive Dawoodi Bohra movement. After the split, the community took on a distinctly mercantile and urban character. “You will find Bohras engaged in all kinds of business, except those proscribed by Islam. There are no peculiar characteristics other than that wine, tobacco and the betel nut business are considered taboo. More often, Bohras are engaged in cloth, iron, glass-works as well as grain-trading,” Engineer adds.
With their metier being in trading, very few Bohras have ventured into manufacturing. “The new trend is for Bohras to join the services sector, like banking, mobile services, or the legal profession. I did work for a while for other companies but very soon decided to join my father’s company,” says Fardeen Bunglowala, creative director at Best Sellers, an embroidery works unit started by his father Shabbir Bunglowala three decades ago. He is 26 and has two higher academic degrees, in commerce and fashion. “My role has been to modernise the business by introducing technology as also engaging with means of communication so as to boost exports,” Fardeen says.
In the Bohras’ own history lies further clues to their standing out from other Muslim communities. Being a small group of Shias, and surrounded, when among Muslims, by a much larger Sunni community, Bohras developed a strong sense of community consciousness. “Till recently, it was almost impossible to penetrate these societies. Many religious rites were secretive and totally closed to outsiders. To survive, they followed a route similar to that of Jews in Europe and America or Parsis in India. To preserve their distinct identity, marriage and social relations were confined to within the community. But business was encouraged, as a means of financial survival,” explains Juzar S. Bandukwala, a retired professor of physics living in Vadodara, who is now an activist for rights of Dalits, tribals, obcs and Muslims.
Over the years, Bohras have taken to higher education, giving the community a further leg up. “We Bohras do not discriminate between boys and girls, both get the freedom to study as much as they want,” says Arif Bandukwala. All his relatives are graduates—some business management grads—and are in the legal and other professions. The new generation of Bohra businessmen is atypical, branching out of traditional trading to new professions, as well as manufacturing.
Yet, all may not be well within the community. Both Engineer and Juzar Bandukwala point to how success among the Bohras has come at a price. Domination by their religious leadership (Syedna) has led other Muslims to look askance at Bohras. This was largely due to the position taken by the clergy in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots. The tendency of the religious leaders to hobnob with those in power ensures protection and breeds success, “yet it drives the educated away” from within the community, Juzar Bandukwala points out. “The Bohra priesthood’s closeness to Narendra Modi has been resented by most Bohras. It has also produced bitterness among other Muslims, which may hurt the Bohras in the long run,” he adds.
The Bohras and Khojas of Gujarat are like-minded Shia Ismailis, and are different from Memons, who are Sunnis. Engineer, however, is uncomfortable with some facets: “At times the language used by people of other religions to deride Muslims is used by Bohras against other Muslims. It’s ironic. Bohras are also a very closed group, and jealously guards identity. They are closed to inter-mixing and practise all rites separately from other Muslims—including separate mosques and burial grounds. In Gujarat, vested interests of the high priests have led them to lavish praise on Modi at the risk of alienating all others,” says he.
The story of the Bohras is that of a distinctive culture fuelling business success. But it comes at a high price for any modernising impulse—both Juzar Bandukwala and Engineer have been attacked several times by different groups for being partial to bringing reform and progressive ideas into the Bohra fold. “Still, except in religion and cultural habits, the Bohras are the same, in every way, as other mercantile communities of India,” says Engineer. What lies unstated is a general fear that the Bohras are moving further towards isolation.