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.
“Modernity means the ability to question.... We challenge Syedna’s authority.... It’s not religion, it’s all about power and money.”
Irfan Engineer, Reformist Bohra scholar
However, not many victims or families of the deceased spoke to the media. Amidst internally circulated text messages, the blame shifted from mosque officials to the police, then to the public, and back to the officials. As if the stampede was not bad enough, the controversy over the nomination of the 53rd Dai has further dragged the community under ‘unnecessary’ glare. The Kothar (the Bohras’ central clerical and religious administration in Mumbai) has accepted Syedna Burhanuddin’s second son, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, as the new Dai. However, his half-brother Syedna Qutbuddin has claimed that he was nominated by Syedna Burhanuddin himself many years ago in private. The PR machinery on both sides is on a strident overdrive.
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.
“Syedna was an extraordinary influence on me. Spiritually, he was such a guiding force, every Bohra felt connected to him.”
Ghoolam Vahanvati, Attorney-general of India
So complete was Syedna’s hold that a simple instruction from him was taken as gospel. So much so that a community that so loves spicy food cooked in pure ghee—and so often suffers the consequences—took it seriously when Syedna decreed that one needs to eat ‘sada khana’ like dal-chawal. The same is true about his opinion that girls should be married young. Or his almost-mandatory scheme of providing a dabba of food to each Bohri household from the local masjid. “We have to pay for it. It’s not enough for the entire family but it is blessed food (barqat ka khana). The poor must be benefiting from it,” says a Bohri, oblivious of the contradiction he makes.
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.