The decades-long argument over excommunication

  • Manoj R Nair, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 18, 2016 00:02 IST

Maharashtra recently passed what has been called the country’s first law against social boycott, a punishment that is often used by Jaat Panchayats, or caste associations, and members of clergy to rein in individuals and families who dare to question their authority. The Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill, 2016 makes social boycott, or excommunication, a crime and makes the practice punishable with a jail sentence and a fine.

The Bombay province, which gave way to Maharashtra and Gujarat, had a similar law. In November 1949 the province’s legislature passed the Bombay Prevention of Excommunication Act. The only group that challenged the law was the Dawoodi Bohras. The community’s then spiritual head, the 51st Syedna, filed a petition against the law, saying that it violated his fundamental rights under the Constitution. He said that the power of excommunication was one of the tools with which he managed the affairs of his sect. The judges, though not unanimously, agreed that powers of excommunication was vested in him to keep the denomination together, and allowed the petition.

The Dawoodi Bohras have a long history of legal fights over the issue of excommunication. In 1977, a commission headed by justice Narendra Nathwani was set up to find out whether allegations of social boycott by some families were true. The commission, which submitted its report after two years, said that the complaints were not unfounded. The commission’s findings were ignored by successive governments, but a group of reformists, led by the late Islamic scholar and Bohra reformist Asghar Ali Engineer, went to court with the judge’s findings.

The case has still not been disposed of and the three-decade-old petition came up for hearing in January. Though Engineer has passed away, the Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community (CBDBC), a group formed by families who declared themselves independent of the clergy, have said that they will continue to fight the case as families continue to complain of excommunication.

In Mumbai, the last case of social boycott, reported in newspapers, was in 2008, when a Dawoodi Bohra family complained that they were excommunicated for daring to file a complaint against a mosque trust which owned the premises from where they ran a shop. The four brothers and their families, which stayed together, said that the trustees of the property, who were also the local religious leaders, asked other Dawoodi Bohras in the area to boycott them. The family said they had stopped getting invitations to weddings and other functions in the community. The children were debarred from the religious school run by the trust and the elders were stopped from entering the local mosque.

To end the torment, the family was asked to withdraw the property case. The social boycott ended but the family is now facing litigation from the trust. “We withdrew the case thinking that the boycott would end, but we are now struggling to fight the case,” said one of the brothers.

The CBDBC continues to receive complaints about social boycott from other towns. In January, when news went around that the excommunication case was going to be heard by the Supreme Court, a Gujarat resident wrote to the trust that, after he refused to pay illegal religious taxes to the local clergy, he was told that dead bodies of his relatives will not be allowed to be buried in the community graveyard. They were stopped from entering the mosque and using the communal guest houses.

Saifuddin Insaf, member of the CBDBC, said that when his mother died, he had to fight members of the clergy who refused – because he had joined the reform movement - to allow her body to be buried in the community graveyard. “Asghar Ali (Engineer) also had to fight to get his mother’s body buried in a Dawoodi Bohra burial ground. We could fight, but others do not have this option,” said Insaf.

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