Bohra e-jamaat cards raise privacy concerns, just like India’s UID

9 Oct 2015 Hindustan Times (Mumbai)MANOJ R NAIR


India’s Aadhaar card project continues to face logistical and legal hurdles, especially over concerns that it could breach privacy rights.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court declined to change its own order in August that restricted the card’s use to only track food and cooking gas subsidies. The apex court said a constitutional bench needs to look at the issue whether the biometric card can be linked to other services.

While the country debates the benefits and risks posed by its Unique Identification number (UID) card project, a small but closely-knit sect largely based in western India, too, is arguing over the possibility that the identity cards issued by their religious establishment could be prying into their private lives.

Every member of the Dawoodi Bohra community has to carry what are known as ‘e-jamaat cards’. The cards were issued nearly a decade ago, but recently the documents were upgraded as ‘ smart cards’ with the incorporation of radio- frequency technology.

The cards are used to record a person’s attendance at community events and to ensure that the holder completes all religious sacraments, including the controversial oath of allegiance to their spiritual leader and religious taxes.

The card is also used to gain access to community mosques, mausoleums and graveyards.

The card will also be used to record the declaration by members to attend the compulsory sermons during the coming period of Muharram.

“The card is expensive [it reportedly costs Rs5,000 to get one], but every Bohra is supposed to have the card if he or she want to access community properties or attend functions,” said a member of the community.

Last week, a group of community members released findings from an annual “Worldwide Survey for Dawoodi Bohras” that tracks opinion about community issues after the death of their last hereditary head, or Syedna, in January 2014.

Mufaddal Saifuddin, the current leader, is his son, but his uncle, Qutbuddin, half- brother of the l ast Syedna, has disputed the succession. The dispute is being heard by the Bombay high court.

While the survey said that there was widespread resentment against the order to attend the sermons, the Syedna’s office has dismissed the survey and said that the views of a few hundred people cannot represent the views in a million-strong community.

The organisers of the survey, on the other hand, have said that the sample survey was designed to have a low margin of error.

The survey has also raised concerns about the e-jamaat cards. This is what the survey had to say about the document: To study the impact of such practices of intense scrutiny, data mining and intrusion by Syedna’s office, an independent and neutral platform is needed with no ties to its administration.

When this writer contacted the Syedna’s office for a comment, officials there declined to comment, saying they were busy with the preparations for the Muharram discourses.

But the community is rife with rumours that the cards can track every aspect of their lives.

A member of the community who spoke to this writer said there was concern that the card was used to track the whereabouts of members.

“Earlier, it was just an identity card; now it has GPS features,” said the Dawoodi Bohra who was once an ardent supporter of the community religious leadership.


Article In Hindustan Times

Oct 3rd 2015 ‘Dawoodi Bohras against order to compulsorily attend Muharram sermons’

by Manoj R Nair

MUMBAI: There is resentment among Dawoodi Bohras against the order by their spiritual leader to compulsorily attend Muharram sermons later this month, said a survey.

A survey comprising 757 respondents was conducted between August 18 and September 24. The surveyors said they were a neutral group not aligned to the offices of the current head or his opponents, nor with the reformist section.

The ‘Worldwide Survey for Dawoodi Bohras 2015’ is the second annual online study to gauge opinion about community issues after the death of their last head, or Syedna, in January 2014. Mufaddal Saifuddin, the current leader, is his son, but his uncle, Qutbuddin, half-brother of the last Syedna, has disputed the succession.

The Syedna’s office dismissed the survey and said the findings did not represent the community’s views. “Muharram rituals are a vital part of our faith; there is no question of compulsion,” said the spokesperson. Muharram will start on October 12 and the 10th day marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, during the fight for succession after his death. The events led to the schism that created the two main sects of Islam. As Shias, the Dawoodi Bohras mourn the incident.

Recently, the Syedna asked his followers to compulsorily attend the sermons in their mosques on all nine days; community members were asked to declare their intention in writing or orally, which would be recorded in the e-jamaat cards they carry.

The survey indicates many community members do not want attendance at the sermons to be compulsory. Only a third of the respondents (224) said they put their intent in writing, and a little less than half of these (94) said they did so because they wanted to.

A little more than a fifth (49) said it was out of compulsion.

A fifth (44) said they did it because they feared their identity cards might be blocked.

The Syedna’s spokesperson said the views of a few hundred people did not represent views of the one-million-strong community. “Who gave them (surveyors) the authority to conduct the study? We do not know whether the people who responded to the survey are Dawoodi Bohras,” the spokesperson said. “Anybody is free to do a survey.”

However, some community members said there was resentment against the order. A resident of Fort said there was resentment against compulsory attendance even during the last Muharram. “How can they force everybody to attend? Last year, people had to leave their work, college and school to go for the sermons. I know a person who was warned at work after he remained absent from office,” said a member of the Bohra community, requesting anonymity.

Cover Page Story in the Mumbai Mirror

Disquiet among Bohras

Mumbai Mirror | Sep 12, 2014, 01.03 AM IST

By Jyoti Punwani

Survey by anonymous group reveals…

66% of Dawoodi Bohras feel confused, spiritually paralysed or betrayed by the split in the community’s spiritual leadership after the death of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin in January

23% of them are staying on in the community out of faith; for the rest, family, cultural identity or fear are compelling them to do so

38% have given their oath of allegiance to the new spiritual head freely; the rest did so reluctantly

64% are against the uttering of laanat or curses, and declaring a social boycott on members of the community. This practice has been adopted by supporters of the current head Muffadal Saifuddin, to denounce those who do not support him

The first-ever survey of its kind among the Dawoodi Bohras, conducted online by an anonymous group between February and August this year, has revealed a divided community.

The survey’s findings blow the myth of a cohesive, united community unquestioningly devoted to its spiritual head.

This is the first time the closed and tightly controlled community has given vent to its feelings on the conduct of those who control it. In that respect, the survey fulfilled its purpose: “to give voice to the voiceless,” in the words of Farida, the spokesperson of the group that conducted it.

Of the sample size of 659, 36% of the respondents were from the Indian subcontinent, 88 % of them were graduates or postgraduates, and 73 % were men. Significantly, many of the respondents hold high positions of authority in the community.

Conceding that the survey, like all online surveys, was restricted to the educated and computer literate, Farida felt that 659 out of a community of 1.2 million was a fairly representative sample. Sixty-nine respondents were disqualified, while 195 did not complete the survey. The modified sample ranged from 319-399.

Why did they feel the need for the survey? “There seemed to be a lot of turmoil and unease after the split in the leadership. People were talking, but only to friends and family. We wanted to capture that, but there was no forum where people could make their voices heard effectively, in an organised manner. There’s no openness in the community, we just do what we are told. The internet gave us that forum, at the same time as it gave anonymity. People could speak their minds without worrying about how they would be treated, or I should say mistreated, for doing so.”

Farida was surprised by the responses, specially the extent to which the community’s faith had been shaken; the majority’s reluctance towards giving the oath of allegiance; and the fear that pervaded the community.

That’s where she feels the survey will be most effective. “Most are suffering in their private corners, fearful of what’s going to happen to them. The survey will help them realise there are enough others they can identify with.”

And then what? Farida isn’t sure. “My hope, no, my dream is that those who control the community would be open and sensitive to these findings as a neutral feedback and engage in a healthy intellectual dialogue about them. They should be able to hear even what they don’t want to.  These findings represent the pulse of the people and I would hope the leadership would want to know that.”

The trickiest question was which of the two rival claimants did the respondents accept. This was an optional question, and 266 respondents answered it. Of them, only 32 % accepted Muffadal Saifuddin, the Syedna’s son, who has been anointed as the Syedna’s successor by the Bohra religious establishment, while 46 % supported his rival, the Syedna’s brother, Khuzaima Qutbuddin.

While the findings are shocking enough in terms of percentages, the comments of the respondents are even more revealing. For instance, on the impact of the leadership tussle on their faith, some simply said they had lost faith, while others described the situation variously as “now this is a thug business” and “in short, there is no spirituality left in the Dai system.” The Dai is the head of the community, said to be the representative of the Imam. He appoints his successor. Both the Syedna’s brother and his son have laid claim to having been appointed by him.

Why didn’t the Syedna appoint his successor unambiguously, is the tormented question asked more than once, with two respondents even confessing that their faith in the Dai’s infallibility has been shaken.

But it’s the practice of uttering curses on others that has created the most self-hatred among the respondents and some of their anguished responses were — “This is a new low for the community from which it will never recover; “The community is now shameful and inhumane,” and “Right now I am extremely ashamed to be called mumeen”.

Many felt that the uttering of laanats was a reflection on those who uttered them. Only 3.5 % had no problem with the practice.

Interestingly, many of the respondents wanted a broader survey on the control exercised by the religious establishment on the community, both in religious and non-religious, specially financial, matters. While the findings show little support for the way the community is run, that is no cause for comfort to those who openly question the Establishment. Barely 9 % say they have been associated with the reformists led by the late Asghar Ali Engineer.




The Hindustan Times Article • 12 Sep 2014

BY Manoj Nair

Ordinary voices: Findings from a Bohra online poll

A majority of the respondents said they were ‘spiritually pained’ when the dispute over succession broke out in the open. They talked about ‘spiritual paralysis and betrayal’. The survey asked the Mumineen, the term the community uses when they talk about themselves, about their social environment after the death of their leader and the dispute. The 20 questions covered some of the most important sources of debate in the community. One issue is that of Misaaq, the oath of allegiance to the Syedna. Every Bohra undergoes this sacrament. Of the respondents who had not, nearly a quarter said they would do so reluctantly or because they felt they had no other choice, even though some objected to it on moral grounds.

Another issue that was discussed was excommunication of members. Only 3% of the survey respondents said they had no problems ostracising or socially boycotting fellow Bohras.

A fifth of the respondents said they were ‘absolutely sure’ that Mufaddal Saifuddin, the son of the last leader, is the rightful successor. A little less than a fifth said his uncle Khuzaima Qutbuddin should be the successor. One of every four respondents said it did not matter who the rightful successor is.

Among the respondents were a small group of former Bohras who left the community for various reasons, including excommunication. Of those who identified themselves as Bohras, a significant 12% said they stayed in the community out of ‘fear’.

One of the limitations of the study, the survey evaluators said, was their inability to reach out to those who do not use computers. Other community issues, like the allegations of female genital mutilation, were kept out of the survey because it was felt that this was not an appropriate subject to raise at this stage. The survey was conducted through a portal that offers respondents the greatest anonymity possible. “Even if people came to me to ask about the identity of the respondents I would not be able to reveal anything because the portal has no IP,” says Farida.

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