History of Dhoraji Memons

In the “Origin of Memons”, we have seen how the Memons, who embraced Islam in Sindh, migrated to Kutch and from there to other places like Bombay, Kathiawar and to countries outside India. From Vinjhan in Kathiawar, the Memons further spread out to other parts in the region. One such Memon, Abdur Rehman son of Sumar Naviwala with his retinue, in search for greener pastures, made a halt at Dhoraji. His destination was not defined but this village was only to be a sojourn in his scheme of things. Dhoraji was under the rule of Darbar Haloji of Gondal who, at that particular time, was busy in supervising the construction of a fort around Dhoraji. Haleji was most concerned about the economic advancement of this area. When he was informed of the entourage of these rich Memons. He realized that they would be greatly helpful in the social and economic development of Dhoraji. Accordingly, he invited them to make Dhoraji their permanent abode. He offered them houses and all possible facilities and help in their settlement. Abdur Rehman, in turn, asked for specific written guarantees from the Darbar on the matter of civic rights, freedom of religion and its practice, housing facilities and the right to trade. Haleji Darbar acceded to these demands and Abdur Rehman, with his wife and three sons, Ahmed, Abdul Aziz and Jamal and three daughters, Noorbai, Hawabai and Fatima and all his followers with their worldly belongings, decided to settle down in Dhoraji. Son Ahmed later moved out and settled in Bantva. The “Memons, thus became the Memons of Dhoraji in the early eighteenth century.

The History of the Memons of Dhoraji is a testimony to their courage; determination and unwavering love for their religion and protection of its sanctity. It is also a record of the sufferings and hardships for justice, equality, civic rights and political emancipation. It is a chronicle of a humane community, full of compassion and a natural gift for philanthropy, deeply committed to the mitigation of the suffering masses. The history also depicts the glorious business stewardship of a God fearing community who also excelled in the advancement of the cause of Islam.
Never in the history of humanity
Were so many indebted for so much to so few.

Modern youth is totally unaware of the saga of endurance of these few stalwarts who struggled, strove and suffered so much for the prosperity and well being of their posterity. If only this generation is enlightened on the services and achievement of their forefathers and they recognize their obligations, it will be a small commiseration but a just and rightful homage to the memories of those who sacrificed so much to make our lives worth living.

Most of us who call ourselves Memons of Dhoraji are not even aware of where the word ‘Dhoraji’ came from. Most would answer that it is a small town in Gujrat/India about 75 kilometers from Rajkot, the capital of Saurashtra and that is about all. But the fact is that the name is as mystic as the history of the Memons and as interesting.

Historians have described Dhoraji, before regular habitation, as a hillock, more like a mound, with a river running on one side and a low lying area on the other. There was plenty of vegetation, including a large forest, and this attracted many nomads, woodcutters, bird catchers and specially those who wished to graze their animals. These people, who grazed their animals on the pastures, lived in hut-like houses made from mud and straw or leaves. They sold their dairy products, like ghee, to close by town named Patarn. Sometimes when the traders of Patarn needed ghee, they would come to this place to buy the commodity. Of this small band of people engaged in animal husbandry, there was a very intelligent and courageous lady named ‘Dhori’. This area earned its name from her, as the place of Dhori. These inhabitants also did some farming for their own subsistence as well as that of their animals. The results of their farming attracted farmers from close by and, as time went by, more people from other spheres of life came to settle down and, before long, a town had sprung up where there were only small shanty structures of huts. From “Dhori” or “Dhoriji” (of Dhori) it came to be known as Dhoraji.

There is also another story to the name. According to this version, there was a village in a nearby region called “Devdi”. When a Muslim ruler established his sovereignty, he established a check-post in Devdi as well. Just beyond this village, there was a hillock, which has been described earlier, on which there were remains of some ancient structures in the form of a fortress with two gates. Muslim Soldiers, who manned the post, spoke Persian language. They sometimes went to these archaic remnants with the two gates and that, in Persian, was called “Durrajah”. Thus, this hillock came to be known as Durrajah which, as the time went by, was corrupted to Dhoraji.
Shakespeare has said,
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name, would smell as sweet

Dhoraji will always be Dhoraji for its residents. Sweet are the memories of yesteryears for those of us, of the present generation, who have lived and enjoyed the life in that small town in Gujrat. It was a life away and far from the maddening crowds. There was a sense of peace and tranquility in the air and serenity was the order of the day. Love was in abundance, irrespective of your religion or your status. Time seemed to move at snail pace; there was no hurrying, there was no urgency and yet, life moved on. The nostalgia is sometimes overwhelming!

We have seen how Dhoraji was born from a different name a town where around a hundred and twenty-five thousand people of different religion, caste and creed live today. Historians say that Dhoraji was first ‘captured’ and ruled by the Soomros, a band of thieves, hunters and decoits. One of their leaders, Umer Soomro, seized a small place near Dhoraji and that came to be known as Umerkot, while Hothi Soomro ruled Dhoraji. How long the Soomros ruled, no historical evidence is available, but in 1748 AD it came under the rule of Gondal monarchy. Actually Dhoraji was under the rule of the Nawab of Junagadh who gifted it to the Darbar of Gondal in return for helping him to defeat Vasant Rai Purbio, an administrator of Dhoraji appointed by Nawab Bahadur Khanji himself. So when the Memons arrived in Dhoraji, it was under the rule of the Gondal Darbar.

Darbar Haloji gave Abdur Rehman and his family a house in an area called Takseri, where Rajputs had once resided. The residence had the unique Rajput architecture and sculptures depicting Hindu culture and even deities decorated the place. When news of the warm and cordial welcome as well as the facilities offered by the Ruler to the retinue of Abdur Rehman reached other villages in the vicinity, more Memon families reached Dhoraji for rehabilitation. The surnames of these families came to be recognized by the names of the original places they had come from. “Kandornawalas” were Memons who left Kandoora; “Nagaria” from Jamnagar, “Chitalia” from Chital, “Lathia” from Lathi, “Supediwala” form Supedi, a small village nearby which was also a ‘gift’ like Dhoraji to the Darbar of Gondal. Some also derived their surnames from the profession they had adopted. For instance those who were engaged in the transport of goods (in bullock carts) were known as “Pothiawala” or “Gadawala”. Similarly, those who carried messages from one place to another were called “Kasid” and those who carried the messages at speed were known as “Pankhira”.

When Abdur Rehman and his train of followers had come to Dhoraji, the fort was under construction. The fort was completed in 1753 and, immediately thereafter, the ruler, Haloji, died and his son Bhakunbhaji, the heir, took over the reins. The construction of the fort made the residents feel assured and secured against thieves and robbers who had been tormenting the town. The new Gondal Darbar was also an intelligent person. He knew that the “colony” could not be left only to the mercy of an administrator. Furthermore, he came to know that other rulers in the vicinity wanted to capture Dhoraji, now that it was safe and secure. So, he next started the construction of a “Darbagarh” to house the faithful and loyal officers and the ruling family. It had the facilities, in one wing, for the members of the royal household to reside whenever they visited Dhoraji and, in the other, for the officers. In short, Darbar Haloji had taken care of all aspects of security of the town. Now the residents could live peacefully and go about their businesses without any fear. The news of the security and safeness of the town reached far and wide and this attracted many more to Dhoraji including the farmers who were given twelve hundred acres of cultivable land. Dhoraji had become a progressive little town with people from all walks of life but basically agricultural in outlook.

Ahmed, the son of Abdur Rehman, had left for Bantva but his two other sons; Aziz and Jamal stayed back with their father. Jamal had a son by the name of Adamjee, a learned, experienced and foresighted man who knew Gujrati, Urdu and Persian languages. Intelligent and learned he enjoyed the respect of one and sundry. He was the first man to establish “Dhoraji Memon Jamaat” in the year 1780. The purpose behind the establishment of the association was to safeguard the interests of the people at large. Though the name suggested that the organization was specifically for the Memons or, at best, Muslims, it was not so. It was for all the people who resided in Dhoraji.

The need for setting up an organization for the purpose of social welfare or safeguarding the interest arises only when such situations exist or are imposed upon the civil population. During the years when Dhoraji was coming up as a progressive town, a community known as ‘Vaniya’ came to live here. The people of this community were very rich, extremely shrewd and cunning. Whenever the Gondal Darbar needed any money, they were the ones who offered him and, as such, their influence on the Darbar increased with each payment. Consequently their weight also told on the officers who were always obliging to them. This group came to be known as “Mahajans”. An octroi like tax, for religious purpose, was imposed on all goods that entered the town. The rate was about a paisa to four rupees! Although agreement reached between Darbar Haloji and Abdur Rehman was renewed time and again by successive rulers, this tax was against the spirit of the agreement. Mr. Admjee, as president of the Jamaat, approached Darbar Bhakunbhaji, the successor of Bawa Haloji and apprised him of the situation and reminded him of the existing accord. In population of Dhoraji at that time, the Muslims, including the Memons, were probably in the equal numbers as the Hindus. As such, he asked the Darbar that the Muslim share of the tax should be given to the Jamaat, the representative body of the Muslims. The association would spend the money collected from these taxes on Islamic rituals. Although the Darbar was just and sympathetic, he could, in practice do nothing. The officers, in league with the Mahajans, never executed the orders of the Darbar. The Muslims were not only deprived of their rightful share but were persecuted. The matters kept stretching and reached a point of exasperation during the reign of Darbar Karansingh. Seth Husein Adamjee, son of Adamjee Jamal, was the president of Dhoraji Jamat during the period. The matters came to a head because of incessant arguments, provocations and harassments by the officers and the ‘Mahajans. The Jamat leadership decided that the community should migrate from Dhoraji and made plans accordingly. When the Darbar came to know of the migration plans of the Memons, he intervened and assured the Muslim community of fair share in the tax collected without any hindrance or obstacle. An agreement was reached once again but it was not even worth the paper it was written on. The people at the lower level, the practical level, never sorted out the dispute and it lingered on.

It is worth mentioning here that the Hindus and the Muslims lived in complete harmony and there was no such thing as communal strife or conflict. The two religious communities respected each other, with regard and consideration for the beliefs of each other and fully acknowledged the same. This was, perhaps, the most glorious heritage the residents of Dhoraji bestowed on their successive generations. Our forefathers, to whom we owe so much, had the foresight to spell out the exact prescription of peaceful and amicable inter-communal living, free from all discords and misunderstandings. They always advocated peace and favored settlements of all disputes through rational means. They never believed in violence, they never resorted to force. They were not educated, at least not in the modern sense of the word, but their theory was quite in proximity to Newton’s third law of motion, “To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
Creating understanding and communal harmony, which has stood the test of time till this day, was their finest gift to our community.

The Muslims continued to have their differences with the ‘Mahajans’ and the officers on the denial of their rightful share in the tax. Finally, after nine years of forbearance, they decided to strike against the injustice being perpetuated on them. They locked their shops and locked their houses and decided to leave Dhoraji once and for all. “The Memons had effected the first strike in India,” wrote the nephew of Mahatma Gandhi, Samardas Gandhi, in his book “Kathiawad ni karh ratri” (The black night of Kathiawad). The ruler at that time was Chandrasinghji alias Motibhai and the president of the Jamat was Mian Aba Latif Ayub.

The Muslim community of Dhoraji, in toto, left their businesses and their standing crops on the farm; their houses and their belongings and migrated to nearby state of Junagadh. It was painful; it was heart rending to leave one’s home and hearth, the land of the forefathers and to settle on an unknown territory, starting from a scratch. But such was the belief and the conviction of purpose, the purpose of upholding justice and equality, that the pain and the tragedy seemed trivial. Such was the spirit of sacrifice in the Muslim residents of Dhoraji that they were ready to give up everything for a cause.

Nawab Bahadur Khanji, the Second, was the ruler of Junagadh when the immigrants from Dhoraji arrived. The leaders as well as the members of the entourage were accorded a warm welcome and received with due honor and respect. In fact the leaders were called at the court and given the traditional turban and dress. All the newcomers were promised full civic rights of residence and trade in the new state. Overwhelmed by the respect, hospitality and cordiality, the Muslims of Dhoraji decided to settle down permanently in Junagadh. Junagadh (Dhoraji) Memon Jamat was established with Aba Latif Ayub as its president. It identified the Memons from Dhoraji who differed in life style as well as outlook to the Memons who were original residents of Junagadh. But the love and lure of Dhoraji was still sub-consciously present in the minds of all the migrants.

When Darbar Chandrasinghji came to know of the annoyance and the consequent migration of the Muslims of Dhoraji, he immediately engaged himself to the task of pacifying them and bringing them back to Dhoraji. He was finally successful after long drawn agreement with the Muslims that not only recognized the right of the Muslims to a just share in the ‘octroi’ tax but also accepted the outstanding amount due to their share in earlier collections. The self-exiled entourage returned joyously to the land they so dearly loved and adored. Thus ended the first migration of the Muslims of Dhoraji to Junagadh after a lapse of about four years.

The Muslims never received their share from the taxes despite solemn agreements, well documented and preserved till this day in the office of the Moti Jamat in Dhoraji. Yet they had no other axe to grind on any other matter during all these years, either with the rulers or with non-Muslims. In fact, the cordial relations with Darbar Chandrasighji, popularly called Motibhai, reached heights never surpassed by any other ruler. Gondal was the seat of power and, naturally, most of the earlier and latter Darbars resided and administered the area under their rule from that town but Motibhai spent more time in Dhoraji. The result was a close liaison between the ruler and the Muslim Community; specifically the leaders of the Jamat. He would partake in certain functions and ceremonies and even accompany the Muslims to the Eidgah where the believers would say their Eid prayers. He would wait on his elephant, specially decorated for the occasion, till the end of the prayers. He would then wish the leaders and the people gathered at the prayers and he, in turn, would receive a tribute in the shape of firing from a canon installed at the ground. Love breeds love and hatred breeds hatred; that’s a universal rule. Motibhai showered love and respect on his people and they returned him in kind.

The Muslims never received either their share of the tax or the outstanding amount due from any of the rulers at any time. Other than that, they had no other bone of contention. However, in the middle of the nineteenth century, all the Muslim residents of Dhoraji were ordered by the administrator to leave the town within twenty-four hours. So after enjoying a peaceful life of about a dozen years, the Muslims were back migrating from the small town they had come to love so much. Some went to Junagadh and others to different places in or outside Gujrat. Seth Moosa Jamal, who headed the Jamat, stayed at Manjhewadi and fought for the right of the deprived people. He apprised the ruler, Darbar Sangramji the Second, of the atrocities committed by his administrator on the Muslim population. The Darbar sent his personal officer for negotiated settlement with the Muslims to bring them back to Dhoraji. The Muslims returned to their hearths and houses for the second time. This was also the time the British had increased their hold on India and were infiltrating to small states and towns. In 1869, Darbar Sangramji died but his successor, Bhagwatsinghji, had not attained adulthood. As such, the administration fell into the hands of a ‘Political Agent’ who had his office in Rajkot.

Now, not only the venue had changed from Gondal to Rajkot, but the expedient manner of spot assessment of the situation, as practiced by the Darbars, had also been abandoned. The Associations were no longer deemed to represent the community as a whole. Anyone who had a power of attorney from the aggrieved person or a body of persons could be their representative at the office of the Political Agent. The Muslims of Dhoraji prepared a power of attorney in favor of Seth Moosa Jamal, the president of Dhoraji Memon Jamat, to be their legal representative before the political agent at Rajkot as well as before the governor at Bombay.

Seth Moosa Jamal was not a very educated person and knew, besides Kutchi, his mother tongue, only a little of Gujrati language. But he was a courageous man, gifted with the qualities of a leader. He had the determination, conviction of thought and an ability to be decisive. Whether he appeared before the Political Agent or before the governor, he had a typical style of sitting on his haunches, his sheet wrapped from the back through the armpits, supporting his posture. Even today the farmers of Gujrat and Rajasthan have a similar sitting habit. Like Seth Moosa Jamal they too feel comfortable in this stance rather than sitting on a chair. The political agent was always an Englishman who spoke only in English while Seth Moosa spoke a mixture of Kutchi and Gujrati. An interpreter was always on hand to convey each other’s words in the language of their understanding. Sometimes matters had to be taken up before the governor in Bombay; Moosa Seth would sit in the same fashion before the governor and plead for the right of his people. He would, invariably, get the decision in his favor. The rule of the Political Agent lasted ended after 15 years as the crown prince had attained the adulthood.

The year 1884 saw young Bhagwatsinghji take over the reigns of government of Gondal state. Dhoraji, as described earlier, was under the rule of Gondal State.