Mahatma Gandhi once said of them, “In numbers Parsis are beneath contempt, but in contribution, beyond compare.”
By Nauzer K Bharucha, TNN,
Never has the contrast been starker. The community that’s given India some of its best lawyers, musicians, industrialists, philanthropists and bankers is at the crossroads today. Barely 70,000 are left in India — less than 45,000 in Mumbai — and Parsis are a minuscule 0.01% of the Indian population. How long before they disappear from the headcount altogether?
The outlook is grim. “Thirty-one per cent of Parsis are over 60 years, another 30% never marry even as the divorce rate is significantly high,” says Dr Shernaz Cama, the Delhi-based director of the Unesco-funded Parzor project to preserve Parsi Zoroastrian heritage. “In 1941, the Parsi population was 1.14 lakh. The 2001 census showed this had dropped to 69,000. This is a drastic 10% decline every decade,” she adds. Cama says that her research revealed that most Parsis do want to marry and prefer to find partners from within their community “but being a progressive community with high expectations, they have an attitudinal problem”.
She diagnoses a chronic Parsi problem in the constant search for “perfection in their partner” and she prescribes being “realistic”. Cama says the Union government’s new save-the-Parsis drive must “include pre-marital counselling”.
The Bombay Parsi Punchayat (BPP) runs a fertility programme under the stewardship of Dr Anahita Pundole. It counted just 28 births a year on average over a six-year period. Altogether, 526 couples have availed of the scheme. It has contributed to a 10% average annual increase of the Parsi population. The BPP offers Rs 3,000 a month as an incentive for couples to have a third child. The family receives the money till the child turns 18. It also offers Rs 1,000 a month for a second child, till the child turns 18.
But a contentious issue that threatens to split the community is the high rate of inter-caste marriages (as high as 35 to 40%), the demand to accept as Parsis the children of Parsi women who marry outside the community and allowing conversion to Zoroastrianism. Even though the community is largely opposed to all of this, a small, influential section of Parsis comprising industrialists, solicitors and doctors insists on change in order to survive.
The recent attempt by some Parsis to convert a Russian citizen of Muslim parentage and initiate him as a Zoroastrian priest in a village on the Maharashtra-Gujarat border created a furore in the community. Police had to be called in and the ceremony stalled. Oxford-trained religious scholar Khojeste Mistree says, “I have yet to find an encouraging historical signpost to show that Zoroastrianism has in any way or form survived, successfully, without its all-important ethnic or community identity. Let us even assume for a moment, that some non-Parsi and non-Iranians became Zoroastrians at some point in their respective histories, there is no evidence today of their Zoroastrian beliefs and practices having survived, in a sustained, institutionalized way even for a hundred years after their alleged conversion.”
Dinshaw Mehta, chairman of the BPP that controls vast swathes of Mumbai real estate, has other things on his mind, “Our focus has been on the youth…to help them with housing and jobs. The money allotted by the ministry can be put to use in this area. Housing is a big problem for our community, and we have big plans to try and solve this problem. Any aid in this matter is welcome.” Clearly, this debate is far from over.