Covid-19: Mumbai’s Parsi community enraged over denial of ancient traditional funeral rites


May 29, 2020

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Parsi victims of Covid-19 are being denied their ancient traditional funeral rites and forcibly cremated, leaving families traumatized and a community enraged against its leaders.
Over the past month, more than half-a-dozen such cases were reported in Mumbai and a few more in Vadodara and Ahmedabad. Some of the distressed relatives of the deceased have narrated their tragic experiences on social media, leading to outrage and protests within the community.

Article by Nauzer Bharucha | Times Of India

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In Mumbai, the anger is laregly directed at the Bombay Parsi Punchayat (BPP), which has been accused of not doing enough to resolve the issue. The Punchayat, which manages the Doongerwadi property, however, said the pall bearers could get contaminated while handling Covid-19 victims.

Parsi activists point out to a recent Bombay high court order which ruled in favour of Muslims and allowed them to bury their community members who died Covid-19 positive. The court observed that the dead have “a right to decent burial according to his or her religious rites’’. “Right to a decent burial, commensurate with the dignity of the individual, is recognized as a facet of the right to life…,’’ said the court, adding that there was no scientific data by the World Health Organisation to indicate that cadavers spread Covid-19.

For over a thousand years, the Parsi Zoroastrians in India have practiced an ancient system of disposing off their dead (sky burials). Bodies are placed in open-to-the-sky large consecrated wells called the Dakhmas where they are desiccated under the harsh rays of the sun and eaten by birds of prey. In Mumbai, the Parsi dead are taken to the 350-year-old Doongerwadi complex, a 55-acre verdant forest at Malabar Hill. Almost 90% of the community in Mumbai still prefer this method of disposal.

Said advocate Khushru Zaiwala, “The BPP trustees have refused to even make representations to the BMC or state government. They have failed in their duties as trustees by conveniently looking the other way.”

Activist Zoru Bhathena said no Parsi can be forced to be cremated when they don’t want to and the “BPP’s inaction results in exactly this happening”.

In a letter to the BPP, Bhathena said, “This discrimination between Covid positive and Covid negative corpses follows no rationale nor medical logic, as dead bodies do not spread viruses. Access to Doongerwadi has never been denied based on such diseases. Even during the plague epidemic, Doongerwadi was functioning for all Parsis.”

Meanwhile, responding to wide-spread criticism for its inaction, the BPP finally released a statement on Wednesday. It said the method of consignment of the dead includes giving the body a ritual bath. “It means our pall bearers will have to touch the body at various stages, and hence be subject to infection,” said the trustees. Further, the BMC informed the trustees that a Parsi victim of Covid-19 would not be given a death certificate to be taken to Doongerwadi. “The board of trustees discussed this at length and felt it would be prudent to follow the government’s directive,” said the statement. The BPP also feared that in case anyone is infected at Doongerwadi, the authorities would place the entire complex under quarantine and “we would not be able to consign our other dead there either.