There’s a quiet revolution underway in one of Mumbai’s most well recognised minority communities. Over the past two weeks, Parsis have been coming out to vote for whom they’d like to see in control of their richest body, the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. The election may not be on the scale of a general election, or even a state poll. But the campaigning has been just as fierce and the excitement is just as palpable.
To some, the ‘bickering’ of the community may seem like a storm in a teacup. After all, how many do they number? According to some figures, less than one lakh worldwide. So why should the average Indian care? Because, one of the world’s oldest religions is making its last stand. And though they are few in number, they are big on passion, big on ideas and big on debate.
The average Mumbaikar should care because the BPP is a rich and powerful body, in control of numerous trusts and properties. It’s believed to be one of the largest private landowners in Mumbai. They make important – and sometimes controversial- decisions about housing allotments, the use of trust funds and properties. A lot of money and power has been involved in the campaigning. Candidates have been busy buying up advertising space, giving huge dinners and holding meetings. Of course, in the midst of all this, the gourmand Parsi voter is having a good time.
It’s a historic vote. For the first time ever, there is universal adult franchise. So, for the first time, all Parsis can control who is in at the helm of community affairs. This has also made it a bitter struggle for control between the conservatives and ‘reformists’. Inter-faith marriage, conversion, and even methods of disposal of the dead are hotly debated issues.
The Parsis have always been a highly visible community, priding themselves on their illustrious past. But for over five decades, a crisis has been looming that threatens to undo 3,000 years of civilization. In 2001, that crisis was thrown into stark relief by the Government of India’s decennial census results.
For decades now, the population has been declining at 10 percent or more annually. The 2001 census estimated the total Parsi population of India to be 69,601 people. The figures suggest a community in crisis. Many Parsis are legitimately concerned about the paucity of the population. But for some orthodox sections of the community these numbers are nothing more than an alarmist approach, and the Census Commission’s findings and suggestions are ‘interference’ in community matters.
To admit that the situation is grim would mean that measures must be taken to deal with the crisis of numbers. And the measures most liberals advocate are acceptance of conversion, inter-faith marriages and the children of Parsi women married to non-Parsi men. All of which the conservatives are bitterly opposed to.
This is where the BPP comes in. As only ‘Parsis/Iranis are allowed the use of the extensive trust funds and properties, the question of who is a Parsi, and all the issues related to it, become vitally important. This also raises the question of external factors. Certain matters relating to the trust can and have been adjudicated in the courts, in fact the present elections are the result of a High Court ruling to that effect.
It is no wonder then that the Parsis of Bombay are turning out in large numbers to vote. No wonder that this election has assumed such importance in the collective psyche of this small and colourful community. One community website even hosts a poll asking, ‘What is your opinion of the BPP Election Drama?’ The options are (a) Enjoyable and entertaining (b) Tolerable and (c) Despicable and unwarranted. So how will Parsis vote? One cannot tell for sure, but I’ll be hoping for a favourable outcome for the community, either way.