Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Bachi Karkaria: Blindly into the abyss

The Parsis have been in the news for the wrong reasons. The fractious case which arose from the Bombay Parsi Punchayet’s 2009 ban on two priests continues to make headlines. Earlier this month, a Harvard researcher reminded his Mumbai audience that there are only 69,601 Parsis left in India. Actually, this alarming figure belongs to the last Census; our present count is likely to be 45,000, and receding. The demographer bypassed the Big Bad Bogey of inter-marriage, and put the blame on low fertility and non-marriage.

The real concern should be the community’s qualitative decline. Not mere numbers, but the right numbers have always been our forte. Herd hysteria could trample on this very asset which made us stand so tall. We seem hell-bent on squandering our legacy of vision, free thought, gender equality, and a generosity of spirit.

Low fertility has haunted us from the early 20th century, the by-product of swift westernisation during the British Raj. Research from the 1970s onwards has shown that the norm of late marriage has contributed to negative growth rates almost as severely as the never-married. Two years ago, a study found that, at age 50, one in five Parsi men and one in 10 women remains unmarried. Much more has been compromised than just numerical viability. The inevitable inbreeding has long turned us into medical disaster zones.

But, none of these time-bombs, or the decline in education and entrepreneurship appears to be cause for serious concern. Instead, the entire war machine is geared to defeat the ‘barbarians at the gate’. Of course, inter-marriage poses real and present danger to our ethnic identity. The shrinking gene pool is both cause and effect. An estimated 31% marry outside the fold, up from 20% a decade ago. But this cannot justify the bellicose jingoism of our secular mullahs.

Choosing a non-Parsi spouse, especially husband, is condemned as high treason against the community and, worse, heresy against the faith. Children of ‘parjaat’ fathers cannot be raised as Parsi-Zoroastrians, and zealots are even trying to exclude the mother from her legal communal rights. It’s no coincidence that we have perhaps the world’s highest proportion of single females.

Which brings me to the separation of Church and State. Breached boundaries may litter the Indian landscape, but they compound our complex vulnerabilities. Moderates were aghast when, in 2009, the freshly elected ‘traditionalist’ trustees of the Bombay Parsee Punchayet (BPP) summarily barred two well-versed priests from conducting any ceremonies at Mumbai’s Tower of Silence and in the two fire temples under its control. The BPP’s mandate is unequivocally secular, but it assumed the right to punish the ‘renegades’ for performing ‘unreligious ceremonies like praying for the dead who are cremated, performing the Navjote on children of non-Parsi fathers, and solemnising a marriage between a Zoroastrian and a non-Zoroastrian’.

Pulpit-thumping had also muscled into the BPP election a year earlier. The consortium of professionals was projected as dangerous reformists who would destroy the ancient religion, and give free run to ‘half-breeds’ and even converts. Parsis are not ignorant masses, but the community is getting older, poorer, and paranoid about being swamped. As with all threatened tribes, a simple rallying point which fused race and religion, and played equally on pride and fear had sure-fire appeal.

The traditionalists swept a shamefully ugly election. The moderates watched the hardening intolerance in the nodal Mumbai community in dismay. The high-handed ‘defrocking’ of the priests hit the panic button. Two prominent Parsis moved the Bombay high court, saying that the BPP had overstepped its jurisdiction and impinged on their rights as beneficiaries of the Punchayet’s trust deed of 1884.

On March 11, 2011, a division bench fully upheld the plaintiffs’ stand. Justice Chandrachud’s far-reaching judgment reinforced the constitutional separation of church and state, and emphasised the distinction between race (Parsi) and religion (Zoroastrianism). The wise judge also appealed to leadership to promote inclusiveness, not create schisms.

A cogently argued online petition swiftly gathered 1,500 signatures. The petitioner, aged 80, told the trustees not to waste any more community funds on this case, and use them instead for the intended purposes of health and education. Undeterred, the trustees went into appeal. On April 7, the Supreme Court, expressing ‘sadness’ over the dispute in a ‘tiny community’ of which the ‘whole nation is proud’, asked the two parties to come to a settlement, and a week later appointed a mediator.

Reasonable Parsis hope that the sobering intervention will also make the community’s warring factions start speaking to each other instead of the current declamations of the stone-deaf. We seem to have jettisoned all rules of engagement and descended into divisive and outrageously abusive communal politics.

Laws and judgments don’t automatically effect social change, but they are a vital accelerator. Race and religion may appear to have a de facto fusion, but both would be in jeopardy if we were to abandon their de jure separation. Yes, ethnic identity is precious, but racial purity has proved to be a mythical unicorn with a flashy but fatal horn.

The pointedly enlightened Parsis might shudder delicately at primitive kangaroo courts which kill their boys and girls for violating gotra rules on marriage. But our own leadership has begun to look scarily like that of the khaps. No civilised identity can be preserved with bigotry or safeguarded by muzzled debate. The Parsis were exemplary because they stood high above the common divisiveness of caste and demonisation of The Other. We must remain a community that’s worth emulating – and worth preserving.