Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Parsis may be silenced by success

By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE – The clock is ticking for one of India’s most prosperous communities, the Parsis. Always small, the Parsi population is diminishing at an alarming rate, prompting fears that the community may not survive the century.

According to the 2001 census, India has less than 70,000 Parsis, a 40% drop from 1941, when their population peaked at nearly 114,900. Since 1941, the Parsi population has decreased by about 10% per decade, compared to 21% growth for India’s population as a whole.

More worrying figures have emerged since the 2001 census. A survey indicates that only 99 Parsis were born in the year to August 2007, compared with 223 in 2001, 206 in 2002, and 174 in 2006. If the present trend continues there may be no more than 23,000 Parsis by the year 2020.

With the birth rate falling rapidly, this is a community that is turning very grey. While India’s under-six age group constitutes 15% of the country’s population, only 4.7% of Parsis fall into this category. Over 30% of Parsis are over 60 years old, compared to just 7% for India as a whole.

But the Parsi community is not just aging, it is dying. Its death rate is three times the birth rate.

Parsis are followers of the Zoroastrian religion, the world’s oldest prophetic faith. They fled to India from Iran around the 8th century AD to escape religious persecution there. Most of them settled in what is today the western Indian states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. Around two-thirds of India’s Parsi population lives in Mumbai, India’s financial and commercial capital. Worldwide there are some 100,000 Parsis.

Their numbers might be small – they constitute just 0.0069% of India’s population – but their contribution is immense. Parsis have left their mark on almost every field, from business and politics to arts, entertainment, philanthropy and sports. They set up India’s first political party, stock exchange, iron and steel plant, university, public hospital, newspaper, printing press and film studio.

Parsis have played a significant role in the economic development of India. Some of the biggest names in Indian business are Parsi. Jamsetjee Tata, founder of the industrial house of Tata, built India’s first iron and steel works and founded the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore. His descendant, Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, founded India’s national airline, Air India. Ratan Tata, head of Tata Group, which recently acquired Corus Steel and the two iconic brands Jaguar and Land Rover, is a scion of this illustrious family. The Tata Group is one of India’s largest and most respected business conglomerates, with revenues in 2006-07 of $28.8 billion.

The Godrej Group, India’s leading manufacturer of soap, home appliances and office equipment, is Parsi-run. The Wadias, who made their mark in shipbuilding 250 years ago, own textile mills and an airline company.

Several Parsis participated in India’s struggle for freedom from British colonial rule. Prominent among them were Dadabhai Naoroji, Bhikaji Cama and Pherozeshah Mehta. Naoroji authored a book Poverty and Un-British Rule in India which drew attention to the drain of India’s wealth into Britain. He was among the founders of the Indian National Congress, the party that led India’s freedom movement.

In the field of science, there was Homi Jehangir Bhabha, founder of India’s nuclear program and Homi Sethna, the guiding force behind the first Indian nuclear test in 1974. Other eminent Parsis include Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, who was army chief during the 1971 India-Pakistan War that culminated in the creation of Bangladesh, legal luminaries Nani Palkhiwala, Fali Nariman and Soli Sorabjee, conductor Zubin Mehta and rock band Queen’s frontman Freddy Mercury.

With a literacy rate of 98%, Parsis are among India’s most literate community. Its sex ratio at 1050:1000 – unlike that of India – is in favor of girls. And members of its community are far more affluent than the average Indian.

The community’s very success appears to be threatening its survival. Parsis are keen to get a higher education, establish themselves in a profession, and buy an apartment and a car before getting married. This often means late marriage or remaining unmarried; 30% of Parsis are single. Those who marry tend to have fewer children.

There is a correlation between prosperity, literacy and size of family. The higher the prosperity, the fewer the children is a global trend. This is true of the Parsis as well, who are generally well off.
For a community that is small to begin with, even a few hundred youth choosing to not have children or restricting family size makes a big impact on the size of the community. Emigration is another factor that has led to the dwindling population in India. Many Parsis have migrated to the West.

But it is the community’s traditions that appear to be the most important factor threatening its survival.

Parsi tradition frowns on marriage outside the community. If a Parsi man marries an “outsider” the wife is not regarded a Parsi, although their child is counted as Parsi. Incidentally, the privilege to children of Parsi fathers was not granted by the community but by a Bombay High Court ruling. A Parsi woman who marries a non-Parsi is not regarded as Parsi any longer.

In 2003, some conservative clerics passed a resolution invalidating marriages between Parsis – men and women – with non-Parsis and ruled that children born of such marriages would not be allowed into the Zoroastrian faith. The resolution created an uproar in the community.

With around 35% of Parsis marrying outside the community, it is no wonder why the number of Parsis is falling. The community is not only not allowing new entrants but worse, it is throwing out its own.

In a bid to address the shrinking numbers, the community has opened fertility clinics and is sponsoring fertility treatment of its members. The Parsi Panchayat, which takes care of the economic wellbeing of the community, is providing financial incentives for Parsi couples who have a third child. Some have suggested that Parsi couples be provided larger accommodation to encourage them to have more children.

But the solution appears to lie in something more drastic – redefining who is a Parsi. Liberals insist that Parsi women who marry “outsiders” be treated as Parsis, their husband and children be allowed into the fold if they wish and that converts to the religion be recognized as Parsis. The best way to ensure the community’s survival, they say, is to welcome people into it, particularly those who marry into the community – or at least not exclude the children of mixed marriages. Advocates of intermarriage point out that generations of inbreeding has not done much good for the community. It has resulted in genetic disorders and increased infertility.

Conservatives argue that the problem the community confronts is not one of numbers but of protecting the purity of the community; hence their opposition to intermarriages.

What the conservatives need to wake up to is the fact that their approach is likely to result in the community’s extinction. There will be no community left to speak of, let alone one whose purity they want to preserve if they persist with their approach.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.