This is the text of a talk given by Berjis Desai at the recently concluded 11th World Zoroastrian Congress in Perth Australia. Berjis is an eminent legal counsel, journalist and columnist residing in Mumbai India. The text of the article is published with his permission.
1. WHAT IS INTELLIGENT CONSERVATISM
1.1 While the Zoroastrian faith is not in any imminent danger of dying, the Parsis, as a racial group, face an existential threat. This presentation sets out as to how this threat can be diminished, if issues, dividing the community, are intelligently resolved. This applies predominantly to the Parsis in Mumbai and other parts of India, and to a limited extent, to the diasporas around the world.
1.2 These issues are: racial identity including adoption and conversion, admission into places of worship; disposal of the dead, dealing with non-Parsi Zoroastrians, managing community and philanthropy institutions and combating Indifference.
1.3 For those denying that Parsis face an existential threat, the following three statements are adequate. Our fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world. We have the highest number of bachelors and spinsters in the world. Our demographic decline rate of 12% per decade is one of the highest in the world. The existential threat, is, therefore, real and accelerating.
1.4 For more than four decades, I have been one of those arguing for a more ‘open door’ approach. However, we have now reached an inflection point in the struggle to survive. Preserving our uniqueness is critical. Maintaining our distinct identity is critical. We no longer have the luxury to fight each other. Intelligent conservatism is, therefore, the need of the hour.
1.5 What then is Intelligent conservatism? Avoiding extreme views on either side of the socio- religious spectrum; capturing the common middle ground upon which all but a few agree – that is, Intelligent conservatism. Intelligent conservatism may not always be politically correct or doctrinally pure. It is simply pragmatic. Its sole objective is to increase our numbers without losing our uniqueness. We must avoid offending the sensibilities of a large number of Parsis, and thereby, minimise the differences within the community. If we achieve this, we have a decent chance to survive. This presentation explores as to how we can make Intelligent conservatism, the consensus view.
2.1 Around 1900 onwards, the great religious controversies began. The Bombay High Court delivered its judgement in November, 1908 in Petit V. Jeejeebhoy, and the Privy Council in 1925 in Bella V. Saklat. Stripped of legalese, these cases dealt with the issue of who was to be regarded as a Parsi, in situations involving conversion, interfaith marriage and adoption. Neither judgement conclusively settled this prime controversy, and 110 years later, this continues to agitate minds.
2.2 The undisputed legal position is that (1) the child of a non-Parsi father and a Parsi mother is not a Parsi; (2) A non- Parsi cannot be converted to be a Parsi; and (3) adoption of a non Parsi child by Parsi parents does not make such child a Parsi. The reformists grudgingly accept the above legal position but are increasingly making efforts to change it.
2.3 It is beyond any doubt that a Parsi woman, who marries a non-Parsi, continues to be a Parsi Zoroastrian; unless it can be conclusively established that she has undergone conversion to her husband’s faith. If such a woman asserts that she continues to be a Zoroastrian, the mere fact that she is known by a different name after marriage (as is the custom amongst many Hindus) or that she is a part of her husband’s Hindu Undivided Family for taxation purposes, does not imply that she has forsaken her religion. Hence, the Goolrukh Gupta case is precisely the kind of litigation, which is damaging and unnecessary. Cash starved community charities can ill afford legal costs; rights of a woman being violated makes for bad publicity in the secular press and diminishes community goodwill; more importantly, it creates bitterness and increases the divide in the community. Let us therefore not agitate any such well-established legal position.
2.4 On the other hand, as the Fiddler on the Roof would put it, the litigation recently filed in the Calcutta High Court to assert that a navjoted child of a Parsi mother and a non-Parsi father, is, a Parsi, is to be welcomed for the following reasons.
2.5 Liberals are confident that post the Constitution of India with Article 14 guaranteeing equality between the sexes as a fundamental right, Petit and Bela are bound to be overturned. The traditionalists are equally sanguine that the Courts will regard the intention of the founder of a fire temple trust as paramount; and no such founder, a hundred years ago or more, would have ever wanted his Agiyari to be open to children of non-Parsi fathers. Constitution of India and Declaration of Human Rights are irrelevant; ultimately what matters is the interpretation of the Agiyari trust deed. The right to religious freedom is also a fundamental right and every religious minority has the right to regulate the entry of outsiders into their places of worship. There is considerable merit in both sides of the argument. However, we require a conclusive determination of this issue by the Supreme Court. It is highly likely that the Calcutta case will ultimately provide this determination. Both sides must accept such determination gracefully and then bury this controversy, once and for all.
2.6 Purely from the perspective of Intelligent Conservatism and regardless of one’s views on ethnic purity and the like, we must hope that the liberal view is upheld. It will not result in every such child becoming a Parsi. However, it will certainly prevent the loss of many Parsis. Presently, too many Parsis are being lost, on this
account. Unable to bring up their children as Parsis, interfaith married Parsi mothers become indifferent to their religious and communal identity. Many young Parsis are also repulsed by what they regard as unjustified discrimination; and start disregarding themselves as Parsis. In this battle, we cannot afford to lose a single Parsi. Every person who is thus lost also forecloses the possibility of his child being brought up as a Parsi. We require warriors in this battle. A liberal interpretation will result in the addition of many such invigorated and enthused warriors. Considering that the trend of Parsi women marrying interfaith is dramatically accelerating, this is the single biggest threat to our survival. The only way to eliminate it, is, to regard such children as Parsis.
3. OUTRIGHT CONVERSION
Will this open the flood gates for non-Parsis to swamp us? Will this encourage the heretics to indulge in outright conversion – even if neither parent is a Parsi? The answer is an emphatic No. It is almost impossible to contemplate any Court in India upholding the validity of any such naked conversion. Intelligent conservatism dictates that we do not require any Joseph Petersons or Russians being ordained as priests. The Prophet may have ‘enjoined conversion’, as the Court observed. However, in the present situation, it is suicidal to advocate or encourage outright conversion. The image of marauding hordes annihilating our unique identity is a nightmare, which we cannot even contemplate. Custom of over a thousand years has now sanctified into law, that Parsis do not, cannot, and will not, convert.
What one cannot do directly, cannot be done indirectly. Therefore, it follows that Parsis adopting a non-Parsi child will not make such a child a Parsi. Presently, there is no legislation which enables Parsis to adopt. A Parsi is, therefore, presently unable to legally adopt. We should therefore, work towards enacting a law which permits Parsis to validly adopt a Parsi child; but not a non-Parsi child. This may, at first blush, sound politically incorrect and offensive. However, adoption cannot be used as a device for outright conversion. If a Parsi is permitted to adopt a non-Parsi child, over a period of time, evidence will blur about whether such a child was born a Parsi or not; and result in indirect conversion, by the backdoor. Liberals may contend that such adoption will be rare and ought to be permitted. However, history is replete with instances where the entry of a single finger has managed to bring down a giant barricade. If we cannot afford outright conversion, we also cannot have adoption of a non-Parsi child.
5. ENTRY INTO PLACES OF RELIGIOUS WORSHIP
5.1 A similar balanced approach is required on the issue of non-Parsis entering a place of religious worship.
5.2 It is gravely offensive to prohibit non-Parsis from viewing the face of our dead. This is neither a religious dictate nor any time sanctified custom. Only in the last 150 years or so, this practice arose in the aftermath of Parsi Muslim riots in Bombay. Obviously, the justification is long gone. It is emotionally disturbing to the Kith and Kin of the deceased and also results in a loss of goodwill among fellow communities. Many opt to be cremated for this reason. It is time that we discontinue this obnoxious practice.
5.3 At the same time, we ought to banish the thought in some liberal minds, which wants free entry of non-Parsis into our fire temples. Firstly, it would be going against the express wishes of the founder of the fire temple to restrict entry only to Parsis; and is unlikely to be upheld by a Court of law. In any event, it would be disastrous to even flirt with this idea. Can you imagine a serpentine queue from the Western Express Highway upto Udvada village to worship the Iranshah? The turmoil and damage it would unleash is simply unthinkable. A majority of practicing Zoroastrians do believe that the entry of a non Parsi into a consecrated fire temple is against the Scriptures and will diminish the protective power of the enthroned Fire. Once again, Intelligent conservatism demands that we preserve and cherish the environs of our fire temples. Reasons of expediency, hurting religious sentiment, fear of being overrun and ritualistic purity – all demand that we reserve our fire temples only for Parsis. Prayer halls housing a non-consecrated fire is not an Agiyary. Such halls being open to all, is, therefore, a non-issue.
6. DISPOSAL OF THE DEAD
6.1 Alternative modes of disposal other than Dokhmenashini are now freely available. However, the dilemma persists in the mind of many a practising Zoroastrian, who prefers to be cremated but yet wants to exit from the serene, soothing and soul satisfying environs of the Towers of Silence. It is enormously difficult to recreate the ambience and facilities of the Towers, in any prayer hall. Is a modus vivendi possible? Installing a crematoria or a burial ground in the Towers is presently not a feasible option. Apart from serious legal and environmental difficulties, such a move will stir a hornet’s nest; and, therefore, has to be shelved.
6.2 Since it is virtually impossible to revive the vultures, it is time to abandon hare brained schemes to create an aviary for breeding vultures; and instead focus on technologically improving the efficiency of solar panels, to prevent undisposed remains for a long time and its consequent ill-effects.
6.3 So far as post-funeral prayers are concerned, we must establish a level playing field, to the extent practicable, whether the disposal is by cremation, burial or the Towers. Since permitting prayers in the Towers itself for those being cremated. Is a contentious issue, let us stop agitating it. However, so far as the fire temples are concerned, even presently, most permit prayers for the crematees barring the first four days. There is no justification for carving out such a period. Eliminating such minor sore points will help us focus our energies on critical issues. It will also generate a ‘feel good’ factor in the community.
7. HARNESSING NON-PARSI ZOROASTRIANS
As an alternative to other strategies for survival, non-Parsi Zoroastrians (NPZ) are our Plan B. In keeping with the principles of Intelligent Conservatism, NPZ cannot enjoy the same rights as Parsis. However, as our co-religionists, it is imperative that we have sustained interaction with them. An occasional World Congress is obviously not sufficient. Large charities have to take a lead, and finance youth exchange programmes between Parsis and the NPZ. This will result in understanding each other’s cultural ecosystems. The rapidly accelerating trend of interfaith marriages is unlikely to reverse. Isn’t it better, therefore, if there are same faith marriages between Parsis and the NPZ? The children of such marriages would be regarded as Parsis (assuming parity between the sexes is achieved in the near future). Let us not forget that NPZ are our co-religionists. Gradually, letting them enter our fold, through marriages, will be a tremendous booster – demographically, culturally and even from a viewpoint of genetics. It may be reiterated that one is not advocating conversion of the NPZ as Parsis, but a gradual and slow assimilation through marriages.
8. MANAGING COMMUNITY & CHARITY RESOURCES
8.1 We do not even recognize that we are facing a grave existential crisis. Instead of optimizing our vast financial and intellectual resources to evolve a strategy to survive; we are behaving like crabs, viciously trying to bring each other down. Give us 9 Parsis and there will be 10 opinions now sounds like a sick joke. In most places, our so-called leadership is intellectually bankrupt. A handful of people control community institutions, as if it was their backyard. In recent times, dialogue and debate have degenerated into diatribe. Differences are mostly personality based and not issue based. This attitude has to be reversed.
8.2 It is incorrect to blame the method by which these leaders are elected to office. Any method will throw up the same circus and the same bunch of not so comic performers. We can no longer afford to dismiss vicious internal dynamics by benignly terming it as usual Parsi politics. Repulsed by this infighting, and not being able to co-exist with nasty street fighters, the honest and the good, who wish to serve the community, shy away.
8.3 We must consider it our sacred duty to wisely select our leaders. We must not think in terms of loyalty’ or affiliation to a particular group or dominant individual but focus exclusively on the merits of the candidate – track record of service, integrity and ability to work harmoniously with others.
8.4 Another reason for this state of affairs is Indifference. An overwhelming number of Parsis are disinterested or totally indifferent to community affairs. Indifference is a deadly killer. It is a cancer on our community’s survival prospects. How do we combat this indifference? On this, hinges our survival.
9. COMBATING INDIFFERENCE
9.1 Firstly, let us bring down the tone of the debate and discussion on any dividing issue. We can no longer afford to be strident in our religious views or indulge in name calling. Strangely, both the traditionalists and the reformists are actually comrades in arms. They are both willing to contribute time and resources, as they are both interested in their community and in the Faith. The problem lies with the silent majority of Indifferents – whose only interest is availing benefits of community housing and community charity, and lining up, once in a while, to vote for a candidate propped up by one group or another. These Indifferents have to be convinced as to why it is their sacred duty to join as a soldier in this struggle.
9.2 We feel momentarily misty eyed when ‘Chhaiye Hume Zarthosti’ is played. We must feel misty eyed, every day, remembering the Herculean struggle to save the Holy Fire from being extinguished; the insurmountable odds against which we have not only survived but prospered; the aura of protection being constantly accorded by hundreds of Holy Fires around the world. Each of us has to be convinced that it is worthwhile to preserve and save Parsi culture – as an anthropological rarity, if nothing else. We have to stop feeling like a community. We have to start feeling like a Nation -develop legitimate pride in our unique value systems, beliefs and the way of life. Israel is the best example to emulate. In practical terms, it also means fending for each other, to the extent possible. If someone dubs it as communal bias, so be it. It is badly required. A few days ago, traditionalists and liberals joined forces to prevent the Mumbai Metro Project from structurally and spiritually injuring two of our Atash Behrams. Such episodes are galvanizing points to fire the imagination of the entire community and give a feeling of being unified. Increasingly, we will have to be alert and vigilant to fight for our community’s rights.
Intelligent Conservativism requires a change of mindset, all around. We have to get rid of our labels – orthodox or reformist; traditionalist or modernist; progressive or isolationist. We have to all become Conservationists with the single minded objective of ensuring survival without losing our unique identity. We must ignore our doctrinal differences and regard each other as a part of a crusading army, determined to wake up the Indifferents, from their slumber. As Time ticks away inexorably, we have to give up our ‘isms’ and our egos and even political correctness and adopt a pragmatic, sensible approach to forge a consensus on contentious issues.