Parsis bitterly divided when they should be multiplying


March 28, 2016

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Our Persian empires, our fabled fortunes during the British Raj, the drum-roll of greats, all this and high praise from the PM too. The Everlasting Flame Programme (March 19-May 29) in Delhi on Parsi history, culture and achievements reminds the nation that ‘minority’ doesn’t have to be a dangerous/ disgruntled word. Sorry to be a party-pooper, but not all the glories of the past can save us from our present quicksand. What’s sucking down the country’s most sophisticated clan is that same, familiar, primitive killer called identity politics.

Article by Bachi Karkaria

Su kechh, sala? We have nothing in common with those Backward Class agitations; our alabaster Abans reveal us as the Other Backless Classes. No ‘incendiary cocktails of caste’ for us; we are quite happy quaffing the ‘Parsi peg’. We gleefully forward WhatsApps praising our ‘peaceful coexistence’, and ‘contributions disproportionate to our numbers’; not like those grubby quota-grabbing agitations. True, by the current standards of the republic, we do stand out, but none of our legendary humour can laugh away our fall. It’s not just of numbers. The worse decline is of our USP: civilized debate, even decency. We are losing it. Blame that lethal combo of past pride and present paranoia.

The gloves have been off since Boxing Day 2015. A former advocate-general of Maharashtra chose the wrong forum to voice an audacious message. Speaking at the first-ever Iranshah Udvada Utsav — held to celebrate Zoroastrianism’s most sacred, 12-centuries-old fire — Darius Khambata logically argued that Zoroastrianism is a universal religion, and should be thrown open regardless of ethnicity. This was both blasphemy and sedition to the Parsis who claim exclusive rights to community as well as their religion. Khambata’s hasty clarification only fanned the flames. He explained, ‘My speech was in the context of Parsi women married outside the faith and their children, and my opinion was that they should be permitted to enter our places of worship if they have been initiated into the faith through a navjote ceremony.’ (The 1908 Davar-Beaman judgment accorded this right only to the offspring of Parsi fathers.) A fortnight later, seven high priests issued a stunning statement saying that no inter-faith marriage was acceptable under Zoroastrianism, thus effectively throwing all their children into illegitimacy.

However hysterically the orthodoxy may cheer, turning the clock back is suicidal.

EMBRACE OR DIE: Accept mixed-race children or become demographically unviable. That’s the dilemma

We Parsis are disadvantaged on the whole existential tripod of hatches, matches and despatches. In 2013, there were 175 births in the community hub of Mumbai against 735 deaths; intermarriage has climbed to 38% — and become our obsessive compulsive disorder. Going by the hounded Polish sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, ‘identity’ is at its most robust — and rabid — in matters of community and religion. So to marry a ‘parjaat’ is double jeopardy, it threatens both ‘Parsi-panu’ and Zoroastrianism. Dangerously, this bogey has diverted attention from the serious problems of young and old, skill sets deteriorating as rapidly as the medical profile of an inbred community where longevity is a curse.

Ironically, in India’s most progressive community, ‘liberal’ has become a hiss word, most virulent when directed at this Enemy No 1. The omnipotent Bombay Parsi Panchayat spent over Rs 2 crore of community funds in a long, legal battle to debar three priests who presided over rituals involving intermarried couples. The ‘settlement’ brokered by a Supreme Court-appointed mediator has reinstated the priests, with conditions.

The ‘Trump’ card is identity’s flipside, the fear of the other. Our sacred exclusivity is strengthened by some rather unedifying secular dread of having to share the enviable legacy of housing, hospitals and scholarships with ‘half-breeds’. Strident traditionalists buy full pages to pass off their bigotry as news. The cybersphere bristles with damnation; parts of the diaspora are often more hysterical. Reasoned opinion gets battered by the hateful tide.

But it’s turning, as it has to, pulled by the inevitable force of intermarriage in a community of increasingly narrowing options. Indian outposts such as Delhi and Kolkata do it more discreetly, but even Mumbai now has a hall to offer the grace of traditional rituals to those barred from the Towers of Silence, or unwilling to submit to their compromised efficiency.

The true hope of saving ancient Zoroastrianism from expedient power-games lies with the snowballing immigrant community. Prayer halls abroad are open to all spouses, and where all children can imbibe this enlightened religion. Soon, Ontario may grant them a fully consecrated fire temple. It has 6,000 believers; only 531 are left of the once-vibrant Kolkata community.

India’s Parsis are trapped in the Catch 22 of accepting mixed-race children and diluting identity, or rejecting them and becoming demographically unviable. We may not repeat the recent horror of the Andamans’ Jarawa tribe killing a mixed-race baby to preserve ‘purity’, but identity politics will be the death of our exemplary community — and of the beautiful religion our forefathers fled Persia to preserve.