Rayomand Coins

Enter the out married

Barely had the list of candidates for the May 29, 2022 Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trusteeship elections become known than the vilification began. The obvious targets from among the 17 contestants are the two interfaith married Parsis, Yasmin Mistry and Kaikhushroo Irani, with Mistry attracting the most ire. This is not surprising given the community’s inherent and institutionalized bias against women. One irate traditionalist questioned the morality and caliber of the lady while labeling the male candidate a "traitor" for marrying outside the faith.

This may be the first BPP trusteeship election where interfaith married Parsis are contesting. Jurist, author and community activist Berjis Desai was to contest the March 2021 trusteeship election which was jettisoned by the former BPP chairman Dinshaw Mehta and the three majority trustees. Desai and his non-Parsi wife Vandana received much flak and anonymous hate messages on social media. The Delhi and Ahmedabad anjumans are headed by interfaith married Parsis, Ava Khullar and Brig Jahangir Anklesaria (retd), respectively. Delhi being a liberal anjuman, one would expect such a development. Ahmedabad is more conservative but enlightened enough to vote on the basis of ability rather than prejudice. One would imagine with close to 50% of Parsis in Bombay marrying outside the faith, the interfaith married contestants would be expected, maybe even welcomed, as being representative of the community. And perhaps to many Bombay Parsis they are. But there is still that percentage, whether fringe or mainstream, that views them with disdain and even hostility.

The two candidates comprise only 12% of those standing; the other 88% are either married to Parsis or single. Of the two interfaith married, Mistry appears a likely winner. She is the daughter of the top vote getter in the 2008 BPP elections, social worker Arnavaz Mistry, and heads the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of India conceived in 2009 by sitting BPP trustee Kersi Randeria and others. Irani is a firebrand and unrestrained critic of Mehta and his son, sitting trustee Viraf’s camp. Though perceptive, Irani’s brand of unrestrained criticism may be considered too harsh and radical by the rank and file of voters. His sympathies lie with the group led by Randeria.

Are Desai, Yasmin and Irani indicative of a new trend of interfaith married Parsis asserting their rights or just a onetime oddity? Would the community’s dismal treatment of those out married change if one were elected trustee? In their presence would their co-trustees be as blatantly dismissive of those who marry non Parsis, or opt for cremation instead of dakhmenashini?

Of the 17, eight are aligned with or sympathetic to the Mehta camp. These are BPP chairwoman Armaity Tirandaz, Viraf and sitting BPP trustee Xerxes Dastur, Dr Zuleika Homavazir, Maharukh Noble, Rumy Zarir, Tehmtan Dumasia and Farhanaz Irani. The Parsi Junction (PJ) (April 10) weekly, now once again printed as well as online, featured Noble and Zarir as "like-minded candidates," and Tirandaz, Dastur and Viraf as "trustees we can trust." Homavazir’s grouse on the BPP concluding a wage agreement with the employees’ union, the Mumbai Mazdoor Sabha, just before the elections, featured in the issue. She is a regular contributor to the publication. PJ is published by Dinshaw loyalist Kersi Sethna.

On Randeria’s side, Daara Patel, Dr Adil Malia and Hoshang Jal will contest as a team. Individual photographs of the four featured on the same page of Parsi Times (PT) (April 9) along with the heading, "Team committed to community." Irani featured on a separate page under the headline, "Meet BPP candidate Kaikhushroo Irani." Yasmin featured in an article on an annual sale held by the Young Rathestars, an organization of which she and Arnavaz "are the front runners." PT is owned by Randeria.

Anahita Desai, who many predict will garner the largest number of votes, is contesting as an independent but her loyalties are with the Randeria camp. She has stood twice before but lost as her late husband, Yazdi was a sitting trustee and later chairman of the BPP. The voters did not favor a husband-wife duo serving on the BPP together. The second time she lost narrowly by 89 votes to Dastur.

A key election will be that of present BPP chairwoman Tirandaz. If reelected, she will continue as chairperson on account of her seniority. The Bombay High Court (BHC) bench of Justices Shahrukh Kathawalla and Milind Jadhav wanted to specify an age limit of 75 for a candidate to be eligible to stand. Tirandaz is 76. But Dinshaw argued persistently that there should be no age limit. Since Kathawalla was keen on a consensus, he dropped the upper age limit. He did not want to provide the Mehta camp with an excuse to appeal and thereby once again further delay the elections.

Had Tirandaz been banned from contesting, there was a possibility of Viraf not standing for elections this time around. He reportedly did not want to serve as a trustee lest Randeria be elected chairman. For, if Tirandaz were to lose and Randeria win along with three of his supporters, he would be elected chairman. If on the other hand Viraf is reelected along with three of his supporters, barring Tirandaz, he would be chairman. Both Randeria and Viraf were elected in 2015 and have equal seniority. The other sitting trustee contesting, Dastur is junior to both of them.

The leanings of candidates Farhad Hozdar and Adil Irani have not been made public.

Dinshaw has been involved with the BPP since the 1981 historic elections when the Committee for Electoral Rights swept the polls. But the Mehtas lost some of their sheen when they delayed the current BPP elections thrice over 14 months. Being in a three to two majority the Mehta group was able to jettison one election date after the other. It took the discerning Kathawalla to set May 29 as the date and also introduce a code of conduct to ensure a level playing field. Berjis was instrumental in formulating the code of conduct and ensuring the elections could not be hijacked by the majority trustees.

The chief election commissioner and his five associates were, and in future will be, appointed by a justice of the BHC, and not the trustees. This limits the element of bipartisanship. Berjis’s court craft had also helped facilitate the introduction of universal adult franchise in 2007 before BHC Justice A. M. Khanwilkar.

With these 17 contestants the community has a varied choice between social workers, professionals and others. But how many Parsis will show up to vote at the five venues on the last Sunday of May? In 2008 when seven seats were contested, 32 candidates entered the fray; the number of voters was 13,564. In 2015 when five seats were on offer, 23 contested and 9,842 voted. In 2018 when a single seat was on offer, five contested and 6,018 voted. In 2022 with the deposit amount raised from Rs 5,000 to Rs 20,000, and seven vacancies, the turnout could be between 6,000 and 8,000. The elections reflect the declining numbers of the community. Even so interest remains high. Even at social gatherings lay Parsis inquire as to who to vote for? We may be an aging, dwindling community but we won’t disappear quietly.



Villoo Poonawalla