Rayomand Coins

Taking the lead

Has the leadership role of the Parsi and Zoroastrian community passed on from India to North America (NA)? The successful hosting of the 12th World Zoroastrian Congress (12WZC) in New York in the first week of July indicates so. Around 1,200 people registered for the global meet despite the fear of Covid. More could not attend due to delays in obtaining visas. Our two Parsiana representatives who applied in January for renewal of their US visas were given April and May dates to submit their documents. Iranians also reportedly faced visa problems.

The 7WZC held In Houston, Texas in 2000 saw 2,000 delegates enrolled, probably a record for any WZC. At the 10WZC held in Bombay in 2013, 1,200 delegates were registered. There was no threat of Covid at the time and Indian visas were easily available except for those born in Pakistan or holding Pakistani passports. The somewhat chaotic Bombay meet was almost cancelled due to the internecine quarrels between the seven Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trustees. Only the intervention of sponsors Dr Cyrus Poonawalla and Nadir Godrej ensured a temporary truce. The meet was to be held at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) at Nariman Point, but ego tussles with the management there led to the Congress being shifted to the National Sports Club of India premises at Worli. That center was not only unsuited for a congress, being a venue primarily for sporting events, but it was inconveniently located and not as easily accessible.

For the July New York meet, of the two co-chairmen one was from the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America (FEZANA) and the other from the Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York. The two organizations were co-hosts. The grueling ground work for the Congress ("hundreds of hours," wrote the FEZANA co-chairman) and the management of the event were all done by volunteers. Unlike the BPP and other anjumans in India which have offices and staff, the overseas associations frequently function from their elected representatives’ homes or offices.

The Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India (FPZAI) played almost no role in the hosting of the Bombay congress. The BPP had rendered the FPZAI irrelevant. Despite the requirement to meet annually for a day (initially twice a year for two days till the FPZAI amended the rules and regulations), the apex body of the community in India has not held a meeting for the past three years. The all-India body also witnessed the unseemly presence of bouncers hired by the BPP to bar entry to the opposing faction of their co-trustees at the meeting held in the hall adjacent to the 2019 Banaji Atash Behram at Charni Road. Even the BPP trusteeship elections that are legally mandated to be held within three months of a vacancy were kept pending for nearly two years recently.

The meticulously prepared, 188-page New York Congress brochure comprised color photographs and write-ups on all the speakers and performers. The program covered four days and if there were any misgivings or controversy over the selection of speakers and subjects, they were not publicly aired.

Thus the intellectual, emotional and spiritual energies of the North American Zoroastrians are channeled to more constructive activities. Housing and disposal of the dead are not their priorities. People abroad can decide how they want their bodies disposed. Rental housing is available at affordable rates in most places. Canada provides for free medical services. Not so the USA where medical insurance is a must.

While in India we still debate the rights of Parsi women, their suitability to serve as trustees on some anjumans or to seek full membership in Parsi-only clubs, abroad women are accepted as equals. Even if married outside the faith, the women and their children are granted membership in Zoroastrian associations and can enter the numerous dar-e-mehers throughout the continent.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Rohinton Nariman frankly told the gathering at the New York Congress that "I don’t think people in Bombay or even other places in India are ready to petition the government to change our laws so that women and children can be admitted. So the only route is for the Constitutional bench to pronounce… looking at the vision of the Gathas." But with the Goolrookh Gupta case regarding the right of out-married Parsi women to enter the fire temple in Valsad languishing for around 10 years in the Supreme Court and the Prochy Mehta-Sanaya Vyas originating summons regarding who is entitled to enter the local Calcutta agiary still to be heard, litigation proves to be a lengthy and expensive option, even assuming the lawyers appear pro bono.

The BPP reportedly spent four crore rupees (USD 501,035) in legal fees to bar two priests from performing funerary rites at Doongerwadi as the duo conducted the last rites for Parsis opting for cremation.

If the community is opposed to change, it’s unlikely to occur. That means energies will continue to be dissipated in the years to come on women’s rights, property matters and religious controversies. In India’s stead, North America, will march ahead. Just as Iran has lost its luster as the Zoroastrian center for religion, culture and enterprise, India is similarly losing its premier status.

True, North America doesn’t have the fire temples and housing colonies that India has. But they have built community centers from scratch with limited resources. They have earned the confidence of magnanimous individuals and trusts who support religious and educational causes. They do not spurn donations out of fear of "half Parsis" and non Parsis benefitting from community institutions. They were able to establish the FEZANA Professorship of Zoroastrian Languages and Literature at the University of Toronto last year by raising USD 1.1 million (Rs 8.79 crores). In England the Shapoorji Pallonji Centre for Zoroastrian Studies has been instituted at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies.

The successful hosting of the 12WZC shows that limited infrastructure is not a barrier to coming together, showcasing and developing talent, and focusing on social, cultural, economic and religious issues and topics.

The Bombay community is withering because it chooses to do so. The North American Zoroastrians opt to thrive.


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"The Bombay community is withering ......... The North American Zoroastrians opt to thrive." Community is withering for many issues,the Bombay community views on inter caste marriage,non Zoroastrian spouses and their children entering fire temples,dokhma,are minor issues. The main withering is late marriages,couples having only one child or staying childless, staying single, divorces,separation, old people living with a domestic servant who gets the property after death of their master, many Zoroastrians are in name only as their house is adorned with photos of Ram, Krishna, Durgas, Babas,Christ etc with no photo of Zoroaster,grown up children forsaking old parents,Gays.These problems exist in North America where inter caste marriages, divorces,separation, old parents left alone, is on the increase. Inter caste marriage children specially with Muslims never become Zoroastrians.The Congress was a happy get together with speeches and entertainment with many mobeds but not much achieved
- Shapour B Badri
- 22-Jul-2022


Villoo Poonawalla