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Addressing the abuse

If there is one difference between the May 29, 2022 Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trusteeship election and the past ones, it’s the introduction of a court sanctioned code of conduct and a court appointed Election Commission (EC). The effects are being felt immediately and are ensuring a level playing field for all the candidates. Finally there is an impartial and objective forum to which aggrieved individuals can approach to seek redress. In the past those defamed either silently bore the brunt of the allegations and insinuations hurled at them or fought back individually as best they could. Now with a greater awareness of the laws and institutional reparation available, parties are better protected; even against the ubiquitous social media.

Community activist, homeopath Dr Viraf Kapadia put up a WhatsApp photo post on April 19 of out married candidate Yasmin Mistry with a bare midriff taken from her Facebook account with the caption, "We want a BPP trustee, not a fashion diva without sadro and kusti." He also alleged she wed under Muslim law that required her to become a Muslim. His chat group carried posts from others demeaning her and her husband. She filed a criminal complaint with the Matunga Police Station alleging she was defamed and her modesty outraged.

Kapadia would reportedly have been in the lockup of the police station but former BPP chairman Dinshaw Mehta requested candidate Dr Zuleika Homavazir to rush to his aid and secure his release. In his defense Kapadia then put out a letter of apology around April 26 in which he alleged that "primarily Zuleika Homavazir and her father Firdosh Homavazir misguided me knowing my orthodox views." He then submitted "my sincere and unconditional public apology." Shifting the blame on the Homavazirs brought swift retribution from Zuleika who over the phone berated him. "How have I instigated you to write?… I came and helped you…and you cut my neck. I regret helping a man like you…What you have done is absolutely wrong." In the past Kapadia had alleged BPP trustee Noshir Dadrawala’s son had married a non Parsi. "This was a blatant lie and an absolute untruth…How often will this man allow himself to be ‘used’ (by) petty Parsi politicians?" Dadrawala queried in a WhatsApp post on April 26. "Social media may be unregulated but there are responsibilities and restraints that one must exercise."

Mistry also filed a complaint against Zuleika and her father before the EC on April 6 alleging the duo "made various statements on a WhatsApp group titled Parsi Community Grievance…which amount to a personal attack on her, her credibility as also her husband." On April 14 Zuleika in turn filed a complaint alleging "by virtue of her marriage, Yasmin is a Muslim (and) should be disqualified from contesting the elections."

Mistry provided the EC with her marriage certificate under the Special Marriage Act "which permits persons of different faiths to marry without renouncing their religion or converting to another religion," noted the chief election commissioner, Cmde Aspi Marker (retd) on April 30. He termed Zuleika’s allegation "completely unsubstantiated…The tone and tenor of these (allegations) were deliberately provocative" and the complaint was "not bona fide…The EC severely deprecates this conduct of Zuleika/her father…We are cautioning Zuleika that any repeat of such breach whether against Yasmin and/or any other candidate will entail serious consequences including a possible disqualification of her candidature."

The EC also offered relief to the BPP when it permitted the trustees to negotiate with the Mumbai Mazdoor Sabha union that represents 211 class IV employees (see "BPP-union settlement," Events and Personalities, pg 8). Zuleika had claimed arriving at a settlement would amount to a policy decision being taken when elections had been announced and would serve as an inducement to the employees, 21 of whom are Parsis, to vote for the present trustees who negotiated the new agreement. She felt the negotiations should be left to the new board of trustees.

The three majority trustees, Armaity Tirandaz (chairwoman), Viraf Mehta and Xerxes Dastur also found their election ploy of converting leave and license agreements into tenancies to win over voters who reside in BPP colonies stymied for the present (see "BPP flat conversion stayed," Events and Personalties, Parsiana April 7-20, 2022). In our questionnaire to the 17 aspiring trusteeship candidates, we asked if they favored the conversion (see "Callout to candidates," pg 18). Nearly all did with some adding a rider that the Parsi-only clause for the housing colonies should be ensured. How that can be done is a mystery because the colonies would be covered by the Maharashtra Rent Control Act rather than any lease agreement between the BPP and the occupant.

Abuse showered on contestants seeking public office is more often the norm than not. The United Kingdom’s (UK) The Guardian daily of May 2, 2022 notes that "dozens" of councilor seats go uncontested in the UK "due to the ‘truly toxic’ environment… An increasing number…are being subjected to abuse, threats and intimidation, both online and in person, undermining the principles of free speech, democratic engagement and debate….More must be done to protect councilors from abuse."

Mistry was in two minds whether to contest or not. When Parsiana queried her on April 20 as to when she was going to respond to our questionnaire as the April 18 deadline had passed, she phoned to say she was undecided about standing. To deter and demoralize her was the object of those who opposed her candidature.

So far the community has been lucky that some worthwhile candidates continue to come forth. So many shy away claiming electioneering is messy and degrading. They see no need to soil their reputation or put their families through the stress that standing for, and occupying public office, entails. The prominent Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan once termed politics a "cesspool." One needs a thick skin to enter politics. It’s not for the fainthearted. To whatever extent the EC can curtail the hateful and malicious attacks, the community stands to gain.


Villoo Poonawalla