Rayomand Coins

Reforming the BPP

Perhaps the most telling statement made at the extraordinary general meeting of The Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India (FPZAI) on May 5, 2019 at the Banaji Atash Behram Hall at Charni Road was by the Delhi Parsi Anjuman (DPA) trustee Adil Nargolwala when he observed, "The Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) chairman is not able to carry his trustees with him (see "Give peace a chance," pg 24)." Six of the seven BPP trustees were at odds with their chairman Yazdi Desai. He had moved a resolution at the FPZAI meet to oust five of them from the once prestigious all-India body and to also change the registered office of the Federation from the BPP to the Framjee Cawasjee Institute. The Institute also houses the World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis (WAPIZ) office, though on a different floor.

Desai had hired four bouncers to keep the five trustees out of the FPZAI meet as they had not submitted letters authorizing their attendance. All this was played out before the 50 or so delegates from Gujarat and elsewhere as well as the Parsi Press gathered at the venue.

But good sense prevailed and the five were permitted to attend. During the meet, two of Desai’s co-trustees, Noshir Dadrawala and Kersi Randeria, frequently voiced their disagreements, disregarding all attempts to silence them. Desai publicly lamented such skirmishes also took place in the BPP boardroom. If he imagined the statement would gain him sympathy, he was wrong. Aside from his south Gujarat loyalists and handpicked office bearers, the rest of the delegates present must have been aghast at the manner of functioning of a trust that once prided itself on being the "apex" body of the community. The scene was reminiscent of warring couples in a family court, except in a court some decorum has to be observed. Nargolwala rightly told the warring BPP factions to "speak with one voice" on the Federation floor.

That admonition was similar to what former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told the then BPP chairman Dr Aspi Golwalla and the high priests in 1982 when different anjumans voiced varying views on the Adoption Bill before Parliament. The thought of a non-Parsi child, however deserving, being brought into the community through adoption was abhorrent to the traditionalists. At that time the BPP was not a member of the Federation. They had left around three years earlier when at the Third World Zoroastrian Congress in 1979 the then DPA president Shiavax Nargolwala had criticized the antiquated election scheme of the Bombay trust. In a huff then BPP chairman B. K. Boman-Behram insisted the BPP leave the Federation claiming that Delhi had interfered in the internal matters of another anjuman, contrary to the rules and spirit of the FPZAI. Only BPP trustee Eruch Desai opposed Boman-Behram’s diktat, the other five meekly went along. Once the Committee for Electoral Rights came into existence and Boman-Behram did not seek reelection, the BPP rejoined the Federation.

Adversity divided the FPZAI but also brought the body back together. History now appeared to be repeating itself this May. But this time the enemy was not outside the BPP, but within. The other anjumans had no option but to look on in embarrassment as the drama played out. While a section of the Parsi Press had carried leaked e-mails written by the BPP trustees, attacking one another in the most vile and base manner, this was a live performance. Until now the trustees had not berated each other publicly. One faction still had loyalties to their unofficial electoral ally, Desai. But this is the second time Desai has turned his back on his onetime friends.

The first time was before the 2008 elections when he and his WAPIZ co-founder trustee joined forces with then BPP trustee Dinshaw Mehta who subsequently adorned the chair. But the alliance was in tatters two years later when Desai, in a move to consolidate his power endorsed the candidature of his wife Anahita for BPP trusteeship to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Dadrawala. Mehta and the five other trustees had hounded Dadrawala out of the trust as he was the only Adult Franchise for Progress candidate to be elected from a slate of seven. He was seen as housing activist Randeria’s man, and hence a thorn in the side of Mehta who loathed Randeria (then not a BPP trustee). But Mehta and Randeria later joined forces to back Muncherji Cama’s successful trusteeship candidature.

Sadly Mehta’s term as chairman was marred by internecine battles and hostility bordering on violence. Mehta had a majority but with his quick temper and lack of tact, lost one of his four allies to the opposite side. Everything went further downhill from that moment. But Mehta at least retained the loyalty of two of his co-trustees. Desai has none.

To settle scores with his co-trustees, Desai moved to eject them from the FPZAI. He wanted total, unquestioned power which his FPZAI loyalists would have given him. But what would he have done with that authority? He confided to the delegates gathered that under his leadership the BPP had accomplished nothing in the past two-and-a-half years. Neither in the FPZAI, he could have added. The body has not met for over two years despite its constitution requiring a meeting every six months. WAPIZ, which Desai heads, was meant to be a world body but operates more as a local, Bombay based, welfare organization. With such a track record what future would FPZAI have had, being little more than a south Gujarat body? Even zonal meetings have not been called by Desai’s appointed vice presidents over the past two years.

Though universal adult franchise was introduced for the BPP trusteeship elections in 2008, no subsequent reforms were added to ensure a functional democracy. No mechanisms were included for an annual state of the Punchayet report, nor publication of budgets and accounts. Most importantly there is no clause for the chairperson to be replaced if she or he loses the support of the majority of trustees. Hence chairpersons continue whether they have a majority of trustees on their side or none at all. In all functioning democracies, if the leader loses the confidence of the majority, he or she resigns from office or is booted out. Only in dictatorships, the leader holds on to office, often resorting to legislative jugglery or brute force. (Desai tried both in the FPZAI, attempting to destroy the legislative framework and hiring bouncers.) Under the BPP election scheme, the senior most trustee becomes the chairperson usually after the trusteeship election unless all the six others object at that time. Once in office the chairperson remains so till the end of her/his term! A BPP trustee’s term in office is seven years and she/he can be reelected twice thereafter. In most anjumans a term is limited to three to four years.

In contrast, the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America, the World Zarathushti Chamber of Commerce and the Global Working Group meets in Orlando, Florida from May 1-5 passed off peacefully with fruitful discussions and constructive resolutions.

There is no doubt the BPP urgently needs structural reforms, if not to save itself at least to limit the damage it causes other institutions. Unless amendments are legislated, the sorry scene that unfolded this May in Bombay will continue to be enacted.


Villoo Poonawalla