Rayomand Coins

Crusade for a child

Yet again a Parsi woman has been forced to go to court to fight for her child’s and her rights. Dadar Parsi Colony (DPC) resident Sanaya Dalal thought long and hard before taking the extreme step. For years she had attempted to reason with the Colony’s institutions, but when that failed she moved a writ petition directly in the Supreme Court. Lawyer Percival Billimoria of New Delhi drew up the petition and Jasmine Damkewala filed the papers in the apex court. Both have offered their services pro bono.

A case for perceived violation of constitutional rights can be directly filed in the apex court under article 32 of the Indian Constitution. The bench of Justices Abdul Nazeer and A. S. Bopanna ordered papers to be served to the nine respondents (see "Fighting for childrens’ rights," pg 20).

Dalal’s seven-year-old son, Rian Kishnani had been denied a Games Membership in the Dadar Parsee Colony Gymkhana (DPCG) as his father, Rishi, born of a Hindu father (Om Kishnani) and a Parsi mother (Khushnuma Patel), is legally a non-Parsi. Until the age of five, Rian could attend the Gymkhana every day accompanied by his mother, who is a member. But on completion of five years of age, he had to seek a Games Membership. Without that he could only enter as a guest four times a month. His membership applications accompanied by new cheques when the old ones became dated, were kept in abeyance.

The Gymkhana considered amending the rules to increase the number of times a member’s guests/relatives could visit. A members’ meeting to vote on the increased visiting rights was to be convened on September 15, 2019 but because a "no change" option was not listed, an objection was raised by the people who usually oppose any liberalization. Former Bombay Parsi Punchayet chairman Dinshaw Mehta’s Parsi Junction opposed the increase in visiting days, just as he had opposed any vote by Ripon Club members on whether to admit Parsi Zoroastrian women as full-fledged members of the Parsis-only Club. The September DPCG meeting was put off and has not been subsequently held.

Dalal and her son’s petition notes that the land on which the Gymkhana is leased is for the "improvement of the city of Bombay" and therefore restricting its usage on the grounds of race, sex or religion is unconstitutional. The petition points out that the Hindu, Islam, Christian and Parsi gymkhanas on Marine Drive were made to rescind their religion-based restrictions on membership and open their doors to all on merit. The same rule should logically apply to the DPCG, especially since there is a precedent.

Hence, by not making a small adjustment to the rules, the Parsi-only Gymkhana may have jeopardized its exclusivity. This, perhaps, may be in the larger interest of the institution, as at present the ground-plus-one-storey building and the property on the main Ambedkar Road are underutilized. Ironically Dr B. R. Ambedkar, India’s first minister of law and justice after whom the road is named, was an ardent and foremost campaigner against social discrimination.

Khushnuma, never challenged the DPCG rules when Rishi was denied admission. She was not alone in taking a restrained stance. For over a 100 years, Parsi women, intimidated by male dominance, did not take up cudgels for their or their children’s rights. As Rishi stated in an affidavit attached to his wife’s petition, he was "deeply influenced by my mother’s religion and Parsi customs and practices. However, it became apparent that I would never be accepted as a Parsi by the community." He became "disillusioned with the fact that I would not be allowed to worship in the fire temple and other places of worship. I grew up not to believe in any organized religion or ceremonial practices though a firm believer in the oneness of God."

It was only in 2010 that former Valsad resident Goolrookh Gupta (née Contractor) moved the Gujarat High Court to fight for her right to enter the fire temple and the Doongerwadi precincts in the south Gujarat town. The Valsad anjuman had passed a resolution barring entry to both venues to Parsi women married to non-Parsis. In 2017, Calcutta residents Prochy Mehta and her daughter Sanaya Vyas initiated an Originating Summons in the Calcutta High Court inquiring who had right of entry to the local fire temple. Vyas’s two navjoted children who used to visit the fire temple were barred entry when a new panthaky replaced the existing one.

It took 102 years for Parsi women to question in a court of law the decision passed by Bombay High Court Justices Dinshaw Davar and Frank Beaman that included in the definition of Parsi the children of both Parsi parents and the children of a Parsi father. The children of a Parsi mother were not included. The justification for this sexist judgment? The fact that adulterous Parsi men slept with non-Parsi women and had their illegitimate children from such immoral liaisons navjoted. This abhorrent practice served as a precedent for accepting their children as Parsis. But since virtuous Parsi women did not stray outside their marital bounds, their children could not enjoy the same privileges as those of licentious men! Who says crime does not pay?

The Parsee Central Association Co-operative Housing Society Ltd (PCA) in Dadar is also named in Dalal’s petition as it discriminates against Parsi women married to non-Parsis but not Parsi men who marry non-Parsis. PCA has been filing court cases against out-married Parsi women or their families if they reside on covenanted land meant for Parsis. A City Civil Court had ruled over 40 years ago that only Parsis could reside in such lodgings. That decision was not challenged in the High Court. Instead of being content with the ruling and turning a blind eye to interfaith married couples and their offspring occupying flats, the PCA filed cases against several such families "with missionary zeal," alleges Dalal.

Here also the covenant ruling could be overturned by the Supreme Court.

For very limited, sexist and racist privileges both the Gymkhana and the Housing Society have jeopardized their Parsi-only character. Should they wish to engage top legal counsel, the fees could go into crores of rupees. Gupta’s lawyer in the Gujarat High Court Percy Kavina fought free of charge as are her lawyers Indira Jaisingh, Shiraz Patodia of Dua Associates, Sidharth Luthra and Ravindra Shrivastava in the Supreme Court. In the case of the ban at Doongerwadi against two priests who performed funerary rights for those who opted for cremation, the Bombay Parsi Punchayet squandered between three to four crore rupees if not more (the trustees never disclosed the amount) trying to uphold their ill-conceived edict. The array of top lawyers for the two priests fought pro bono both in the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court.

The lawyers who fight without charging their clients substantial fees do it to further a public cause, to fight injustice, not to further it. But they need a complainant to come forth. Parsi women had to step forth and overcome the shackles of male repression. Now that they are doing so, they may finally get their due.


Villoo Poonawalla