Rayomand Coins

Fighting fear

It is heartening to know several Parsis turned up for the pubic demonstration in Bombay against The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Their presence may appear insignificant in the vast sea of humanity that flooded the August Kranti Maidan and the adjoining roads on December 19, 2019, but they were making a point: If we do not stand up when the rights of other minorities, refugees and immigrants are being trampled on, anyone could be next.

As an editorial in The Indian Express of December 24 noted, "Having passed a law that makes religion, for the very first time, the basis for giving citizenship to foreigners, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government reserves the right to bring an NRC which would unsettle large swathes of the country’s own minorities and poor at a moment of its choosing. It keeps with itself the power to pick out the ‘ghuspaithiya (infiltrator)’ from the ‘sharanarthi (refugee).’"

Over 1,000 years ago Parsis came to what were then the hospitable shores of western India. Whether we were in search of a better life, business/trading opportunities or to practice our faith without hindrance is uncertain. What is important is that the community flourished and made a positive contribution, despite our meager numbers. The people who are seeking refuge today are not as well placed. They are fleeing their country of abode due to persecution, a breakdown of constitutional authority, the absence of law enforcement and poverty.

India is not always the first choice of the disadvantaged. Some of our neighboring countries have a faster growth rate than ours, fare better in international indexes that gauge social development. A column in The Economic Times (ET) of December 24 by social policy professor at Columbia University Neeraj Kaushal had an intriguing headline, "Illegal Indians in Bangladesh?" when she wrote "The Bangladeshi economy is forging ahead at eight percent GDP (gross domestic product)...the employment scenario in Bangladesh is much better...Bangladesh’s share of US trade has increased...Bangladesh’s merchandise exports have grown at double digits in fiscal 2019." In all these sectors India has been either stagnant or fallen behind. Monetary incentives to emigrate to India are largely not there.

What refugees seek is safety. Not that India is any haven, especially if you are Muslim or poor. But the existence they are are fleeing is far worse. One has only to view the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma/Myanmar who fled in the hundreds of thousands (the Bangladesh Prime Minister puts the figure beyond a million) to Bangladesh to avoid death, torture and rape by members of Myanmar’s armed forces. India refused the Rohingyas sanctuary stating they were Muslims and a potential terrorist threat.

When billionaire industrialist and Gandhian Rahul Bajaj at an Economic Times awards ceremony, attended by the home minister and other senior union ministers, spoke about "an environment of fear," both ET and its sister publication, The Times of India (ToI) the next day carried the home minister’s assurance that no one needs to live in fear of the government, but one could find no mention of Bajaj. Was that on account of "fear" or sycophancy? After some other newspapers had reported Bajaj’s speech and social media was abuzz with his comments, a day later both ET and ToI made reference to his remark.

Only a handful of newspapers adopt an independent stand. A person attempting to ascertain the ground realities must read between the lines. The television news channels also are reportedly directly or indirectly controlled by the ruling party.

Does this mean the CAA and NRC are devoid of all merit? Not necessarily. There may be some genuine purpose for both registers. What is lacking is trust in the government’s motives. Many believe the central government’s actions are crafted to appeal to their strong, and often extreme, Hindutva base. The government is viewed as having either connived or turned a blind eye to any and all excesses targeting particular minorities, especially Muslims. While countries like Turkey have spoken out against the victimization of Kashmiris and Malaysia against CAA, many Arab countries have been mute in their response. One shudders at the type of leaders invited as guests of honor by the Prime Minister for the Republic Day Parade and events: US President Donald Trump and Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro. Both are climate change deniers and highly unpopular abroad. If one is judged by the company one keeps, India’s international standing must indeed be low.

Some believe the Supreme Court will uphold liberal values and fundamental rights. But its tardiness in taking up the rights of the people of Kashmir, the decision to allot all the land where the Babri Masjid once stood to the Hindus and agreeing to refer the Sabarimala Temple judgment to a larger bench of seven justices is worrying. Are women to be penalized and denied entry to a house of worship because they menstruate between the ages of 10 and 50?

In our community, bigotry often runs riot as well. At the Ripon Club annual general meeting the managing committee refused to commit to any deadline to admit women as full-fledged members (see "A family Club?" Events and Personalities, pg 10). Even the Dadar Parsee Colony Gymkhana, the other Parsi-only club in Bombay, permits that. Our fire temple trustees (barring Delhi) are insistent on persisting with the ban on admission to children of Parsi women married to non-Parsis, even as the number of devotees continues to shrink. Non-Parsis continue to be unwelcome at jashans and gahanbars. The Iranshah Udvada Utsav in that respect is more inclusive and involves the local non-Parsi population and those from elsewhere in their activities (see "The blessings of Iranshah," pg 32).

While many Parsis support the discriminatory leanings of the government, it is always risky for a minority to align closely with any ruling party. What happens when the opposition comes to power? When Independence was declared in 1947, Parsis were politically astute enough to praise those who aligned with Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress party as versus those who supported the British. That is why the Parsi presence at the Bombay protest is a kind of future insurance. In the years to come when people ask whether Parsis opposed the tyranny of Hindutva, they can state honestly there were some in this opportunistic community who stood up for what was right, just as the religion advocates.



Villoo Poonawalla