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The Calcutta cauldron

New Year is a time for rejoicing, family gatherings, entertainment and for many, a visit to the fire temple. But in Calcutta, Zoroastrians who visited the Late Dhunjeebhoy Byramjee Mehta’s Zoroastrian Anjuman Atash Adaran till 2015 have been told some family members are unwelcome. Admission has been barred to navjoted children of Parsi women and non-Parsi fathers since the new panthaky was appointed around two years ago. Adopting what he states is the traditionalist approach, the mobed reversed the policy of the former panthaky who permitted entry to these youngsters. The new panthaky candidly admits that he is not learned or well versed with scriptures but believes in following the customs he has been brought up with (see "Be inclusive, not exclusive," page 56).

His stance divided the local community, many of whom have married non-Parsis or have family members who have done so. If one cannot offer obeisance jointly as a family, if mothers cannot enter with their children, why bother to go to a place of worship? As a result, the aggrieved parties have moved an Originating Summons in the Calcutta High Court (CHC) asking the judiciary to voice an opinion on who has the right of entry to the sole fire temple in the West Bengal capital.

But the traditionalist priest has done more than divide the Calcutta Parsis. His actions have also resulted in deep schisms in The Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India (FPZAI). A meeting called on July 30, 2017 by FPZAI president Yazdi Desai asking for the all-India body to intervene in the Court case has evoked a strong protest from the Calcutta Zoroastrian Community’s Religious and Charity Funds (CZCRCF). In an email dated July 24, the CZCRCF had told the Federation to "please immediately call off the it clearly amounts to interference in the internal affairs of the Calcutta community." The FPZAI’s rule 5A categorically states, "All anjumans who are members of the Federation shall be free to manage their own affairs and activities in accordance with applicable laws and regulations." By moving the CHC, this is precisely what the local residents are doing.

But Desai thought otherwise. In a strongly worded email sent the next day, Desai stated, "We are not waiting for you to call the FPZAI for help. As approved by the executive council, FPZAI will intervene strongly in this case to safeguard the interests of the Parsi Zoroastrian anjumans of India." On what basis did Desai assume the executive council would approve the resolution when the meeting had yet to take place? The answer is that the World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis (WAPIZ), of which Desai is the chairman, over the years has packed the executive council with its members, easing out the more liberally inclined anjumans. Thus, while Delhi traditionally had two seats on the council, it has only one now, and that too because the rules provide for them to be permanent council members. Even Baroda was eased out as it is viewed as being liberal or in opposition to some of the more traditionalist approaches.

Four vice presidents, four co-opted members (all WAPIZ appointees), one Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trustee, and the anjumans of Bilimora, Nargol, Jabalpur and Jhansi voted in favor of intervention while the Delhi and the Iranian Zoroastrian Anjuman (IZA) abstained. Aside from Bombay, Delhi and the IZA no major anjumans were present.

Those attending the Federation meets are mainly from Gujarat and for the most part, staunch WAPIZ supporters. In short, there is not much difference between the FPZAI and WAPIZ, except that one claims to be an all-India body and the other a world body. But they are both basically south Gujarat associations.

Desai passed his resolution as predicted, but it is a Pyrrhic victory, something achieved at excessive cost, outweighing the expected benefits. What if Calcutta cedes membership from the all-India body? There is no certainty the CHC will permit intervention. BPP trustee and Federation honorary secretary Noshir Dadrawala who has publicly distanced himself from Desai’s stand, has pointed out legal hurdles in intervening. Two other trustees, Kersi Randeria and Zarir Bhathena are also opposed to intervention but do not want to publicly cross swords with Desai. All three refrained from attending the meet.

By testing their patience, Desai may unconsciously be laying the ground for a future schism among the BPP trustees aligned with him. On the Calcutta issue, Desai’s thinking is aligned with his two opposing trustees, Armaity Tirandaz and Viraf Mehta who voice the traditionalist point of view. A Desai-Tirandaz-Mehta alliance at present is unthinkable but in politics everything is possible. Earlier in the year, relations were strained when the longtime ally of Dadrawala, Randeria and Bhathena, Dinshaw Tamboly’s name was proposed by Desai for the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) and then abruptly withdrawn by him. To add insult to injury, Desai in the letter to the government withdrawing support termed Tamboly "anti-religious" claiming he would "misuse the important position to further his reformist agenda" and thereby destroy "the delicate ethno-religious fabric of the Parsi Zoroastrian community." In another email to a community member, Desai commented, "At least the over confident ‘parké paisé charity (charity done with others’ money)’ dhongi (phony) Tamboly has been knocked off."

At some point, Dadrawala, Randeria and Bhathena may feel obligated to follow their beliefs as versus the expediency of keeping together their alliance with Desai. What unites Desai and Randeria is basically an abhorrence towards former BPP chairman Dinshaw Mehta.

While the political maneuvers continue, for the Calcutta Parsis the New Year leaves little room for rejoicing. Though the panthaky’s actions may have caused a rift in the local and all-India community, his stance finally forced two Parsi women to challenge the 110-year-old judgment of the Bombay High Court Justices Dinshaw Davar and Frank Beaman (Petit vs Jeejeebhoy 1908). The Justices defined the children of Parsi fathers as Parsis. If the ladies succeed in the courts, the hardships and heartaches would have been worthwhile. If not, at least Parsi women would have the consolation somebody in the 21st century tried to fight gender injustice in the community.


Villoo Poonawalla