The Vansda navjotes

Berjis Desai

Vansda is a small town, near Bilimora, in the district of Navsari. Rather pretentiously, up to 1949 it was the capital of the princely state of Bansda. In 1942, this nondescript town was catapulted to a center of controversy in modern Parsi history.
The year 1942 was a tumultuous one. The Second World War was going badly for Britain. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the shrewd tactician, gave the British a call to "Quit India.” The world economy was in the doldrums. The nation’s mood was heady; rebellion was in the air. Two Parsis believed it was the opportune moment and decided to right a wrong. In the process, Vansda would become famous, or infamous, depending upon one’s perspective.
It was a status symbol for better off Parsi farmers in the far flung villages of Gujarat to maintain Hindu mistresses. The progeny of these unions were denied admission into the faith, even though as per the law the children of Parsi fathers and non-Parsi mothers were Parsi Zoroastrians.

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


Contrary to the widespread belief that a person cannot be a Parsi Zoroastrian without undergoing a navjote ceremony, an initiation is not mandatory for this purpose. A navjote is not exactly akin to baptism. It is more like the yagnopavit (janoi) thread ceremony of the Hindus. A person can be a Parsi Zoroastrian even without having a navjote ceremony.
Of course, in those days, in the absence of DNA or paternity tests, a navjote was the only means to assert identity as a Parsi Zoroastrian. The two Parsi reformists thought so too.
There were rich precedents for such juddin navjotes. On June 26, 1882, as reported in the Parsi Prakash three days later, 11 navjotes of the children of Parsi fathers who were workers in the Mazagon Docks, were performed not by some renegade priests but the eminence gris including, hold your breath, the saintly and venerated Dastur Jamshed Kukadaru. That explains why the ultra-orthodox hardly invoke his name.
The age of the navjotees ranged from 35 to 77 years, and included females. Significantly, the sponsors were prominent sethias of the Wadia and Banaji families. A mild rumpus ensued but not enough to prevent Kukadaru being conferred the high honor of a dastur during his uthamna.
In 1918, Ervad Hormusji Panthaki of Surat performed the navjote of the child of a Parsi father and Afghan mother in Sind; and, as a consequence, had to beg forgiveness of the Sind Anjuman. Earlier, there were similar navjotes in Rangoon against which censoring resolutions were angrily passed by several Parsi anjumans in India. Similarly, in 1921, one Edulji married three Muslim women in Quetta, and the navjotes of all his children were performed. Of course, not so unexpectedly, in 1914 the Anjuman Committee resolved to exempt similar navjotes of Ratan Tata’s children from any penal consequences. Some animals are more equal than others.
In June 1942, 77 navjotes of persons aged between seven and 60 were performed by the fearless duo of Burjorji Bharucha and Dastur Framroze Bode in Vansda. Bharucha was no ordinary reformist. A renowned Gandhian, close to the Mahatma and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, he wore khadi and slept on a trunk in a ramshackle building in the Fort area after having gifted away all his wealth including a flat on Altamont Road. He relentlessly served the poor, monitoring every act of charity, was brutally frank and, like Caesar’s wife, beyond suspicion. Service was his religion. He was the Dinshaw Tamboly of those days; working day and night for the cause of poor Parsi farmers in Gujarat including in far flung hamlets. There was no justification for keeping the children of Parsi farmers and their Adivasi consorts out of the fold, contended Bharucha. And he always practiced what he preached.
Bode, then in his 40s, was the first of the authentic renegade priests. Erudite, secular, well-traveled, multifaceted, he was also vocal, theatrical at times, a bit of an exhibitionist perhaps (this columnist recalls seeing him in the late 1960s, with Jal Heerjibehdin, editor of the reformist Parsi weekly Kaiser-e-Hind, almost enjoying being pelted with eggs and tomatoes at the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute’s hall, by enraged conservatives). Controversies surrounded Bode for his lifetime including the fact that he had never obtained a foreign doctorate in Zoroastrianism. A vegetarian, he was influenced by the first of the reformist priests, the brilliant Dastur Maneckji Dhalla; he spent much of his later life heading the cause of reform in North America. He solemnized the marriage of maestro Zubin Mehta who reportedly called him a Pope. Bode was delighted with Bharucha’s plan.
The orthodox contended, with some justification, that in the absence of any due diligence, many persons, neither of whose parents were Parsis, entered the fold. Even today, a few manage to learn the kusti prayers and trace their paternity to some Behramji who has gone missing or a Sorabjee who is no longer alive to deny parentage, and slip into the fold.
The rumpus which followed the Vansda navjotes was unparalleled. Despite Bharucha’s national stature as an exemplary humanist, one who did more than cheque book charity for poor Parsis, had a road named after him and a stamp issued to commemorate him, the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) was petrified enough by orthodox requisitionists to cancel his condolence meet. Almost every Parsi anjuman, the Navsari Bhagarsath Anjuman and the Athornan Mandal condemned the Vansda navjotes. Some even petitioned the Maharaja of Bansda to intervene. He must have been thoroughly perplexed. Bode narrowly escaped being hammered by enraged conservatives.
Around 20,000 Parsis requisitioned the BPP to call a Samast Anjuman meeting to condemn the navjotes. True to form, the BPP did not want to be seen as deviating from the Bombay High Court (BHC) judgment of Justices Dinshaw Davar and Frank Beaman which held such children to be Parsis, nor did the BPP want to antagonize the rich and powerful in the community. On the other hand, the trust was desperate not to displease the enraged majority. So it did what it is best known for. Nothing. It dragged its feet until one of the navjotees filed a suit in the BHC against the trustees of a fire temple, claiming rights of worship. Sub judice, said the relieved BPP, and the meeting was never called. Under pressure from 32 anjumans, the BPP finally asked for the genealogy of these 77 navjotees, which was never furnished. The suit was quietly withdrawn.
Sir Shapurji Billimoria, the then BPP chairman, had a reputation of being a fence-sitter. He tried to broker peace between Bode and Dastur Kaikhushru Kutar, but the latter, under pressure from the orthodox, reneged. Some others like the Mumbai Vartaman, a newspaper, tried too. Too many things were then happening on the national front with Independence on the anvil and the Vansda navjotes were quietly forgotten. They were never judicially challenged. No one attempted to excommunicate the navjotees or prevented them from exercising their rights as Parsis.
All 77 navjotees, and their future generations, were deemed Parsi Zoroastrians.

Berjis Desai, lawyer and author of Oh! Those Parsis, and recently Towers of Silence, is a chronicler of the community.