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The orchestrated opposition to non Parsis being made associate members of the World Zarathushti Chamber of Commerce (WZCC) is a stark reminder of the intolerance and prejudice that still pervade the Bombay Parsi community. The associate members were anyway going to be treated as second class citizens with no right to vote, stand for office or avail of any of the benefits WZCC may confer. Whoever joined would have been doing the organization a favor, aside from contributing to the coffers via annual fees. Still, their presence was deemed a threat to the organization’s Parsipanu and racial purity and the move was dropped.

The associate member status, if it had been granted, would have been akin to that of Parsi women generally in the community, and the Ripon Club in particular. At the Ripon, only unmarried Parsi women can become associate members by paying the admission and monthly fees! Married women are not permitted. Associate members, have no rights barring the right to enter, sit and eat. Married Parsi women are viewed as a threat. In case their husbands are non Parsis, would their progeny one day aspire to become members of this most male chauvinistic institution?

Married men, on the other hand, are eligible to join as are their offspring whether legitimate or as Justice Frank Beaman so succinctly put it, "illegitimate… begotten of prostitutes or kept mistresses." 

It was alleged that Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trustee, Ripon Club managing committee president and WZCC Mumbai Chapter chair, Xerxes Dastur was instrumental in barring non Parsis admission to WZCC. Parsiana asked him if this claim was correct. He replied promptly (as he usually does, unlike some of his co-trustees) stating, "Yes… WZCC was founded on the premise that this would be a Zoroastrian Chamber of Commerce and hence we should stay true to our purpose. Also, any such change needs to be discussed and passed by the general body and not only discussed at the board level. Any change of such magnitude must carry all stakeholders. A majority of our members felt that we should stay true to the vision of our founders and carry forward our Zoroastrians only ethos."

We then inquired why, while he wanted to consult the WZCC stakeholders on the issue, had he refused to put to vote the admission of Parsi women at the Ripon Club? He had initially agreed to do so but subsequently backtracked.

"There’s really no difference," he replied. "At Ripon the members also need to take a stand and they will be asked if some change has to happen. The same way like at WZCC where also I am advocating that such a step is completely unwarranted since a majority of the members are not in favor of opening up. I am also doing the same at the Ripon. Any change of such fundamental nature in any organization must come with the consent and blessings of the entire organization."

How did he know what the majority of the members wanted without consulting the general body, we inquired? He had sounded out some members, he replied. Elected representatives often presume their thinking reflects the views of the electorate that voted them to power, irrespective of the merits or morality of the viewpoint. Not surprisingly, the BPP also sent a letter to WZCC pressuring the organization to reverse the decision.

In his column, "The bungli barriers," (see pg 26), Berjis Desai has derided the most obnoxious bar on the entry of non Parsis to the bunglis at Doongerwadi. A distinguished solicitor and community activist who once favored cremation over dakhmenashini, he now wishes to have his body consigned to the Towers of Silence. But under the present disposition, his non-Parsi wife and her relatives would be barred from being present during the funerary ceremonies. The anjumans of Delhi, the Nilgiris and Jamshedpur do not observe this ban. No doubt, in all three places there are no dakhmas. The bodies are buried. But the determining factor is not the mode of disposal. Several places that have aramgahs exclude non Parsis. Race is the deciding factor, not religion.

Desai’s only option is to fight the ban legally. Litigation implies the bankrupt BPP would run further in the red. Which lawyer of any merit would pro bono fight a case advocating racism? They will charge hefty fees as happened with the case to bar two priests from performing funerary rites at Bombay’s Doongerwadi. The trust wanted to ostracize them for performing the obsequial ceremonies of those opting for cremation. The trust paid a whopping four crore rupees (USD 485,503) in legal fees and achieved next to nothing. Ego fuelled legal battles prove expensive. Desai follows in the footsteps of Goolrookh Gupta, Prochy Mehta, her daughter Sanaya Vyas and Sanaya Dalal, all of whom are fighting for their religious and social rights.

On a trip last month with the World Zoroastrian Organisation Trusts (WZOT) team to Vansda and surrounding towns and villages in the Navsari district, the Parsiana representative inquired of WZOT chairman Dinshaw Tamboly as to "how they ascertain their beneficiaries are Parsis?" (see "Vansda revisited," pg 27). His reply, "Each and every family has some member or other who works in our agiaries, atash behrams, doongerwadis… If they are good enough to work at these institutions, they are good enough for our charities." 

Necessity is the mother of all compromises. As it is there is a shortage of priests, not to mention devotees in most of our fire temples. The absence of chasniwallas and other assistants/helpers would greatly hinder the functioning of agiaries, if not result in their closure. Nobody wants to be too particular about antecedents when hunting for personnel who are scarce.

Interestingly, one of the donors who contributed money to erect a pucca (permanent) structure for the indigent Parsis in Vansda was the late Dennis Richards of the United Kingdom. So impressed was he with the work WZOT was doing for the disadvantaged that he bequeathed a substantial amount. He best exemplified the sentiments expressed by his fellow countryman, King Charles III who stated after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, "My Christian beliefs have love at their very heart."

 What do most Parsis have "at their very heart?" For several, it is charity and compassion. For others, parochial, narrow-minded sectarianism. The triad of good thoughts, words and deeds has been replaced by racism, sexism and bigotry. While benefiting from living and earning in a cosmopolitan society, several create and foster racial barriers among communities. Their innate insecurity makes them turn their backs on those who gave us sanctuary 1,400 years ago and continue to do so. Can it be surprising, therefore, that several videos have been made and circulated on social media belittling and disparaging Parsis? While the attacks no doubt are representative of the times and the prevailing global sentiments against minorities, women and immigrants, we have in no small measure contributed to that culture of exclusion.