Tata Group caught between globalization, Zoroastrianism

1103Tata-Parsee2_middle_320MUMBAI — The turmoil in the top echelon of the Tata Group underscores how problems are coming at India’s biggest conglomerate from an unconventional point of view: religion.

Colaba, a district in the southern part of Mumbai, has a peculiar section that features a grand stone gate leading to a spacious central courtyard, surrounded by collective housing units. A prayer room stands deep in the compound, where only believers in Zoroastrianism, the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, are allowed to reside.

While there are only a little more than 100,000 Zoroastrians in the world, the bulk of them live in Mumbai and elsewhere in western India. The Parsees, as Zoroastrians are commonly called in this country, adhere to strict religious beliefs and emphasize solidarity among themselves.

Cyrus Mistry, 48, who was suddenly ousted as the sixth chairman of the Tata Group on Oct. 24, and his predecessor, Ratan Tata, 78, who has returned to the post on a provisional basis, are both Parsees.

While the reasons for Mistry’s sudden dismissal are unknown to the public, the Tata Group has a number of problems. One is that of succession.

Parsees sometimes joke darkly that there will be none of them left in 100 years. In ancient times, they promoted marriage among relatives as a way to maintain the purity of bloodlines. They still have strict rules about marriage today. Children born to Parsee fathers can themselves become Parsees. But women of other faiths marrying into Parsee families cannot convert to Zoroastrianism or enter Parsee temples, splitting households along religious lines.

One unmarried Parsee man in his 40s spoke of the difficulty of finding a suitable partner within the small Parsee community. At one point, the hotel worker considered marrying a woman of another faith. But both his parents and hers objected to the match, he said. Outsiders often have difficulty accepting customs unique to the faith, such as leaving the dead on ceremonial altars to be picked apart by birds. Cremation is avoided because of fire’s sanctity to the faith.

Membership in Zoroastrian community is patrilineal, meaning that children born to Parsee mothers and non-Parsee fathers are excluded. Young Zoroastrian women often marry men of other religions due to the shortage of potential Parsee mates. The population of Parsees has declined as a result.

The Tata family tree shows a shortage of young candidates to take over the business. Ratan Tata, who has never married, had planned to retire at age 70, in 2007, according to people close to him. After struggling to find a successor, he finally turned to Mistry, chosen by a selection panel, in 2011.

Mistry was born into the Pallonji family of Parsees, which has a major equity stake in Tata Sons, the holding company of the Tata Group. He is also related to Ratan Tata through marriage, and became involved in the management of Tata Sons in 2006.

Published on Nikkei Asian Review

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