Left, Right, and a little bit of the Centre

yazdi-desai-dinshaw-tambolyCommunity politics and mud-slinging has hit the Parsis’ representation in the National Commission for Minorities

Once again, in the battle between the conservative Right and liberal Left, the Indian Zoroastrian community seems to be the biggest loser, as its nomination to the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) is still vacant.

In a three-part interview, mid-day looks beyond the immediate reasons for the withdrawal of former Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) trustee Dinshaw Tamboly’s name by BPP chairman Yazdi Desai, who claimed that he was under “tremendous pressure” to do so and had been given an extremely short window to file in the nomination.

Tamboly claimed that he was in line for the NCM nomination in 2014 but delayed his admission by formally withdrawing as he was “requested to do so”. He added that Desai had written the withdrawal letter to minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi “in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the BPP”.

Desai, however, told mid-day that he had not consulted BPP board members, but the Federation of Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India, which is “more a representative of the Parsi community in India than the BPP”.

Shernaz Cama, who is the director of UNESCO – Parzor Project, Parzor Foundation, spoke to mid-day over the phone from New Delhi. She said she had wanted Tamboly to be nominated, as he was the right person who would understand “the nuances of the job”.

She added that the BPP’s politics was damaging the community as a whole.

dinshaw-tambolyDinshaw Tamboly, former BPP trustee for 14 years
When did the space between the Left and Right in the Parsi community increase this drastically?
The issue started with the vultures in the ’90s. None of my colleagues wanted to come out and speak about vultures disappearing; so, a group of us started exploring alternatives for disposal, and allow those who wanted to be cremated to use banglis. The high priest at the time put a ban on the clergy, that it should not perform the last rites of the first four days (which are extremely auspicious) of a person who has been cremated or buried. It was this initial clash of opinion that was a question of staying with the time, being relevant to it, from which the gap widened.

Are you a reformist?
No, I’m a pragmatist. I do not believe in change for the sake of change, but when nature wants us to change, we should.

What do you make of Desai’s letter to the minister, withdrawing your nomination?
What people do not know is that what he (Desai) has written to the minister in his personal capacity, not on behalf of the BPP board. He is trying to create the impression that this (withdrawal) is what the board wants, which is false.

Why do you think he withdrew your name then?
When my term as a BPP trustee got over in 2003, and when I was standing for re-election, he (Desai) was against me and lost miserably, 80%-20%. This definitely has something to do with it. The present board is very lopsided.

Why not speak against the backlash in the community against reformists?
Doing such things openly is not my style. I maintain a certain level of dignity, which is appreciated in the community. My appointment is not a life or death situation.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?
In 2014, when Keki Daruwala was occupying the NCM position, I got a call from then BPP chairman Dinshaw Mehta telling me that he would like to propose my name for it. I was looking forward to being appointed but was requested by Dadi Mistry to apply for the next tenure, to which I gladly obliged, and Mistry was appointed to the NCM. After three years, I was called by him and told that the position was going to be vacant, which is when I asked Kersi Randeria (current BPP board member) to send my name. But it was ultimately withdrawn. I will happily work for the government if they want me to, but if not, I have many other positive and productive things to do.

shernaz-camaShernaz Cama, director, UNESCO – Parzor Project, Parzor Foundation
Did you recommend Tamboly’s name for the NCM to the BPP?
Parzor doesn’t get into political issues, but I believe Tamboly is the man with the vision to do a good job at the NCM; that’s what I suggested to the BPP.

Do you think the BPP holds an upper hand in the community, even over the Delhi chapter?
Our community is much bigger than the Bombay Parsis, and goes well beyond the BPP. Bombay Parsis came into existence only in the 1600s; Parsis in India date back to nearly 3,000 years. The sacred fire has never come to Mumbai. I don’t know why they (BPP) think that they are the be all and end all of things. The BPP has an upper hand because it owns the housing where most of the Parsis, who are part of Mumbai, live. In reality, the BPP has a very specific manifesto and mandate.

Do you think BPP politics is affecting representation at the Centre?
Yes. It is unfortunate that we have shown ourselves to be a divided community.

Who is this “politically connected Delhi-based Parsi businessman” that Desai refers to in his letter to the minister, whose appointment, he claims, you wanted to thwart?
I have no idea what they (BPP) are talking about. I’m not saying that this person is fictional; there were a lot of names floating around, but this time, we needed a strong person in Delhi, and at the time, Tamboly had agreed to shift if he came onto the NCM. However, there were some names, which were of people who are not knowledgeable about the community, and haven’t worked for it either.

Yazdi-DesaiYazdi Desai, BPP chairman
Why did you withdraw Tamboly’s nomination?
The decision came after the annual meeting of the Federation of Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India at Banaji Hall last week. The response from a delegate – Commodore Bhada — was that we should be careful who we appoint for the NCM. Most were in agreement with this… They (Anjumans) expressed disappointment at Tamboly’s nomination. There was a lot of pressure on me to retract.

Why did you nominate him then?
The letter was sent in haste because Shernaz Cama told another board member (Randeria) that we needed to send a recommendation at the earliest, or a businessman with vested interests, who didn’t know much about the community, would be appointed.

Did you retract the letter on a personal note, or on behalf of the BPP?
Since I was the one who had recommended his name by virtue of being BPP chairman, I have now withdrawn his nomination by the same virtue.

Why can you not have a reformist in the ranks representing you at the Centre?
Humanity is fine, but we want to preserve the race. People like Tamboly and Daruwala think it’s shameful to talk about race in the present day, but they don’t understand that most Parsis are orthodox. They don’t want to dilute their bloodline by marrying outside the community. Religion is the system of belief, even if it may not be consonant with the times.

Published on Mid-Day