The administrative body controls a vast corpus of funds as well as significant property: a chunk of the prosperity of contemporary Mumbai.
In a matter of days, one of the smallest elections in India will take place. Members of the Parsi community in Mumbai will head to the polls on October 18 in order to vote for new trustees for the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. The Punchayet – as is apparent by the antiquated English transliteration employed – is one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the country. It is also an extremely unique body: technically, the Punchayet has been defunct for over 150 years (but more on that later).
Today, the Punchayet controls a vast corpus of funds as well as significant property: it is the biggest stakeholder in the complex social welfare system that oils the gears of Parsi affluence. It therefore controls the purse strings, in an indirect way, for a chunk of the prosperity of contemporary Mumbai.
Over the past few years, the Punchayet has been besieged by infighting and allegations of corruption. To the delight of the legal fraternity, trustees of the outgoing board also proved themselves very litigious. There have even been physical altercations between trustees – something that has horrified many in the Parsi community, who like to think of themselves as a civilised lot. However, this is nothing new. The history of the Punchayet is riddled with intrigue, legal tussles, and instances of corruption. It has survived numerous challenges – albeit in a radically different form. Yet, given the precarious state of the Parsi community today, one still wonders if the most challenging days of the Punchayet lie ahead.
Tied to Bombay history
The history of the Punchayet is inextricably tied to the early history of Bombay. In the 1670s, Gerald Aungier, serving as the governor of the new British outpost, invited people to settle in Bombay. He also encouraged them to set up their own community panchayats in order to supplement the nearly nonexistent governmental infrastructure on the island. The first incarnation of the Punchayet probably came into existence around this time or a little later, and it went through numerous reorganisations as Bombay developed in the 1700s.
By the end of the 18th century, Punchayet members felt confident enough to assume broad authority over community matters, issuing bandobasts or proclamations that outlawed or regulated particular activities. The British authorities – who ruled with a much lighter hand in Bombay in comparison to Bengal – allowed the Punchayet to try, punish, and even excommunicate Parsis who flouted its edicts. Punishments from this era show us that the Parsis’ tendency toward eccentricity was alive and well in the early colonial era. Take the instance of Jamshedji Behramji Lashkari. In 1818, he took a second wife in spite of the Punchayet’s explicit proscriptions against bigamy. As part of his punishment, Jamshedji was made to slap himself on the face five times with his shoe.
Shortly thereafter, Punchayet members even enforced a curfew for women during nighttime hours. By the 1830s, however, the Punchayet’s authority over community members was waning. There was outrage over the fact that some members had, themselves, taken second wives in spite of thebandobast against bigamy. The Punchayet instead became a source of ridicule. In 1848, one Parsi woman, no doubt quite peeved about the above-mentioned curfew, left her home in Fort and staged a protest against the Punchayet: she set up a tent on the slopes of then-bucolic Malabar Hill and dared anyone to force her to retreat back to town. Newspapers as far away as Calcutta reported on the powerlessness of the Punchayet to take action against her.
After the Parsi-Muslim riots of 1851, the Punchayet could only issue a tepid cautionary note to community members, advising them to stay away from “riotous Mussalmans” and avoid “taking any part whatever in the approaching Taboot holidays” (Muharram). Dadabhai Naoroji, meanwhile, launched his political career by authoring blistering critiques of Punchayet members’ relative indifference towards Parsi riot victims (in a similar vein, Pherozeshah Mehta entered the political limelight by speaking on behalf of Parsi victims after another bout of Parsi-Muslim violence in 1874).
The Punchayet, as a body invested with the authority to regulate community affairs, shrivelled up during the 1850s and 1860s. A new Parsi legal code in 1865, which formally transferred this authority to British Indian courts, served as its death knell. What remained, however, were the organisation’s funds, along with sizeable Punchayet-owned property, that was administered by a separate body of trustees. These men – officially deemed the trustees of the Funds and Properties of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet – now became the community powerbrokers.
Enormous challenges ahead
Enough about history. Once elected, new trustees will face an enormous challenge: perhaps far more complex than those encountered by the Punchayet members of the 1700s and 1800s, or the trustees who built up the Parsi social welfare system in the 20th century. Trustees of the new board will need to restore a sense of cohesion and optimism within the community. Both have been badly damaged by the previous board. But the roots of the problem run far deeper. Over the past several decades, the community has done a fine job of tearing itself apart through interminable fights between liberal and conservative factions. By Parsi standards, the level of polarisation is not unprecedented, but it is still deeply unhealthy. It has contributed toward creating a deep sense of pessimism among Parsis about the current state of the community – as well as a sense of foreboding about the future.
Parsis, as it is well known, love to argue. If, as Amartya Sen has proposed, there is such a thing as the argumentative Indian, then there surely must also exist the hyper-argumentative Parsi. This has given India some of its finest lawyers, but, within the community, it has also helped stymie constructive debate about various matters. The voices are too loud, and each side shouts past one another (perhaps only engaging one another with fists or through lawsuits). And as parents and grandparents have argued themselves hoarse, many in the younger generation have simply tuned out and adopted a jaundiced attitude toward the community and its affairs. Due to our peculiar demographic predicament, we already have far too few youths: we cannot afford to lose more this way.
The new trustees of the Punchayet will need to eschew dogma in favor of hard-nosed pragmatism. There is a sheer litany of crises affecting the community. Our population is rapidly declining. Nearly one out of two Parsis now marries out. A rash of robberies and even murders has exposed the vulnerability of our elderly community members. The Zoroastrian priesthood is in danger of collapse. Real-estate prices in Mumbai have made it critical to build more community housing, especially for married couples wanting to start families. Priceless Parsi heritage – libraries, sites of historical importance, and intangible cultural heritage – is in ruins or has already been lost.
Parsis deserve a Punchayet board that works together productively instead of squabbling and pursuing personal vendettas. They must hold trustees accountable and demand better leadership from them. This is no time to fiddle while the baug burns.