B.P.P. (= Buckle, Placate, Pacify) Buckles Under Pressure of DDD-AG

By Noshir H. Dadrawala

The promised “managerial decision” has been taken, ostensibly after weighing all pros and cons. At a Board Meeting held on November 6, 2001, the trustees of the funds and properties of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, decided by a majority vote (Rustom Tirandaz being the only dissenting trustee), to drive the proverbial “first nail” in a many centuries old Parsi Zarathushti religious practice, custom, tradition and usage.

While swearing under affidavit (and routinely reiterating the same at public and private meetings, as also in various communications) to “uphold, support, sustain and strengthen the system of dokhmenashini”, the trustees have finally buckled under the pressure of a numerically small but powerful lobby styling itself as “Disposal of the Dead with Dignity – Action Group” (DDD-AG).

DDD-AG tests the waters

When this lobby first surfaced around the end of the year 2000 they had a rather ambitious “wish-list”. Among other demands, this lobby desired that all or any one of the existing ‘bunglis’ at doongerwadi should be made available for the four days obsequies of those Parsis whose corpses may have been disposed through methods other than dokhmenashini. It was also demanded that the BPP trustees should encourage Parsi priests to perform the four days obsequies of those who choose an alternate system of disposal. And finally, this lobby recommended that since in their own view, the system of dokmenashini was not working satisfactorily, alternate systems (perhaps facilities for burial or an electric crematorium or both) should be introduced at doongerwadi. Clearly DDD-AG was “testing the waters”.

BPP shoots down two out of three wishes

It may be said to the credit of the BBP trustees that out of the three ambitious wishes, they categorically dismissed the last two. However they did decide, even then, by a majority vote, to allow use of the bunglis for the four days obsequies of those who may choose an alternate method of disposal. This created uproar in the community.

Protest meetings, signatures and letters

Members of the Parsi community packed the Patkar hall on 23rd. February 2001, to protest against this policy decision. Thousands of signatures were obtained and the BPP office was flooded with letters and e-mails of protest. At the same time, the various “bogies” (of health hazard, the system having completely failed, etc.,) were systematically demolished by members of the “Save Doongerwadi Action Committee” (SDAC) with the help of forensic, scientific, legal, religious and other experts.

Decision held in abeyance

The BPP trustees seemed to agree with the counter-arguments advanced by the Save Doongerwadi Action Committee and saw merit in holding the implementation of their hasty decision (to give the bunglis for obsequies of those who choose to be buried or cremated) in abeyance.

Historic meeting of ALL Vada Dasturs

Shortly thereafter, at a historic meeting, held at the Framji Cawasji hall, on 21st. April 2001, all the High Priests of the community, with one voice, publicly demolished the arguments raised by the DDD-AG with scriptural and other references and recommended by way of a resolution that the BPP trustees should hold a “Samast Anjuman Meeting” before taking a final decision regarding any demands made by DDD-AG. Sadly, six out of the seven BPP trustees have chosen to disregard this fair, reasonable and democratic recommendation. And these are the same trustees who during their election campaigns had feigned “ignorance in religious matters” and had agreed to be “guided by the decisions of the High Priest in religious matters”.

The present decision

At their meeting held on 6th. November 2001, the trustees of the BPP have decided to demarcate an area at “Ambawadi”, which is a part of the sacred doongerwadi property, for constructing a so-called “prayer hall”, at the expense of the DDD-AG, for all obsequies starting from “Sarosh nu patru”. In other words, for the moment, the so-called “prayer hall” facility will be made available for all obsequies other than the “geh sarna”. Those who choose burial or cremation may make their own arrangements for the “paidust/ geh sarna” anywhere outside the doongerwadi complex, say, at their own homes or at “Chandanwadi”, etc. However this special “prayer hall” would be available for obsequies like “Sarosh nu patru”, “Uthamna”, “Chaharum”, etc. A very special facility, one could say, for a very special class of Parsis! Reportedly, six trustees of the BPP believe that this is a “reasonable” compromise.

But why compromise?

One may legitimately ask, “why do some of the trustees want to compromise?” The answer is quite simple. If the trustees did not compromise, DDD-AG would have carried out their threat of dragging the BPP trustees to the courts. And as everyone knows by now, some of the most leading, influential and powerful Parsi doctors, lawyers and solicitors are members of the DDD-AG. The so-called “managerial decision” was not a choice between “Right and wrong” or “Tradition v/s Reform”. The choice was between being dragged to court by the powerful and influential DDD-AG or upholding a longstanding religious custom and usage.

Redefining the acronym “BPP”, the trustees decided to adopt a policy of “Buckle, Placate and Pacify”.

Every parent knows that when a spoilt child cries too much, a pacifier may just do the trick. The BPP hopes the “pacifier” of a special “Prayer hall” will placate the strident members of DDD-AG.

What dignity ?

One of the leaders of DDD-AG had openly declared at a meeting held in the BPP board room, in the presence of all the trustees and members of SDCA that, if the BPP accepted their demands, DDD-AG in the interest of peace (?) would not only drop the charges of “health hazard” and “the system not working satisfactorily”, but actually work in tandem with the traditionalists to safeguard doongerwadi. However if the demands were not met with, DDD-AG would “expose” various issues to the municipality and other government authorities and drag the BPP to the courts. This BPP boardroom drama has been faithfully reported by ‘Parsiana’. Speaks volumes for the dignity of those who wish to dispose their dead with dignity. A classic case of “Dignity for the dead and indignity for the living”.

Rafiq Dada’s opinion

One of the factors that have influenced the recent decision of the six BPP trustees, has been the opinion of Senior Counsel Mr. Rafiq Dada. It may be pointed out that Dada’s opinion is just one among many opinions which the BPP has received. The trustees have conveniently disregarded the opinion received from former President of the BPP and senior solicitor Mr. Eruch Desai. They have also disregarded the very in-depth opinion of Senior Counsel Mr. Bomi Zaiwala.

But even if one were to go by Dada’s opinion, the learned counsel has opined:

(i) The decision of the BPP trustees to permit the use of the “bunglis” according to the request made by DDD-AG would be in order if the followers of the DDD-AG require the “bunglis” for performing religious rites and ceremonies in accordance with the Zoroastrian religion.

(ii) It would be open to the BPP trustees to permit the “followers of DDD-AG” (seems to be acquiring a cult status!) to construct a separate prayer hall at doongerwadi after taking such permission from the statutory authorities as may be necessary, provided that such a prayer hall is used for religious rites and ceremonies in accordance with the Zoroastrian religion.

The qualifying line, “in accordance with the Zoroastrian religion” is a key factor for consideration.

Is DDD-AG’s demand “in accordance with the Zoroastrian religion”?

The Zoroastrian religious scriptures, as also long standing custom, practice and usage, recognizes only “dokhmenashini” as the religiously valid and proper method for the disposal of Parsi Zoroastrian corpses. Disposal of Parsi Zoroastrian corpses through methods other than “dokmenashini” (especially where the facility of a “dokhma” is available) is not in accordance with the Zoroastrian religion.

The learned counsel also states, “ it has been proposed by the DDD-AG that after the first day’s obsequies is performed at doongerwadi, the body of the deceased Zoroastrian would be taken from doongerwadi in a private hearse and arrangements would be made at a place outside doongerwadi for the cremation (or burial as the case may be) of the dead body. At the conference held with me, it has been strongly urged on behalf of the “Save Doongerwadi Committee” that even the above method would not be permissible under the Zoroastrian religion. If this is so and if the Zoroastrian faith does not permit such an act, then the querist (BPP trustees) cannot give the bunglis or a separate prayer hall for the aforesaid purpose at doongerwadi.”

It is surprising how the BPP trustees, one of whom is a leading solicitor, could have taken the decision which they did on 6th.November 2001, after receiving such a clear opinion from senior counsel Mr. Rafiq Dada.

Who is competent to decide?

The BPP trustees, on their own admission, are not “religious experts”. When they required a “legal opinion” they approached a “legal expert” like Mr. Dada. Now this “legal expert” has opined that that the facilities demanded by the DDD-AG can be given only for “religious rites and ceremonies in accordance with the Zoroastrian religion”.

The question arises, “who can decide whether offering the facilities demanded by the DDD-AG, (for ‘religious rites and ceremonies’ of those who choose to be buried or cremated, despite availability of a dokhma) is in accordance with the Zoroastrian religion” . Clearly, a “religious issue” can be interpreted, opined upon and decided only by “Religious experts”, i.e., our religious scholars and learned High Priests. However in their haste to placate and please DDD-AG, the six trustees of the BPP have decided to read the opinion of their learned counsel with special blinkers and deliberately ignore his guidance.

The Ambawadi property

The trustees of the BPP argue that the place demarcated in the area known as “Ambawadi” is far removed from the dokhmas and the existing bunglis. They however cannot run away from the fact that “Ambawadi” is part of the sacred doongerwadi property. They therefore argue that there is nothing sacred about “Ambawadi” which is inhabited by the “Kharwa” community and non-Parsi children play cricket and other games on this property. It is also argued that Godrej Baug, a residential complex for Parsis, is built on doongerwadi land.

What the trustees fail to understand is the fact that, neither the “Kharwas” (like the “Koli”, the original inhabitants of Mumbai) nor the residents of Godrej Baug are of any threat to the several centuries old religious customs, traditions and practices of the Parsi Zoroastrian community. What the DDD-AG is attempting to breach and destroy is a time- tested and longstanding religious custom and usage.

The test is quite simple. Did the philanthropic donors who gifted the doongerwadi land including “Ambawadi”, even remotely contemplate that their largess, which was given in sacred trust, would be used for purposes demanded by the DDD-AG? The answer, as they say, “is blowing in the wind”!

Only performance of ceremonies!

Granted, that for the time being, the DDD-AG only wants to perform certain “religious rites and ceremonies” (excluding the “paidust”) at “Ambawadi”. However the “religious experts” (i.e., religious scholars and High Priests), are unanimous in their opinion that the so called “religious rites and ceremonies”, for those who choose to be buried or cremated, despite availability of a “dokhma”, is not in accordance with the Zoroastrian religion, nor the longstanding Zoroastrian religious custom, usage and practice. Period!

Why insist on doongerwadi property?

Members of the DDD-AG are blessed with adequate resources, especially financial resources. Surely it would not be too difficult for them to buy a suitable plot of land anywhere in Mumbai. And not just for a prayer hall, but even to put up a crematorium. Why then the insistence on having a special facility at doongerwadi? The answer is quite simple. In phase I, DDD-AG simply wants to get a foothold and then gradually make inroads.

DDD-AG initially had an ambitious “wish list”. Today there is a considerable “climb down”. And the “climb down” is because members of the DDD-AG know deep down in their hearts that their childish demands are illegitimate, both from a religious and legal point of view.

Today the demand is for a special prayer hall at “Ambawadi” for obsequies excluding the “paidust”. As the years would roll by and new trustees would come on the board, a new demand could be raised for allowing even the “paidust”. One compromise leads to another and therefore the next logical step would be a demand for a plot of land for either an “aramgah” or an electric crematorium. Where do we draw the line?

There was a time when the trustees of the Parsi Punchayet were men of vision and foresight. They placed their religion and community above all other considerations. All major policy decisions were taken only after taking the community, including the clergy, into confidence.

Unfortunately, today we have trustees who cannot see beyond their noses and their policies and decisions are often guided by considerations of short-term gains.

What next?

Six trustees of the BPP have decided on a religious matter on 6th. November 2001, without consulting the High Priests or the community at a Samast Anjuman Meeting. They have chosen to disregard the opinion of their former chairman and senior solicitor Mr. Eruch Desai. They have chosen to ignore the very detailed opinion of senior counsel Mr. Bomi Zaiwala. What’s worse, they have decided to read the opinion of their own counsel, Mr. Rafiq Dada, with a pair of special blinkers. Their policy decision is not based on transparency, accountability, fairness or righteousness. But, sadly, these are the very principles and virtues our worthy leaders swear by in their election manifestos and subsequent public utterances. What a pity and what a shame!

A well-established and longstanding religious practice is about to be compromised to placate a few, in the name of “pragmatism” and on the altar of Truth. Will devout members of the Parsi community remain mute spectators or rise in protest and do all that is within their means and resources, to throw into the Arabian sea, the first rusty nail that is sought to be driven?

Now is the time. Arise! Awake! And stand up to the bullying tactics of DDD-AG and protest against the passive support the weak-kneed BPP trustees extend to such bullies!

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