AN ISSUE THAT HAD ITS ORIGINS IN THE SOUTH Gujarat town of Valsad has now moved to the Supreme Court and is all set to become a landmark case on the rights of Parsi women who marry outside the community to retain their parental religion. The issue started about 10 years ago with an incident that occurred among Valsad’s Parsi population, which numbers about 500. Parsis usually have a panchayat to govern their affairs. In Valsad, the Parsi panchayat was governed largely by the Shroff family, which had started the Valsad Parsi Anjuman Trust decades ago and still contributes a large share of its funds.
Goolrookh, a Parsi woman who married Mahipal Gupta, a non-Parsi, was suddenly faced with what she calls “Taliban-like” diktats of the panchayat. Enraged at the unfairness of the decrees, she decided to take the legal path to rectify the “injustices”. In this interview, she speaks about the inconsistencies of the self-styled keepers of the faith and the long road she has travelled to reinstate the liberal values that had existed in the Valsad panchayat. Excerpts:
What started this off for you?
My parents live in Valsad and until my mid-teens I lived there, too. Then I came to Bombay [Mumbai] and that’s how I met Mahipal Gupta. We decided to get married in 1991, under the provisions of the Special Marriage Act. Until 2003, the rules for Parsi girls marrying non-Parsis were lenient in Valsad. There were no restrictions—the girls could even enter the fire temple. The Shroffs were the trustees those days, and the trust’s money came from the Shroffs of Hong Kong who were related to the Shroffs of Valsad. My mother is related to them. My father was a part of the trust right from his young days, and now, at the age of 79, he resigned because he was harassed. The Shroffs were liberal as trustees. In 2003, I attended the funeral of Jehanbux Chavda, who passed away when he was the president of the panchayat. I attended all the Parsi ceremonies on all the days and no one stopped me… no questions were raised about my presence. Rusi Shroff was the secretary of the panchayat then and he was liberal. Both he and Chavda had even said that when they died their non-Parsi friends should be allowed to attend their funerals. Non-Parsis touched them and bowed before them and no one said anything [actually, Parsi custom does not permit this].
Valsad was a liberal place for Parsis, until my friend Dilbar Valvi, who is married to a non-Parsi, lost her mother. Dilbar went to the tower of silence for the ceremonies. She was sitting in a verandah adjoining the room where her mother’s body was kept. The pall-bearers told her that they would not handle the body if she did not leave. They said she was a Hindu and, therefore, had to leave. Her sister, also married to a non-Parsi, was present, too. Both of them were shocked because when their father passed away, they were not prevented from attending the funeral. Dilbar left the temple as she did not want to hamper the funeral proceedings. She sat a mile away in a bungli [pavilion] built for non-Parsis. This is another example of the regressive behaviour of the trustees.
The trustees spend panchayat money to maintain this bungli . They also do not allow women to be a part of the panchayat proceedings. If they are so firm about following old customs, then how come the current panchayat president Burjor Pardiwala’s daughter, who is married to a non-Parsi, was allowed to attend a jashan [ ceremony]? In fact, even her mother-in-law attended the religious function, and I am told that the lady was served the malido [sweet offering made sacred by the prayers and meant to be eaten only by Parsis]. When Pardiwala was a junior person in the trust, his father had passed away. His father had been a lawyer and Pardiwala’s stepmother had been a judge in the Gujarat High Court. Hence, a lot of prominent people from the bar were expected at the funeral. At that time, Pardiwala had pleaded with Pherozeshah Shroff, the then president of the panchayat, saying it would look bad if all the [non-Parsi] mourners were not allowed to pay their respects. Shroff was a liberal man, and so he had no objections to allowing non-Parsis at the funeral. My father reminded Pardiwala about this, but the panchayat president brushed it aside saying he had made a mistake at the time.
There are many such instances of inconsistent behaviour and changing rules to suit one’s convenience.
What did you do when you heard that Dilbar Valvi was banned from her mother’s funeral?
I was sickened by it. Our prayers go on for one and a half days; you can go insane thinking that you are away from these last moments.I spoke to my parents about this. My father tried to say that the new lot were orthodox, but my point was that you cannot make your own rules in the name of religion and custom. Here a progressive trust was adopting regressive thinking. I started writing letters to the Parsi panchayats in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Vadodara, Vapi, Daman, Pune, Valsad and many other places asking them what their practices were. I wrote to the Pardi panchayat, too. It is close to Valsad but covers a smaller community, of about 150 Parsis. The president there is an uncle of mine. He is forward-thinking. He dismissed the Valsad panchayat’s practices as humbug. The Surat panchayat said the same thing. In fact, the daughter of one of the trustees is married out of the community and she freely visits all the fire temples and is involved in matters relating to the trust. The Ahmedabad and Vadodara, panchayats were also supportive.
On the whole, the feedback was that you were in the right and the Valsad panchayat was in the wrong?
The view from Delhi was that there are many places where they have such views, so if I have the courage to oppose it and to see it through, then I should start, and if I can’t, then I shouldn’t even start. But on the whole, people said they had no objection to women who had married outside the faith attending funerals or entering the fire temples. The Valsad panchayat told my father to ask me to stop [mobilising opinion]. They even said they would let me attend my parents’ funerals. I said, “Give that to me in writing and also give it to me in writing that you will not stop any Parsi woman married to a non-Parsi from going anywhere or attending ceremonies.” This fight is not for myself. It’s for those who don’t come from as privileged a background as I do and have no means to fight. They gave me nothing in writing, and I realised they were not serious. That is when I took the matter to the Gujarat High Court. My case was taken up by Percy Kavina in Ahmedabad who said he was waiting for a Parsi woman to stand up and fight for her rights, so he fought it pro bono publico .
What exactly was your contention in court?
Parsi girls who married non-Parsis should be allowed to attend the last rites of their parents, allowed to go to the Agiary [fire temple], and allowed the rights of a practising Parsi Zoroastrian. Since I married under the Special Marriage Act, it allows me to follow my religion and I do not cease to be a Parsi.
Did you talk to Pardiwala about this?
No, but my father did. He replied that this was not allowed by the religion. He is just being rigid and vindictive. His daughter and I continue to be close friends. In fact, I grew up in the Pardiwala house. I can only conjecture that the other members on the committee [there are nine members on the panchayat committee] were small fish when my family was the leading light of Valsad. So it is perhaps the feeling of suddenly coming to power.
Are they all agreed on this decision to keep Parsi women married to non-Parsis away from the Agiary?
It started with four for and four against, and the ninth one was a trustee who lived in Mumbai. He was indecisive but finally went over to the other side.
So you have some support from within the panchayat?
No, those who were supportive are now dilly-dallying. One member’s son is married to a non-Parsi. He wanted to perform his children’s naojote [initiation ceremony] and even though this is allowed [since the father is a Parsi] he was gently made aware that the panchayat might make it difficult for him in small ways. And so the member became silent when my issue came up. Gradually, the others began to realise that to gain something one must lose something, and so they all moved over to the other side. Finally, only my father, who was on the committee, was supportive. Even he has resigned now.
In 2012, the Gujarat High Court gave a verdict that was quite extraordinary.
Yes, the court said that even if a woman is married under the Special Marriage Act she automatically takes on the religion of her husband. That is ridiculous and so unfair. Today I am married to a Hindu. After some years I divorce and marry a Muslim. Does my religion change again? And what is my religion in the period between the two marriages? And what happens to non-Parsi girls who marry a Parsi? They cannot become Parsis because Zoroastrianism does not encourage conversion. So a woman is completely governed by a man.
You moved the Supreme Court?
Yes, and my sister, Shiraz Patodia, who is a solicitor, took over. Harish Salve and Abhishek Manu Singhvi are both handling my case pro bono . There are intervention applications, too, by various people—Adi Godrej, Jamshyd Godrej, Smita Godrej and others—and Shyam Divan is counsel for them. While Anand Grover is lead counsel for another intervention application filed by some lawyers on behalf of a Muslim woman who though she has married a non-Muslim continues to be a practicing Muslim.
You are determined to see this through but it must have taken its toll.
Yes, it’s been torturous at times. I have been driven by the fear of not being allowed to attend the last rites of my parents. I felt I was right, and so I have gone ahead with what I believe in.
What do your children feel about this?
My daughter was interested in the [Parsi] customs and religion until she was 10 years old. She would see me or my mother doing the kusti [tying of the sacred thread with prayers] every morning and night. And she wanted to be a part of this . Then, when she saw me go through all these problems and fight for my religious existence, she said she was very happy to be a Hindu.
You have never thought of getting your children’s naojotes done?
No, that was never on my mind and even now that is not the issue I am fighting for.
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