Mission impossible? Parsiana Editorial Viewpoint

To the question “Does the community have the will to survive?” asked by Arvind Mayaram, secretary in the Government of India (GoI) Ministry of Minority Affairs (MOMA) at an interaction with prominent community members in the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP)  boardroom on November 20, 2014, the apparent answer is “No.” Childless couples or even the occasional single individual may want children, even desperately, according to gynecologist Dr Anahita Pandole. But the general community is either indifferent or expects others to have children, hopefully in large numbers. This of course is not happening.

Amongst the seven current trustees of the BPP they have 12 children. The replacement number is over 15. The reproduction numbers for the six high priests is slightly better but not at the required replacement ratio. Carry out a similar exercise in any anjuman and the results will be the same.

The Surat Parsi Panchayat’s former long-standing president was the late bachelor Maneck Gheyara. The BPP chairman in the latter part of the 1970s, the late B. K. Boman-Behram, was single. His onetime trustee-ally, and later electoral foe, the late Dr Nelie Noble was unmarried. So the community does not elect leaders on the basis of fertility or even marital status. The electorate looks for qualities of leadership, intelligence, willingness to work, approachability, service record, etc.

In one of the Jiyo Parsi advertisements to promote fertility there is a reference to the business icon Ratan Tata as the ideal man every woman would want to marry. But as bombaywalla.org editor Simin Patel noted during an interview with ET Now, Tata is a bachelor and yet a “complete” man. He is not viewed as a lesser mortal because he is single. Would an unmarried woman be awarded a similar status? Or would she be viewed as “incomplete” without a husband and children?

If the community leaders are unwilling or unable to procreate in larger numbers, who is? No one, to be quite honest. As social scientist Dr Armaity Desai told the gathering at the BPP boardroom, parents want to give the best to their children, good schools, private tuitions, French lessons, dance classes, sports activities and so on. Parents can’t afford to do all this if there are too many mouths to feed.

Would money then be an incentive to produce more children? Unlikely. Community leaders at one time would proclaim ad nauseam at gatherings, “No houses, no spouses.” But despite a plethora of community housing springing up over the past 100+ years, the Parsi population has plummeted from 1,14,890 in 1940 to probably under 60,000 today (the 2011 census figures are not released but the estimate for that time four years ago would be 61,000 or 62,000).

Thus is the 10 crore rupees that the GoI is shelling out for the Jiyo Parsi program, money down the drain? The answer is every effort is worthwhile and each additional birth is welcome.

But Parsi women married to non-Parsis are barred from availing of the Jiyo Parsi fertility subsidy while Parsi men married to non-Parsis can benefit. When this gender discrimination was pointed out to Mayaram, he termed it a “digression.” BPP and the World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis (WAPIZ) trustee Khojeste Mistree said the community followed a patriarchal model and therefore the children of women who married out were not ethnically Parsis. Hence the bar.

Mistree and others who harp on ethnicity should ponder why the Iranians in Iran who are of the same ethnic stock have not achieved a similar measure of prominence as the Parsis in India. For the Zoroastrians in Iran one can argue the environment is not conducive and possibly even hostile. Aside from a handful like Arbab Rustam Guiv, the Zartoshty Brothers, Dr Farhang Mehr and others in the distant past who prospered and achieved laurels, the community has been suppressed.

But what about the Muslims in Iran? Aren’t they of the same stock as the Parsis? Aren’t most of them Zoroastrians who over the course of centuries converted to Islam? And if so why is not Iran viewed as one of the great nations of the world? On the contrary it is viewed by many as a pariah state which supports global terrorism. What then happened to the great ethnic stock theory?

The answer may lie in a genetic study conducted by the Genographic Project, a multilayer research initiative led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr Spencer Wells and “a team of renowned international scientists who analyze historical patterns in DNA from participants around the world to better understand our human genetic roots.” The article titled “Where West Meets East: The complex mtDNA Landscape of the Southwest and Central Asian Corridor” by Lluis Quintana-Murci et al was published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, 2004. The full article is available online at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1181978/  A report and write-up on the study was sent to Parsiana by reader Dr Shirin Engineer.
Engineer explains the study involved analyzing the Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA or mDNA) which “in humans and in a lot of other species is exclusively inherited from the mother (italics ours). The fact that mtDNA is maternally inherited enables genealogical researchers to trace maternal lineage far back in time… DNA is the hereditary material that encodes the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms and many viruses,” notes Engineer.

The findings of the studies of Iranian and Parsi genes “support a male-mediated migration of the ancestors of the present-day Parsi population from Iran to India, where they admixed with local females… leading ultimately to the loss of mtDNAs of Iranian origin, (italics ours),” states Quintana-Murci.

Engineer explains this means “Iranian males some time in the distant past, possibly during the Sasanian dynasty (224-651 AD), to escape Islamic persecution in Iran (or maybe even before the era of persecution to establish trade along the Silk Route) made the long and perilous journey to India namely Gujarat, either by land or by sea. These ancient Iranian male ancestors of ours settled in Gujarat and married local Indian Gujarati ladies who by religion were Hindus and gave us our unique gene pool. Hence most of the Parsis of the Indian subcontinent are genetically half Iranian and half Indian.
“I salute our Iranian Zoroastrian male ancestors who made this dangerous journey, and helped to keep the flame alive. At the same time, I want to stand up and give a thunderous round of applause to our female Hindu ancestors who accepted these alien men and raised their progeny as Zoroastrians in their own land.”

Engineer recommends “a genetic scientist should collect a large sample group from the Parsis in India and abroad and… confirm or refute the above study.”

Could a combination of Iranian and Indian genetic stock be the reason the community in India is excelling? Or is the freedom to practice one’s religion and abide by its tenets the cause for success? Or both?

Whatever the answer, genetically and morally there is no grounds to bar out-married Parsi mothers from raising their children as Parsis. By barring them we are hastening our demise.

Parsiana: 07-Dec-2014

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