A time to honor
After over 10 years of ostracization, heartache, struggle and legal setbacks, Goolrookh Gupta and her sisters Shiraz Patodia and Kamal Thapar have won the right to attend their parents’ funerals in Valsad, as and when the elderly couple expire (see pg 26 “In search of justice”). The trio fretted over the issues as their aged parents, Dina and Adi Contractor reside in the south Gujarat town of Valsad. The Valsad Parsi Anjuman (VPA) had passed a resolution banning entry to the local fire temple and Doongerwadi to Parsi women married to non-Parsis. The three sisters, one, who resides in Bombay and two in Delhi, are married to Hindus.
The family fought not only against the VPA but the numerous punchayets and anjumans that supported the VPA. Adi was a trustee of the VPA but when the controversy took a toll on his health, he stepped down from the all-male board.
Finally a five member bench of the Supreme Court of India on December 14, 2017 persuaded the VPA to at least withdraw the ban on the sisters attending their parents last rites at the time of their passing. The right to enter the fire temple and whether the Special Marriage Act (SMA) requires the woman to take on her husband’s religion will be decided when the Court resumes hearing on the case on January 17, 2018.
For the three sisters their first and most crucial battle has been won. Their partial victory compensates to a limited extent the inaction of Parsi women who for over 110 years suffered injustice due to the 1908 Bombay High Court ruling by Justices Dinshaw Davar and Frank Beaman in the Parsi Punchayet Case. The Justices specified a Parsi is the child of a Parsi father even if, as Beaman observed, the child was “begotten of prostitutes or kept mistresses.” Beaman was even more scathing in his comments on the witnesses who testified for the traditionalist respondents. He noted, “It is true that the so called learned men who have come before us to support the Defendants’ case have wasted hours of our time in puerile attempts to gloss away the plain letter of the law. But that must be attributed partly to invincible bigotry which proverbially dulls the sharpest wits, and partly to a natural stupidity and want of training in clear thought.”
The case pertained to J. R. D. Tata’ mother Soonoo, a French lady (Suzanne Brière) whose navjote was performed by Dastur Kaikhooshroo Jamaspji. She was considered a Zoroastrian by the Court but not a Parsi as she was not born of a Parsi father. The Justices ruled the community trusts were created for those who met both the ethnic and religious criteria; hence Soonoo was barred from entering a fire temple or having her body consigned to the Towers of Silence.
Both parties to the suit, Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy and Sir Dinsha Manockji Petit (a friend of the Tatas) were moneyed and influential yet the Petit/Tatas did not file an appeal in the Privy Council in London. Associate professor of law at the University of Wisconsin in Madison Mitra Sharafi, who did her doctoral thesis on the Parsi Punchayet Case as well as the Saklat vs Bella case in Rangoon, believes the Tatas could have won in appeal.
The English judges would not have the same mindset as those in India. Even in the Saklat vs Bella(1925) case the three member Privy Council bench ruled that the trustees had the right to admit to a fire temple a non-Parsi, if they so wished. Bella was allegedly the daughter of a Goan father and Parsi mother.
The question arises after these two historic court cases why no Parsi women till this year moved the Courts to challenge the definition of a Parsi as laid down by Petit vs Jeejeebhoy or to combat the relentless discrimination they face. There are many influential and moneyed women / families that could have easily financed any case and withstood any backlash from the traditionalists.
But it was only when the new head priest in Calcutta barred entry to the local adarian to the grandchildren of Prochy Mehta, that she and her daughter, Sanaya Mehta Vyas, who is married to a non-Parsi, filed an Originating Summons in the Calcutta High Court.
The Mehtas are a well-placed family, as are the Contractors. Gupta’s sister Patodia, being a leading attorney in the prestigious Delhi law firm of Dua Associates, made it possible for the sisters to take on the VPA. All the lawyers representing Gupta in the Supreme Court including Percy Kavina of Ahmedabad who appeared for Gupta in the Gujarat High Court, did so pro bono. In contrast, the VPA is expected to spend over a crore of rupees fighting the case in the apex court.
In both cases, the instigation for the legal battles came not from the deprived parties but those in power. Their obdurate stand forced the Contractors and the Mehtas to litigate. The times are changing. Women are beginning to assert their rights: The #MeToo movement for women to voice the sexual harassment they have suffered from powerful men, the Hindu and Muslim women who are standing up for their rights, the Dalits and other disadvantaged sections of society that are claiming their rightful dues.
Behind every movement for equality there are a handful of peoplewho initiate the effort. They take on the establishment, regardless of the consequences. They are the heroes of our time. Whether they succeed in their mission or fail, they deserve society’s respect and accolades. The Contractor sisters and the Mehtas are role models not only for the Parsis but for all persecuted women and children everywhere. We have to honor and salute them.
Parsiana – 21-Dec-2017