Opinion

Snoop Dogg feels the bite of Parsi legal culture

Since the nineteenth century, members of the Parsi community have turned to law to resolve religious issues. But the case of the American rapper is different.

The American rapper and hip-hop artist best known as Snoop Dogg has a penchant for the ancient Middle East. He used Pharaonic motifs in California Roll, his music video that featured Pharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder. He also made a cameo appearance in King, a video set in ancient Persia that features Iranian-born singer Amitis Moghaddam. Intercut with scenes of hookah-smoking, pole-dancing women wearing very little, Snoop sits on a throne beneath the winged symbol of Zoroastrianism known as the fravahar (or the farohar).

Since King was posted on YouTube in early June, Snoop’s people have been getting a taste of another Zoroastrian tradition: litigation.

According to press and community accounts, Darayas Jamshed Bapooji, president of the Parsi Zoroastrian Association of Kolkata, has filed a lawsuit in the Calcutta High Court against two companies associated with the video. The governments of West Bengal and India are also defendants. (Residents of the US, both Snoop and Amitis are presumably out of reach.) The petitioner in the public interest litigation asserts that the video outrages and insults the religious feelings of the Parsi Zoroastrian community. He wants a court order directing authorities to ban the video in India.

Intra-community disputes

Organised opposition began when the team of Parsi Khabar, a “portal of information about Parsis and Zoroastrians”, created an online petition in protest against the video’s use of the Zoroastrian symbol.

In one way, there is nothing new about such disputes spilling into the courts. Since the nineteenth century, members of India’s Parsi community have readily turned to law to resolve sensitive religious issues.

Can ethnic outsiders who claim to have converted to Zoroastrianism be beneficiaries of Parsi trust funds and properties? Can wealthy Parsis validly leave money to fund death commemoration or muktad rites in perpetuity? Can priests be denied physical control of a Zoroastrian fire temple? Can they be prevented from performing controversial religious ceremonies? Can construction of a new tower of silence be blocked?

Questions like these have often been decided not by Parsi panchayats or other community bodies but by the courts. Not only have all the parties in such cases been Parsi – but often the lawyers and the judges have been, too.

History of civil litigation

In another important way, however, the King case looks different from most traditional Parsi religious suits. It is not a lawsuit against other Parsis, aspirational or otherwise. It is aimed at outsiders. Not that this is unprecedented. In a famous episode in 1923, the Bombay Parsi Panchayat had threatened to sue a magazine called The Graphic for publishing an aerial photograph of skeletons in Poona’s Tower of Silence.

Still, the fact remains that the vast majority of lawsuits over the Zoroastrian religion in India have been Parsi-versus-Parsi actions. Could Parsi legal culture be turning outward under the unlikely influence of Snoop Dogg?

On Snoop’s side too, there is a long history of involvement with civil litigation. The rapper has been sued many times, including in an employment suit filed by his former bodyguards and for multiple cases of alleged copyright infringement by other performers. He has also sued others, particularly in contractual disputes, like the current one with beer-maker Pabst.

Diversity of reactions

To be fair, there is a mix of opinions on King in the Parsi community. On social media, many have expressed outrage. Others regard the Kolkata response as an overreaction. Yet others have turned to humour.

The folks at Bawatips have added this caption to a screenshot of Snoop as Persian king: “Some people are just born Parsi… while the rest try hard at being one.” They have Parsified his name and wonder whether “Snoop Kutrawala” wants to do his navjote, the Zoroastrian initiation ceremony. Let’s hope they don’t give him any ideas. A Snoop Parsi trust case could only end badly.

It is possible that the singer Amitis and her video producer, both of Iranian background, did not see a strong reaction coming. They may simply have turned to a symbol that Muslim Iranians cherish as fiercely as Zoroastrian Parsis through national pride rather than religion. They may even have been unaware that smoking is prohibited for devout Zoroastrians.

But a more cynical reading is that Amitis and her associates realised that causing religious offence generates publicity. It does.

More targets elsewhere

There is also the Indian political context. The Parsi community seems to enjoy preferred status with the Modi government. The Ministry of Minority Affairs, for instance, has been generously co-funding the Jiyo Parsi initiative to increase the Parsi birth rate. Minority Affairs Minister Najma Heptulla’s 2014 remarks prioritising Parsis over Muslims are now famous.

Will the court stake a similarly favourable attitude toward the Parsi community represented by its more conservative elements? The Kolkata petitioner is appealing to the court to protect the religious rights of his “microscopic” minority community.

And will all of this cool off Snoop’s ardour for India? He appeared in the Bollywood blockbuster Singh is Kinng with Akshay Kumar in 2008. The taste of Parsi legal culture may make future collaborations in India less likely.

Snoop and Amitis need not despair. There remain plenty of religious communities to offend elsewhere.

Mitra Sharafi is a legal historian at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison. She is the author of Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.