The Parsis – one of India’s smallest minorities – have been worried about their dwindling numbers for decades. But in Delhi, members are at the verge of turning down an opportunity to expand a community organisation.

A few weeks ago, trustees of the Delhi Parsi Anjuman, which is in charge of the community's affairs in the capital, made a proposal to allow members' non-Parsi spouses to join the organisation and, controversially, allow these spouses to be buried in the community cemetery near Khan Market after they die.

Around 700 members of the organisation are set to vote on these issues at the Anjuman’s annual general meeting on September 21. But a week before the scheduled vote, the trustees of the organisation are already planning to roll back the proposed changes, sensing a backlash from more conservative quarters of the community.

Respecting sentiments

“There was a proposal floated by the trustees to allow burials for spouses of those who have married outside the community, but we now feel it is not the right thing to do,” said Yezad Kapadia, president of the Delhi Parsi Anjuman. “The people of the community don’t seem to want this change, and we want to respect their sentiments.”

Kapadia also cited space constraints in the cemetery as one of the reasons for reconsidering the liberal move. “Since we have limited space, we would rather have our own people buried on the grounds,” he said. The Anjuman has set up a committee to look into the proposed changes and discuss them.

According to Jehangir Patel, the Mumbai-based editor of community magazine Parsiana, the Delhi Anjuman is among the most liberal Parsi organisations in India. “The organisation now wants to make its rules more liberal, but it can only work if the members want change,” said Patel.

While the voting next week will determine how many Delhi Parsis are not in favour of a more inclusive cemetery, opposition to the plan has also been expressed by a national body of community associations. On Sunday, the Federation of Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India asked the Delhi Parsi Anjuman to turn down the changes proposed by the trustees.

An old debate

Such resistance to radical change within the small community is neither recent, nor limited to the Delhi Parsis. Orthodox and reformist Parsis have been at loggerheads for several years, particularly about inter-community marriages, conversion and the funeral practices.

In Mumbai, where most Parsis live, the controversy over last rites has been of a slightly different nature. Orthodox Parsis believe in the tradition of putting their dead in Towers of Silence where, as per religious tradition, the bodies are left open for vultures to prey on. With vultures almost extinct in the subcontinent, reformists in Mumbai are increasingly opting for cremation or burial.

Reformists are also more open to the idea of inter-community marriages and do not oppose conversions to Zoroastrianism. The orthodox, on the other hand, do not welcome non-Parsi spouses of such marriages into their fire temples, even though inter-community marriages make up close to 40% of all weddings in the community. Besides, they only accept children of inter-faith marriages if their father is Parsi: if a Parsi woman marries outside the community, her children are not officially allowed into a fire temple or funeral room.

Race or religion?

At the heart of the disagreement between the orthodox and the reformists is the debate between race and religion.

Many Indians assume that Parsis are synonymous with Zoroastrians. In fact, Zoroastrianism is a religion that has around two million followers around the world. The term "Parsi", on the other hand, refers specifically to those Indian Zoroastrians who arrived in Gujarat around 1,200 years ago, fleeing persecution in Iran.

Today, there are just over 69,000 Parsis around the world. Reformists believe this is partly because of the community’s focus on maintaining racial purity.

For the Delhi conservatives who are opposed to sharing burial space with non-Parsi husbands and wives of community members, the sanctity of their race is as important as the practice of their religion.

“Ours is a very ethnic community and I believe our heritage and ethnicity should not be diluted any further,” said Feroza Jussawalla, a member of the Delhi Anjuman’s Social Centre Committee. “Non-Parsi spouses are invited to other social events, but our funeral grounds, which were given by the government exclusively for the Parsis, would be de-sanctified if outsiders were allowed in.” Jussawalla says she will vote against the Anjuman's proposal on September 21.

Hasty decision

Other Delhi Parsis believe that the trustees of the Anjuman are acting in haste by trying to bring in such revolutionary changes for the community.

“I personally don’t mind including more people among the Parsis but I think the Anjuman trustees have sprung very radical changes on the community all of a sudden,” said Keki Daruwalla, the noted Delhi-based poet. “Such changes must come as decisions made by the community as a whole.”

Reformists, on the other hand, are clear about the urgent need for the community to be more inclusive.

“The orthodox think that by being exclusive, they will be able to survive and preserve their ethnicity,” said Vispy Wadia, a trustee of the Mumbai-based Association for the Revival of Zoroastrianism. “But the truth is that our population is in decline, and unless a race is dynamic, it will die out.”