Politics and patriotism

Those who fought for causes are remembered whilst those who sought titles are forgotten

Dinyar Patel

Published in Parsiana, 7 November 2013

The Parsis, Mahatma Gandhi is alleged to have said, are in numbers beyond contempt, but in contributions beyond compare. While there is no proof that the Father of the Nation actually said these words — they definitely do not appear in the 100-volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi — even a cynical observer would find difficulty disagreeing with the general sentiment expressed. The Parsi community has produced some remarkable people who have excelled in diverse fields and professions — ranging from politics to business to nuclear science. But what has distinguished the truly great individuals? Based on my studies of some Parsi political figures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I hope to offer a few insights.
It is incorrect to wholly credit colonialism with the rise of the Parsis: the Parsis have long been a community of prominent merchants, something that might explain why and how Zoroastrians from Iran first put down their roots in coastal Gujarat. Historians such as Jesse Palsetia have identified how the adaptability and mobility of the community have buoyed its successes. A few other factors distinguish those Parsis who have made truly exceptional contributions to the country and to the world at large. 

From left: Dadabhai Naoroji, Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, Sir Dinsha Wacha andKhurshed Nariman  Photos: Parsi Lustre on Indian Soil  

Look outward, not inward
Nationally prominent Parsis have been closely involved in community affairs — but they have not become wholly and singly absorbed by them. Members of a miniscule minority, it was only natural that they considered paramount the welfare and interests of society at large. Dadabhai Naoroji began his career in the early 1850s by taking on the sethia leadership in the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) and certain antediluvian views on ritual and orthodoxy. While he never fully withdrew from involvement in the myriad movements he began, Naoroji soon recognized the much greater importance of issues such as Indian poverty and political disenfranchisement — issues that directly and indirectly influenced the Parsis as well. Sir Pherozeshah Mehta similarly rose to prominence by defending community interests in the aftermath of Parsi-Muslim riots in 1874, but soon transitioned to Bombay municipal affairs and early nationalist activity. Both individuals faced severe criticism from their co-religionists for not giving first priority to Parsi affairs; neither, thankfully, bowed to such criticism.
While delivering the presidential address at the 1893 Lahore Congress, Naoroji reminded his audience that, “Whether I am a Hindu, a Muhammadan, a Parsi, a Christian, or of any other creed, I am above all an Indian. Our country is India; our nationality is Indian.” This brings up a related and important point. Exceptional Parsis such as Naoroji, Mehta, Madame Bhikaiji R. Cama or Khurshed F. Nariman repudiated the ridiculous argument, made with increasing frequency from the late 19th century onward, that Parsis were somehow “not really Indian” but rather “more Persian.” Such a silly line of thought — which is, unfortunately, still bandied about, especially in the diaspora — reeks of arrogance and a false sense of both insularity and exclusivity. It has probably done much to limit our contributions to and activities within Indian society.

Challenge the status quo
The truly exceptional Parsi leaders have never been comfortable with the status quo and instead assaulted it violently. In the 1850s, Naoroji and a handful of friends jolted the community with then outrageous propositions, such as the right of women to eat alongside men (women customarily served male family members first and then ate afterwards) or — even more outlandish! — the idea that women deserved to be educated. Against major opposition, Naoroji was able to irreversibly alter gender dynamics in the community and influence a broader women’s movement in the rest of Indian society.
Without Naoroji’s impetus, it would have been impossible for someone like Cama to break more taboos by engaging, sans her husband, in revolutionary nationalist activity in Paris in the early 1900s. Mithubehn Petit, from a similarly respectable and well-to-do Parsi family, shocked the Bombay elite by donning a khadi sari in the early 1920s and joining Gandhi in rural Gujarat, where she took part in the Bardoli satyagraha. “Belonging as she did to one of the most respectable Parsi families in Bombay, the effect of her going about in villages dressed in coarse khadi and often barefooted with the message of khadi on her lips and a bundle of khadi on her shoulders was tremendous,” Mahadev Desai recorded. After Bardoli, Petit took up a new cause: weaning adivasi peasants from alcohol — which was provided to them at stores mostly owned by Parsis. A woman, leave alone a Petit daughter, challenging the Parsi liquor monopoly in rural Gujarat was an audacious act, to say the least. Naoroji (whose father wanted him to be a priest), Cama, and Petit all led very different lives from the ones they were expected to lead; all of them, in turn, helped identify and fight against the inequalities, social injustice, and prejudice inherent in the political and social status quo of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.   

Risk unpopularity
Today, Parsis adulate Naoroji, Cama and Mehta and hold them aloft as examples of the community’s patriotism to India. This was not always the case during these leaders’ respective lifetimes. Naoroji and his colleagues risked verbal and physical assault by promoting female education: later in life, he recalled how some irate fathers had “threatened to throw them down the steps for making such a preposterous proposal” such as educating their daughters. His increasingly anti-imperialist rhetoric and strident criticism of the British Raj earned him more enemies and detractors in the community. Mehta suffered a similar fate: in 1911, he ran for the BPP and experienced a humiliating defeat. His defeat, asserts Homi Modi, Mehta’s biographer, “was intended to serve as a rude rebuff to one who was never tired of declaring that he was an Indian first and a Parsi afterwards.” If Naoroji and Mehta’s brand of nationalism unnerved many Parsis, then Cama’s rhetoric positively horrified them. Cama was reviled and repudiated by most Parsis and died a lonely death. Petit, meanwhile, was disowned by her own family.
However, many of the popular Parsi leaders of old — men who expressed carefully moderate political views and piled up British titles and honors — are now completely forgotten. Who, for example, remembers Sir Hormusjee Ardeseer Wadya (1849-1928)? A rising star in late 19th century Bombay politics, Wadya was frequently mentioned in the same breath as Mehta, Sir Dinsha Wacha, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. By the late 1910s, however, he turned away from the Congress and became increasingly conservative. This won him a knighthood, popularity in the community, and a glowing obituary from the pro-British Times of India, but it also cost him a place in history. Wacha, similarly, undercut his stature by repudiating Gandhi and distancing himself from a new generation represented by Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel. He, too, was rewarded with a knighthood. He could have been a much greater leader. 

Whither Parsis?
The fantastically titled Parsi Lustre on Indian Soil, published in 1939, captures the essence of a time when Parsis were supposedly a much more successful, wealthy and confident community. Its pages bristle with hagiographies to people who are gone and forgotten to all but the most dedicated community historian. This raises some important questions. Will the Parsis continue to produce leaders who stand out on the Indian and global stage? Or has the community well and truly “declined” over the past few decades? Have we seen the last truly exceptional Parsis?
Tanya Luhrmann’s book, The Good Parsi, might hardly be a popular read among members of the community, but it serves one important purpose: identifying the “trope of decline” that has animated Parsi discussions for so many decades. The trope is easily recognizable: “There is a sense in this discourse that the community has lost direction, lost steam, that the young men can no longer function effectively and in any event no longer care, that the community is dying and decrepit and has long since passed its zenith.” The issue, Luhrmann argues, is not whether this is really true or false — indeed she hardly believes it to be true — but that today this is the dominant narrative of the community’s recent history. She traces the origin of this trope to sometime in the 1920s and 1930s, coinciding with a loss of Parsi political power in organizations such as the Congress. In reality, the trope extends much further back. The earliest evidence that I have found so far is from 1880, when a Jamshed Dorabji Khandalewala complained, “From commerce and enterprise the Parsee community has been drifting to dependence and service, from reliance on self to reliance on family and friends… The present depressed and discontented state of the community forbodes no good.” The year 1880 coincides with a time many now regard as the community’s zenith, yet even then people were complaining about supposed decline. This is all slightly ridiculous.
By many measures, the community is still doing extremely well today. While there might no longer be any prominent Parsi politicians, we still have numerous respected legal minds, captains of business, doctors and cultural figures. Parsis excelled in the colonial era because they had disproportionate access to education and capital. This is, thankfully, no longer the case. Now, with an infinitely wider area of competition in India and abroad, Parsis are still making names for themselves in numerous fields. Demographics aside, I see many things wrong in the argument that we are on a slow and irretrievable decline. And I do not think we have seen the last truly exceptional Parsi leader, either. 

Dinyar Patel is a PhD candidate in the department of history at Harvard University. He is completing a dissertation on Dadabhai Naoroji, examining the development of his political and economic ideology. He has been based in Bombay and Delhi for most of the past three years.

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