Respect Both Civilisation and Culture


By B.G. Verghese

With the Parsi population rapidly dwindling and in danger of euthanasia, the Government has rightly initiated a bold and timely “Jiyo Parsi” programme in a bid to reverse this alarming trend and help preserve a proud community that constitutes such a rich fragment of world civilization and a precious part of India’s heritage.  The number of Parsis declined from 114,000 in 1947 to 69,001 as recorded in the 2001 census. Despite these small numbers, the Parsi community, the vast majority of whom are Indians, has made immeasurable contributions to the country in every field of endeavour as torchbearers and pioneers.

The community has registered an ageing demographic profile and exhibits a declining fertility rate. Parsis marry late (at 27 and 31 years of age for women and men respectively). Only one family in nine has a child below the age of 10. Some 31 per cent of the community are over 60 and as many as 30 per cent are unmarried. And births have fallen below the replacement level since 1950.

Among the reasons for this unhappy trend are late and non-marriage as stated, fertility decline, emigration, out-of-the-community marriages whose progeny do not count as Parsis,  separation and divorce.

Deepening concern led the ParZor (Parsi-Zoroastrian) Foundation to petition the government to help reverse this trend. After much consideration the Government in the Ministry of Minority Affairs has decided to set aside some funds for advocacy, counselling for early marriage and structured medical interventions to target eligible Parsis suffering from infertility related diseases. The programme will be implemented through the ParZor Foundation, the Bombay Parsi Panchayat and other panchayats and anjumans of the community.  

This is both a delicate and deserving programme that merits wide support and sympathetic understanding. Alas, the Parsis are not the only community facing extinction. Many tribal and isolated communities like the Siddis, who came to India from Africa centuries ago, need recognition and support. The same applies to languages and ways of life that have been part of the rich mosaic of Indian life. Language needs to be seen as both a vehicle for communication, education and commerce as much as expressions of our diverse culture that should be preserved. Lose them and India is diminished.

It is in this context that one mourns the inability of the Government to appoint qualified professionals to man so many of our leading cultural institutions. The National archives  of India has been headless since the innovative Mushirul Hasan retired in May. Worse, the National Museum has not had a curator since 2007. The Sangeet Natak Akademi and Victoria Memorial in Calcutta have not had secretaries for months. Bureaucrats holding additional charge of these institutions offer no solution. Even bureaucratic appointments are not always filled in time, though retirement dates are long known, because of sheer lethargy.

And now Hyderabad, a city steeped in culture and history, has unfortunately been thrown into the eye of a storm with the long-promised but clumsily handled separation of Telengana from Seemandhra. Smaller states are desirable in principle and India might justifiably contemplate having maybe 50 states by 2050 when our population should stabilise around 1.7 billion. Unfortunately the decision to bifurcate Andhra has been taken on self-serving electoral considerations and in isolation when a second States Reorganisation Commission could have made a careful analysis of state formation and its phased unfolding on the basis of well thought out criteria.  Telengana is deserving of statehood but its creation  has been sorely bungled.

In the instant case, everybody is unhappy. Seemandhra prefers a unified state while Telengana protagonists are opposed to Hyderabad being a shared capital of both states for 10 years. It makes little sense for Seemandhra to have a capital a long distance away from its border. This will be expensive and inefficient, and could derail the very move for a separate capital. Chandigarh should offer a warning even through the city is contiguous to both Punjab and Haryana. A temporary capital could be considered – as Kurnool was earlier when Andhra was separated from Madras Presidency– and energetic steps taken to build a fine new capital. Fears about the enormous cost of building a new capital is foolish as urban India is growing and must be accommodated. New city-size expansions are coming up everywhere. However, the country needs modern towns that cater to the future and become models of a new urban landscape.  The new Seemandhra capital could be one such and would be an institutional, cultural and investment magnet.

What does Rahul Gandhi have to say on this critical political issue? His deafening silence speaks loud. The media gave him resounding accolades for reversing the controversial ordinance protecting convicted legislators from disqualification. In point of fact it was the President’s expressed unease that that reversed the tide though Rahul was quick to take a bow.  

Be that as it may, Narendra Modi has stolen the show by sensibly proclaiming “toilets first, temples later”, something that Jairam Ramesh had advocated to the Parivar’s scorn and anger at this pollution of ideas. The fact that tens of millions have no toilets and that their lives are shortened by insanitation and lack of sewerage and the epidemics that derive from this sorry condition is a huge cultural stigma on India. Not only is the life of scavengers noisome and demeaning but the practice continues to foster untouchability, discrimination and atrocities against this community despite the Constitution and the law. This vicious cycle must be broken and the provision of toilets, sanitation and sewerage is what will do that. This is a positive Modi policy statement that the BJP and Parivar should applaud and not resile from if they wish to emerge out of medieval darkness.

Finally, there was little reason for everybody, led by the BJP again, to jump at Home Minister  Shinde for s saying that an official report in his hands showed that Muslims are being needlessly detained and languish in jail for years until finally released as no charges can be proven. Why only Muslims, it was said? No innocent Indians should be targeted. Shinde was accused of pandering to Muslims as a vote bank. This is complete nonsense. Shinde was not singling out Muslims alone for just treatment but was citing a report that specifically showed that this community has been the prime victim of random suspicion and incarceration.

The Minister did no wrong and did not preach exclusivity. Sadly some politicians and sections of the media are prone to blow up inconsequential matters way out of context and create artificial issues that divide. This must end.


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