When the findings of the religion census was released a few months ago, revealing another sharp fall in India’s Parsi-Zoroastrian population, this correspondent called up Jehangir Patel, editor of Parsiana magazine, for his reactions. When he was told that their numbers had fallen by a fifth – to about 60,000 – between 2001 and 2011, Patel exclaimed: What will happen to our institutions?
As the battle continues for the chairman’s post at the Tata Group, one of India’s biggest and most respected business conglomerates, many Parsis are asking that question. The Tata firms are corporate entities and although they are linked through shareholding to Tata family charities, the companies are not community institutions. But most Parsis consider the group founded in 1867 by Jamsetji Tata an intrinsic part of their society.
With reports that the boardroom battles at Bombay House, the headquarters of the group, will be long-drawn, many are wondering whether the conglomerate will get its first non-Parsi head. Many are not ready to think that the group could look beyond Parsi business families for its next leader.
One Tata shareholder, Homee Dalal, who sent me an email, could think of only two options — Apro Ratan kay Apro Cyrus? [Who will it be: our Ratan (Tata) or our Cyrus (Mistry)? Mistry’s family, the Shapoorji Pallonjis, who run a major construction company, is a shareholder in the Tata Group.
Yazdi Tantra, a businessman and banker who runs an online community forum called Zoroastrians.net is conducting an online poll to find out.
Till Sunday, the sixth day of the poll, nearly 1,200 people, a substantial number considering that their numbers are just around 1,00,000 worldwide, had voted; three out of every four voters wanted a Parsi CEO for the Tata Group.
The poll uses recognised software that allows users to only vote once. Tantra said that the findings of the poll will be an accurate indication of what the community wants; he had used a poll to find out the mood in the community in 2008 when universal adult franchise was introduced to select trustees to the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), their main representative body where only donors could vote earlier.
“I read a report that asked 50 Parsis about their reaction to the changes at Tata; I decided to use an online poll to find out what the community felt,” said Tantra. “The companies are corporate entities and are not Parsi institutions; logically, there is no reason [why the conglomerate should have a Parsi head]. So, it is more of an emotional issue.”
Many link the changes at Tata to their demographic decline; their numbers have dropped from a pre-Independence peak of over 1,10,000 to just over half the figure. “It is a fact: Most [Zoroastrian] institutions – schools and colleges – are populated, both run and used, by other groups; the numbers are not there,” said Tantra.
“The house of Tatas, which is nearly 150 years old, always had a Parsi at its helm. People feel that as the community becomes smaller, there are fewer role models; there are not many people of that standing,” said Patel.
When Ratan Tata went, the next person was not a Tata, but [Cyrus Mistry] a member of another Parsi business family, the Shapoorji Pallonjis. “People felt that there was some continuity. I doubt that they [the Tata Group] will now appoint a Parsi to head the group.”
The constitution of the board of directors at Tata Sons – the holding company of the group – indicates that this could be trend. Of the dozen-odd directors, only three are from the community.
Dinshaw Mehta, former chairperson of the BPP, was of the opinion that the community will accept a non-Parsi to head their largest business group.
“Where are the Parsi personalities to take over? You can count them on the fingers of your hand. We do not have the numbers,” said Mehta.