On Thursday afternoon, a magistrate at the Ballard Pier court heard a complaint filed by Khojeste Mistree, a former trustee of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), accusing the former chairman of the trust, Dinshaw Mehta, of accepting Rs25 Lakh in cash from a businessman after signing away the tenancy rights to an office premises in a trust-owned building in Fort area.
The hearing was adjourned and as the litigants were walking down the stairs, a fight broke out between two groups that had attended the court. Kersi Randeria, a current member of the trust, said he felt a block of concrete hitting his shoulder and his vision failing as something poked his right eye. Mehta said that his son Hormuz, who was representing him in the case, was beaten so badly that he fainted. The casualties from the fight were taken to a nearby hospital for treatment, following which Mehta and Randeria filed criminal cases against each other.
The incident shocked not just the Parsi-Zoroastrian community, but also others. After the fight was broken up, a court employee came running to Mistree, who was some distance from the scene of the spat. The fight, apparently, had been a revelation for the court staff. “He told me that he had never seen Parsis fighting each other,” said Mistree. “It is rather sad and shocking that elders in the community have stooped to this level.”
This is not the first time that the trustees have fought each other. The BPP, created in the 17th century, is one of the biggest landlords in Mumbai and manages over 4,000 flats in community housing estates across the city, apart from land and commercial premises. It also manages fire temples and the 50-acre Tower of Silence cemetery in Malabar Hill. For centuries, the trustees were elected by donors and community associations, but in 2008 the Bombay High Court allowed every adult Parsi-Zoroastrian to vote in elections to select the seven trustees.
The fight to control the asset-rich trust has been bitter since then and allegations of election malpractices so rampant that a miniature version of the national election machinery - including secret ballot with electronic machines, a cap on spending by candidates, a ‘code of conduct’ for contestants and an ‘election commission’ to keep watch on the polls – has been created for the elections.
Trustees get a seven-year term and the last round of voting was held in April 2016. During the run-up to the elections, one trustee is reported to have thrown a chair at a colleague. Mehta was a trustee for 21 years – till 2015; his son is now a member of the trust. Mehta is accused of bringing ‘street’ politics to the trust. His family, which ran a foundry in Foras Road, central Mumbai, has been in mainstream politics. His father, Rusi Mehta, was a corporator in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation when he was killed in 1987 over a property dispute. Mehta’s brother is now a corporator from the municipal ward that was also represented by his sister when it was reserved for women candidates.
Mehta said his opponents have often used his past to malign him. “They (Randeria’s supporters) were constantly haranguing me. They were upset when the judge did not give the order; they had come well-prepared,” Mehta had said about the incident on Thursday. “They said I am from Foras Road (a reference to the brothels there).”
The mystery about the Rs25 Lakh payout remains. The trust filed a complaint with the economic offences wing of the Mumbai police. The case was closed and Mehta said he was exonerated from the charges. In October 2013, Mehli Colah, the chief executive office of the trust had a heart attack and went into a coma. He died in December. A few months later, when a locked cupboard in Colah’s office was broken open, a bundle of cash of found inside. “He carried the information to his grave, literally,” said Mistree, who filed a private complaint.