Centre refuses Parsis’ plea for COVID-19 last rites exemption: What the case is all about

The ministry of health, responding to a plea filed by the community requesting that they be allowed to follow their traditions, said that the infection could spread if bodies were not disposed properly

FP Staff January 18, 2022 10:30:38 IST
Centre refuses Parsis’ plea for COVID-19 last rites exemption: What the case is all about

Image used for representational purposes. AFP

The Central government will not modify its cremation/burial protocols for the bodies of those who died of coronavirus in order to accommodate funeral rites of the Parsi community, the Centre told the Supreme Court on Monday.

The ministry of health’s response in the apex court came on an affidavit filed by the Surat Parsi Panchayat Board seeking permission to perform the last rites of its members, who died owing to COVID-19, as per their religious practices.

So, what are the last rites for Parsis? What’s the case about? Why did the Centre refuse to make an exemption?

Here are all the answers.

Last rites for Parsis

Unlike other communities, which opt for burial or cremation, the Parsis have a unique system of disposal of the dead — dokhmenishini — which involves leaving the body at the top of a tower (called the tower of silence), for birds of prey (vultures) to devour the flesh, while the sun decomposes the bone structure.

Parsis don't believe in cremation as they believe it pollutes fire, which is considered sacred, and burial is unhygienic.

Interestingly, in the 1940s, the Iranian monarch Reza Shah banned this method. But in India, the Parsis continue to cling to this option.

The system worked efficiently in Mumbai for centuries, thanks to the city’s large vulture population which swooped down on the bodies almost as soon as they were relinquished to the dakhmas. But towards the end of the 20th century, India’s vulture population practically vanished.

As a result of the dwindling population of the birds and many believing that it was a time for a change, now some Parsis do opt for cremations, but it’s still not widely accepted in the community.

What’s the case about?

In July last year, the Gujarat High Court had dismissed a petition filed by the Surat Parsi Panchayat Board seeking permission to allow them to follow the last rites of their 3,000-year-old tradition.

The direction from the high court had come after they had challenged the Centre's guidelines of cremation and burial of those who had died of COVID-19. In their petition, they had argued that cremation was sacrilegious for Parsis.

The Surat Parsi Panchayat Board, unhappy with the high court decision, then moved the apex court in December 2021 asking that for dokhmenashini rites to be permitted for Parsis who succumbed to coronavirus.

The petitioner’s counsel — senior advocate Fali S Nariman — had proposed guidelines to meet the concerns of the Union government over public health and safety, while preserving the sanctity of the Zoroastrian faith practiced by the Parsis.

According to The Print report, Nariman had argued that the protocol issued by the Centre did not take into account the concerns of the Parsi community in regard to the “modalities ordained for funeral rites”.

It was then that the Supreme Court bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and AS Bopanna requested the assistance of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.

A Live Law report quoted Justice Chandrachud as saying to SG Mehta, "They have proposed the manner in which the last rites can be carried out. Please look into it and come back? If it is something that can be tweaked and we can come out with something? It affects the sentiments of the community...If you could take instructions from the Director-General of Health and Family Welfare? If it comes from the Union of India, then we can resolve it....”

How did the Centre react?

On Monday, the Centre rejected Nariman's suggestions and declined to modify its existing guidelines.

The government pointed out that these rites involve exposing the body, which could still contain active traces of the coronavirus, to professional pall bearers and the virus could spread.

The government also argued that the bodies of COVID-infected persons would also be exposed to the environment and animals if not buried or cremated.

Quoting research by the World Organisation for Animal Health, the Centre stated that both suspected and confirmed COVID patients are advised to minimise direct contact with animals, including wildlife.

“It has also been observed that several animal species have demonstrated susceptibility to the virus through experimental infection, and in natural settings when in contact with infected humans. Although these infections are not the driver of the current COVID-19 pandemic which is human-to-human transmission. There is also evidence that infected animals can transmit the virus to other animals in natural settings through contact, such as mink to mink transmission, and mink to cat transmission,” the affidavit submitted.

The introduction of the virus to a new animal species from a dead body might accelerate its (the virus’) evolution, which could “potentially impact on the surveillance and control strategies,” noted the affidavit, adding that there were “valid concerns” over the transmission of the virus in case COVID bodies are not disposed of in an appropriate manner.

With inputs from agencies

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