By granting asylum to Zoroastrians fleeing persecution a thousand years ago, a local Gujarati ruler inadvertently helped create modern India and benefited the entire world.
The conventional view of history is one of progress. This is not entirely true. Sometimes, societies regress, cultures decline and civilizations fall. This is not a view that Steven Pinker espouses but Francis Fukuyama, the man who declared the end of history, is coming around to. Fukuyama is worrying about President Donald Trump and American political decay. Trump’s zero-tolerance policy on migrants that caused the separation of children from their parents is certainly an example of this decay.
Trump won power in part thanks to his tough stance on immigration. He raised the specter of drug-dealers, criminals and rapists crossing the American border with Mexico. He promised to build the wall, make Mexico pay for it and stop the deluge of migrants flooding into the US.
In office, Trump has certainly delivered on his promise. Illegal migrants entering the United States are rounded up, locked up in detention centers and then shipped back across the border. Until recently, Trump did not mind separating families and locking children in cages. As per US immigration officials, 2,342 children were separated from 2,206 parents between May 5 and June 9. After much brouhaha and raucous international condemnation, Trump signed an executive order that allowed for immigrant families to be detained together while their legal cases are considered.
Before his U-turn, Trump claimed that an executive order would not solve the problem. He argued that the only solution possible was the passing of comprehensive immigration reform by Congress. In keeping with his past behavior, the abrasive American president has reversed his stand in the blink of an eye. The US has now become Trumpistan, a land that is not only cruel and intolerant, but also dishonest and hypocritical in almost all its claims and actions.
IMMIGRANTS FROM IRAN
The US could do well to learn from a lesson from the past. This is not a story of Huguenots fleeing France to Prussia, England and Switzerland. It is not a story of Jews fleeing Spain. It is a story of Zoroastrians fleeing Persia or modern-day Iran because of fierce Islamic persecution in the eighth century.
These followers of Zoroaster were members of the world’s first monotheistic faith that began 1,200 to 1,500 years before Christ. Many tenets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have their roots in Zoroastrianism. In the eighth century, members of this rich ancient tradition fled for their lives to India. Landing in Gujarat, they sought permission from Jadi Rana, the local ruler, to settle in his lands. As per Qeṣṣa-ye Sanjān (The Story of Sanjān), the ruler was apprehensive about giving refuge to people who appeared warrior-like, dressed differently and spoke in strange tongues.
As per oral tradition, Jadi Rana presented a full cup of milk to the refugees to indicate that his lands were already full. These refugees put sugar in the cup to convince the king that they would be “like sugar in a full cup of milk, adding sweetness but not causing it to overflow.” This purportedly convinced Jadi Rana to grant asylum to the beleaguered men, women and children thronging his shores. This was the sensible and humane thing to do. These newcomers came to be known as the Parsis, in cognizance of their Persian roots.
CREATORS OF MODERN INDIA
Fast forward to 2018 and you cannot imagine modern India without the Parsis. The second president of the Indian National Congress was Dadabhai Naoroji, an educator, intellectual and statesman. This Parsi did the early work on the drain of wealth from colonial India to imperial Britain. After independence in 1947, Homi Jehangir Bhabha, another Parsi, created India’s now much-vaunted nuclear program. In 1971, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, arguably the most famous of Parsis, liberated Bangladesh from Islamabad’s oppressive rule.
Thanks to his brilliance, 92,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered, ensuring Bangladeshis could finally live without the fear of being raped, plundered and slaughtered with wanton abandon. Soli Sorabjee, a legendary lawyer, jurist and yet another Parsi, has been a torch bearer for freedom of expression and protection of human rights for decades. In the world of music, Zubin Mehta, the elegant conductor, and Freddie Mercury , the flamboyant rock star, fly the Parsi flag high.
Tata, India’s preeminent business house, was founded and has been run by Parsis for more than a century and half. Not only has it run numerous successful businesses, this multinational has helped build towering national institutions such as the Indian Institute of Science, the Tata Memorial Hospital and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Other Parsis have run successful businesses too and set standards for philanthropy in the country.
For centuries, the Parsis have been totally integrated in Indian society. There have been no reports of strife, tension or riots between Parsis and other communities in oral or written history. With a literacy rate of 99%, they remain the most highly educated community in the land, exceeding the achievements of Brahmins, India’s priestly caste, and Sayyids, purportedly direct descendants of Prophet Muhammad.
It is important to note that the Parsi population has never exceeded 100,000 at any point in history. Low birth rates and migration to Western countries has resulted in the population declining to a mere 61,000 today even as India’s population continues to rise. By any standards, the Parsi contribution to India has been staggering and is totally out of proportion to the minuscule size of their community.
LESSON FOR AMERICA
The Parsi story underscores an important point. Penniless refugees and desperate migrants have often been a country’s greatest assets. In the American context, this holds even more true. Immigrants made America great and it is they who will make America great again.
It not without reason that the sonnet on the Statue of Liberty declares, “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Over 1,000 years ago, the wretched refuse from Iranian shores drifted into the sandy land of Mahatma Gandhi. At that time, if Jadi Rana had acted like Donald Trump, the Parsis would have been cast back into the sea and not only India but also the rest of the world would have been poorer today as a result.