Pakistani Parsis are far fewer but much like in India their achievements are extraordinary as they own Pakistan’s only brewery, the oldest shipping firm, and a chain of hotels besides being regarded as makers of the country’s financial hub of Karachi
The definition of a Parsi or Zoroastrian is strict. Only a person with a Parsi father counts as one. An estimated 40% of Parsis marry non-Parsis. The women among them are often excluded from the community. Parsis marrying non-Parsis can be barred from attending even the funerals of their kin and stripped of privileges such as the right to affordable community housing.
Parsi aversion to conversion and the strict definition of who counts as one has helped the community maintain its distinctiveness. But this has also brought it to the verge of extinction. The Parsi population in India plummeted from 114,000 in 1941 to 57,000 in 2011 when the last census was held. The number is projected to shrink to just 9,000 by the end of the 21st century.
Yet Parsis have had a role disproportionate to their numbers in building modern India through contributions in varied fields such as trade, industry, and science. Tata Group, a Parsi family conglomerate, for instance, is one of the world’s largest. Homi Jehangir Bhabha, a Parsi, is widely known as the father of the Indian nuclear programme.
Divided By Borders, United By Industry
Across the border, Pakistani Parsis are even fewer in number—just about 1,000. But their achievements are no mean feat either. Pakistani Parsis own Pakistan’s only brewery (Murree), the oldest shipping firm (Cowasjee Group), and Avari Group of luxury hotels besides being regarded as makers of Karachi, the country’s financial capital and economic backbone.
Parsi contractors, doctors, traders, etc flocked to Karachi as they found opportunities there when the British developed it as a port city in the 18th century. The British-era Jehangir Kothari Parade built on land a Parsi donated along with his palatial house for the city’s people to have the public space in the early 20th century is among the landmarks in the city, which attests to the tiny community’s self-less contributions.
After Pakistan’s creation in 1947, Parsi businessman Rustamjee Fakirjee Cowasjee was among those who devoted himself to nation-building on the call of its founder and his friend Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He would enlist his shipping company in Pakistan’s service at Jinnah’s instance. His son, Ardeshir Cowasjee, would become one of most recognisable Pakistani Parsis until he passed away in 2012 at 86.
Ardeshir Cowasjee was an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s establishment and the religious right. He came to be better known as Pakistan’s most-read columnist even though he was a scion of a wealthy shipping family of Pakistani Parsis, besides being a social activist, and a philanthropist for educational and environmental causes. Cowasjee was a campaigner for animal rights and called himself a fierce guardian of the old trees, parks, and other green areas of Karachi.
Nirupama Subramanian, who was based in Pakistan as the influential Indian daily The Hindu’s foreign correspondent from 2006-2010, called Cowasjee ‘more than just a columnist’ and the country’s conscience. She wrote that Cowasjee was a believer in Jinnah’s idea of Pakistan (which many argue was about a constitutionally secular state) and a strident, often bitter critic of the country that it has turned out to be. She wrote he was unafraid to take on the powerful, whether politicians or generals.
Cyril Almeida, a Pakistani journalist, described Cowasjee as one of Pakistan’s foremost newspaper columnists whose influence lay in his role as a watchdog-in-chief. He called Cowasjee a moral figurehead, someone who was unafraid to expose the venal, speak truth to power, and tell it like it was.
Subramanian wrote politicians may not take him seriously, but there were those in the corridors of state such as the judiciary who did. In 2009, Cowasjee wrote about a powerful Army Welfare Trust’s land grab in Karachi. This prompted the Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Chaudhary to take notice on his own and order the trust off the land.
The Los Angeles Times’s John M Glionna in 2008 called Cowasjee a ‘stubborn non-Muslim voice in this nation created as an Islamic homeland, refusing to be silenced.’ Glionna wrote that Cowasjee, who headed Pakistan’s state tourism corporation in the 1970s and also briefly held a position in military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, regularly lampoons land grabs by developers, and blows the whistle on illegal building projects. He added that Cowasjee exposed government corruption, nepotism, and incompetence besides blasting ‘what he called ‘Pakistan’s insane nuclear arms race’ with India.
The Roaring Success
That Murree, Pakistan’s only brewery, has grown from strength to strength speaks volumes about the Parsi industry. It has continued doing a roaring business despite the imposition of prohibition (at least on paper) in Pakistan in the 1970s. One of the country’s most successful and biggest taxpayers, Murree Brewery doubled its alcohol production in 2016 with its profits going up by almost 100% to reach $19.6 million in 2017.
The brewery’s domestic market is supposedly restricted to non-Muslim Pakistanis, expatriates, and foreign tourists but the company’s output has been as high as 820 million half-litre bottles of beer, whisky, vodka, brandy, and other alcoholic drinks. It has produced eight- and 12-year-old single malts. In February 2007, Murree Brewery hit the headlines when it earned the ‘distinction of producing the Muslim world’s first 20-year-old malt whisky.’ A handful of distilleries globally produce 20-year-old malts.
The brewery gets its name from the resort town of Murree, where it was set up in 1860. It was shifted to its current location in Rawalpindi near Pakistan Army headquarters over half a century later. When Minocher Bhandra, popularly known as Minoo, took over the reins of his family-run brewery in the 1960s, he diversified it to introduce Murree whisky, vodka, gin, and beer.
Minoo prevailed over foreign competitors with the tagline ‘have a Murree with your curry.’ He focused on middle-class consumers, who could not afford expensive imported beer and whisky. Murree’s aggressive marketing, ubiquitous neon-signed billboards, and hoardings in bigger cities, especially Karachi, fuelled sales.
The prohibition in Pakistan killed local brands but Murree survived. The wealth accrued has brought the Bhandras clout. The late Minoo was a member of parliament. His son, Isphanyar Bhandra, followed in his footsteps to become a member of the country’s top legislative body.
Minoo was also a member of a council of Zia ul-Haq, the Pakistani liberals’ favourite whipping boy whose conservatism they blame for everything that has gone wrong in Pakistan. Oxford-educated Minoo advised Zia. The liquor baron became a member of parliament in 1985 during the peak of his rule. The two got along well. Zia would drop by to meet Minoo at his brewery just across from the army chief’s residence in Rawalpindi.
Another family of Pakistani Parsis—the Avaris—owns a chain of hotels in Pakistan, Canada, and the UAE. Their iconic Beach Luxury Hotel in Karachi was once synonymous with the city’s nightlife. Karachi-based businessman Dinshaw Avari founded the hotel chain. His son, Byram Dinshawji Avari, who took over the Avari Group, was a multi-talented man.
The Avari Group became the first Pakistani company to operate hotels in Dubai and Canada under Byram Dinshawji Avari. He also headed the Karachi Parsi Anjuma, won two gold medals for Pakistan in yachting at the Asian Games, and served as Canada’s honorary consul as well as a member of parliament. He was also a recipient of the President’s Pride of Performance award for sports.
Another Parsi, Justice Dorab Patel, has a special place in Pakistan’s judicial history. He was one of the three Supreme Court judges who redeemed themselves even in the darkest hour of the country’s judiciary. Patel and the other two judges dissented from the confirmation of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution following a questionable trial, arguing the prosecution failed to corroborate the testimony of its chief witness. They said there was nothing in the evidence regarding Bhutto’s conduct that would not be ‘reasonably capable of an interpretation of innocence.’
In the armed forces, Kaizad Maneck Sopariwala, who was decorated with Pakistan’s second-highest Hilal-e-Imtiaz award in 2002, became the first Parsi to rise to the Major General position in the army. Journalist Ammad Ali in a scroll.in article in September 2022 called Parsi patriotism in Pakistan a source of pride. He added it was especially since Jinnah’s wife, Ruttie Petit, was a Parsi. He wrote Parsis annually observe Jinnah’s death anniversary in Karachi’s Cyrus Minwalla Community Hall though it passes unnoticed and is not observed as an official holiday.
The presence of Pakistani Parsis has, however, continued to fade rapidly but their contributions endure in the form of schools, hospitals, parks, and other landmarks they have built in Karachi as a testimony to what industry as a collective quality can achieve numbers notwithstanding.