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Bhicaji Balsara, First Zarathushti US Citizen











In tracing the presence of Zoroastrians in the US, Bhicaji F. Balsara must rank as a pioneer of the immigration of Zoroastrians into this country. It was as early as November 1900 that Mr. Balsara arrived in the US and settled and later married in New York.

His greater claim, however, must be his success in becoming naturalized as a citizen of the US. He petitioned for citizenship in 1906 but was only granted the status after he fought his case before two courts, the Circuit Court in New York and the federal Court of Appeal. Objections to Mr. Balsara's petition were based on a requirement at that time that only "Free white persons" could be admitted to citizenship. In his petition Mr. Balsara claimed that his 'color is white and his complexion dark."

In its ruling in In re Balsara, 171 Fed. Rep. 294 (1909), the Circuit Court had a serious objection to accepting the words "white persons" to include all branches of the race known as the Aryan, Indo-European, or Caucasian. To do so, it stated, "will bring in not only the Parsees… which is perhaps the purest Aryan type, but also Afghans, Hindus, Arabs and Berbers." The Court, however, allowed Mr. Balsara's petition noting that "he was a gentleman of high character and exceptional intelligence," but stated that a higher court should examine the issue.

The United States Government appealed the decision and the Department of Justice filed a comprehensive 145-page brief arguing why a Parsee could n o t be considered a "white person." The brief quoted many passages from books written by Western travelers to Persia and India refening to the inhabitants as being "swarthy of complexion." The Justice Department argued that the law was intended to include Europeans and persons of European descent, and no others.

In the decision in United States v. Balsara, 180 Fed. Rep. 694,695 (2nd Cir. 1910), Circuit Judge Ward offered the following description:

"The Parsees emigrated some 1,200 years ago from Persia into India and now we in the neighborhood of Bombay to the number at about 100,000 They constitute a settlement by themselves of intelligent and well-to-do persons, principally engaged in commerce, and are as distinct from the Hindus as are the English who dwell in India.”

The Court stated that the tern 'while person' referred to the white race as distinguished from the black, red, yellow. or brown races. In the opinion of the Court, Parsees do belong to the white race and it was agreed that Mr. Balsara was properly admitted to citizenship by the Circuit Court.

Mr. Balsara's victory in the early 1900s seems that much greater in light of a later case decided by the same Court, holding another Parsee ineligible for citizenship. In the decision in Rustom Dadabhoy Wadia v. United Stares, 101 F. 2d 7 (2d Cir. 1939), the Court this time did not accept Mr. Wadia as being a 'white person.' It had to follow cases decided in the meantime by the US Supreme Court which declined to accept the niceties of racial origins and interpreted the relevant law as being based on the common man's understanding of the tern.

[Kersi B. Shroff, Attorney at Law,researched this interesting episode in Parsi history, at the Library of Congress in Washington. The reports cited here may be found in any law library in the USA.] FEZANA JOURNAL- SPRING 1997

This article appeared in the FEZANA journal of Spring 1997, and was reproduced on vohuman.org on February 11, 2005 courtesy of its author and FEZANA journal.