The Story of Two Mumbai Riots in the 19th Century


October 18, 2013

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Bombay | Heritage | History | Mumbai

In 19th century Bombay, Parsis and Muslims fought each other on the streets on two separate occasions but eventually buried the hatchet and moved on. In 2013, we are still grappling with the problem of devising measures to prevent riots.



IN 2013, it seems unthinkable. But in the 19th century, Parsis and Muslims attacked each other ferociously in the streets of Bombay (now Mumbai), in 1851 and in 1874. The communal grouping calls for qualification. On the Muslim side, the charge was led by Arabs and the Siddies, who had come from Janjira. On the Parsi side, the rioters came from humbler vocations. On both sides, responsible leaders sought energetically to cool tempers.

The gory episodes not only divided the two communities but also the press run by Europeans. The Bombay Gazette, edited by James Mackenzie MacLean, was openly pro-Parsi. The Times of India attacked The Gazette for its stand while sparing neither the authorities nor the Muslims nor the Parsis. All were agreed that the police were sorely remiss.

The clashes seem incredible today because the social conditions have changed radically. The Parsis no longer dwell in the localities in which they lived then. They have moved on and are much reduced in number. But there are some constants: the wealth, the spirit of enterprise and the philanthropy. Descendants of the great families still pride themselves on their ancestry.

Bombay was then a rowdy and corrupt place. In 1863 the Gaekwad of Baroda distributed £2,400 to the European and Marathi newspapers, The Gazette included. Clashes between Governors and Chief Justices were common. Bribery was rampant (J.R.B. Jeejeebhoy; Bribery and Corruption in Bombay; 1952; published by the author—a splendid work).

A Goan, Govind Narayan (1815-1865), came to Bombay in 1824 and soon established himself as an author. Murali Ranganathan has translated from Marathi into English his informative biography of the city (Govind Narayan’s Mumbai; Anthem Press, India, 2012). Faced with the menace of stray dogs, the government decided to kill them but relented when, in 1830, a deputation of eminent citizens asked that the dogs be captured and released elsewhere. Heading them was Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, Baronet, who was a city father of colossal stature. The reprieve did not last long.

No murders, but years of distrust

“On 7 June 1832, the Parsis called a strike in Mumbai and rioted. The reason given is that the previous day, the dog squad had entered the houses of many Parsis and had taken away their dogs. The Parsis entreated them not to do so, as it was against government rules, and asked them to release the captured dogs. There were some skirmishes between the Parsis and the dog squad. It was then decided in a meeting of a hundred odd Parsis that all the food and grain shops would be closed on the 7 June, food supply to the English stopped, and a general strike be called. They indicated their programme to the shops inside the Fort and the bazaar outside the Fort. The only positive aspect was the rich Parsis were not with them and were in fact unaware of their plans. Most of the rioters were of the lower class like cooks and water-carriers; there were also some middle-class gentlemen. On that day, they closed the shops, and stopped the supply of roti and bread which was being sent for the soldiers at Colaba. Many of the Khatki people did not support the strike; when they were transporting meat, they were beaten up and the meat was thrown into the moat surrounding the Fort. The Portuguese Christians, who supplied bread to the English regiments, were intimidated and their produce spilt. In this manner, they continued till about ten in the morning.

“Their actions spread terror amongst the English. The Magistrate wrote to the Town Major asking him to send some troops as the Parsis were rioting. He however did not respond for a long time. The white regiment in Colaba did not receive the bread they were supposed to on that day. The English who were going to their offices were waylaid. They obstructed the vehicle of Sir John Awdry, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and threw some garbage and a dead goose into his vehicle. This was the kind of anarchy they perpetrated. The Magistrate arrested many of them and appealed to Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and other prominent Parsi gentlemen to control the situation. They tried to find ways to control the situation, but the rioters were so excited that they did not come to their senses. At about three in the afternoon, white troops from Colaba were stationed in the Fort with instructions to shoot if the incidents of the morning were repeated.

“The Parsi gangs were disheartened at the sight of the white troops; they dispersed and ran away. Many of them were strong and powerful but could do nothing against a regiment of white troops. Many of them were captured and jailed; some of them were sentenced for two to three years. The only bright aspect of these Parsi Riots was that there were no murders. These riots led to the Englishmen distrusting the Parsis for many years. This was resolved only when the English Sarkar was convinced that the upper class Parsis did not support the rioters, and were in fact, much against them.”

A “gang” of Parsis!

Can you imagine a “gang” of Parsis today? Or an incident like the one The Times of India reported on August 14, 1878: “A Parsee named Maneckjee Aspandiarjee was yesterday charged before the Hon’ble Mr. Dosabhoy Framjee, at the Girgaon Police Court, with assaulting an European woman named Dina Trickee Trackee, residing in the Cursetjee Sooklajee Street. It appears that on the night of the day previous, the defendant, while passing along the street, ‘made faces’ at the complainant and otherwise annoyed her. She came down from the verandah of her house and held the defendant, whereupon he bit her hand. Upon the evidence adduced, the defendant was convicted and fined Rs.25, or in default to undergo rigorous imprisonment for fourteen days.” The Parsis emerged later as a very prim and proper people. It was a different story then. On July 9, 1888, The Times of India reported an affray between Parsis and Europeans at Parel. A young Macarthy accidentally struck a Parsi on the leg and was scolded in abusive terms. “Macarthy called him a cagra (crow) and with that about 12 Parsees got on to him with their umbrellas”; understandably. Both sides acquired supporters; 500 on the Parsi side. A constable who was present “quietly went into the other street”.

Govind Narayan’s account of the 1851 riots bears quotation in extenso: “On 17 October 1851, the Mussalmans of Mumbai rioted at ten in the morning. The reason was as follows. A newspaper named Chitradyanadarpan was published by a Parsi; every issue contained a write-up of famous people with illustrations. In one of the issues, he wrote a small profile of the Prophet Mohammad and published a drawing along with it. The picture of Mohammad was shoddily executed and a drop of ink on one of his eyes seemed to have blinded him in one eye. This picture was stuck on the door of the Jumma Masjid one Friday morning by a trouble-maker. When the Mussalmans emerged from the mosque after their Namaz around eleven in the morning, they were incensed by this caricature of their Prophet. Believing that a Parsi wanted to insult their Prophet, they decided to exact revenge. Hundreds of Mussalmans, screaming ‘Deen Deen’, rushed with clubs in their hands to wreak havoc on the Parsis. If they saw a Parsi on the roads, they clubbed him besides injuring many other bystanders. A couple of Portuguese were injured in the Camp Maidan. They could not be controlled by the policemen. Looting broke out in the Bazaar and shopkeepers shut their shops and ran helter-skelter. The Parsis were very frightened and many of them ran into their houses and bolted their doors. Gangs of Mussalman rioters roamed the streets. The city’s kotwal tried to stop the riots but things did not cool down. The army was called in and stationed at various places and the number of police personnel was increased. On the chowk near the market, a small body of troops was stationed for a month. The rioting and destruction went on for over a month. In those days, children and women feared to venture out. The Parsis were much affected.

“The hostility between the Parsi and Mussalman communities continued for over a year. It was not that there were scuffles and riots through the year but the Parsis were afraid to venture into the Mussalman mohallas. In the second year, the Police Commissioner, Secretary Lumsden, and other important government officials organised a meeting of the Mussalman and Parsi communities. The Kazi of the Mussalman and other personages participated in the meeting. This facilitated in removing any misunderstanding between the two communities. The publisher of the picture was made to apologise and he admitted his folly and said that the incident was due to a lack of understanding. This ended the quarrel and the two communities have been united since then. On the day the reconciliatory meeting between the Mussalmans and Parsis was held, many prominent Parsi and Mussalman gentlemen drove in their carriages through the major streets and Mussalman mohallas. In each carriage were a couple of Parsis, two Mussalmans, and an English official.”

Repeat violence

The 1874 riots were a repeat of the 1851 outbreak of communal violence. We have very detailed accounts in contemporary reportage which, alas, is unavailable today. All the bookshops which sold rare books are gone. The last among them was the New and Secondhand Bookshop (see Lyla Bavadam’s full account in “A literary landmark”; Frontline; July 12, 1996). Another, Kokil & Co., folded up a little earlier. This author’s debt to both is irrepayable; to Abdullah Karol of Kokil and Hassan Ali Bhai and Chandrakant Mankane of New and Secondhand. He worked in the shop of over 53 years and Hassan Ali Bhai just as long. Abdullah Karol had an eye for books on the freedom movement, on Bombay and on old trials. Without them I could not have written some of the books I managed to write. To them I owe also the rare, priceless books on the 1874 riots; all bought for a song.

First, the dramatis personae. The Governor of Bombay was Sir Phillip Wodehouse of the Ceylon Civil Service. The Commissioners of Police were Charles Forjett, who won notoriety by the brutal manner in which he nipped the Mutiny in the city in the bud; and his successor, Sir Frank Henry Souter. All three had roads named after them, which are so called even now despite the vandalism of the Municipal Corporation. (See the encyclopaedic Bombay Place – Names and Street Names: An Excursion into the By-ways of the History of Bombay City by Samuel T. Sheppard; The Times Press, 1917). Sheppard was editor of The Times of India. Maclean wrote A Guide to Bombay: Historical, Statistical and Descriptive; The Bombay Gazette Steam Press, Rampart Row, Bombay.) The fifteenth editor appeared in 1890. It remains unexcelled.

Cowasjee Nowrojee, “Graduate of the Grant Medical College”, wrote Notes and Reflections on The Bombay Riots of 1874 published by The Bombay Gazette Steam Press, Meadow Street, 1874. This press published also The Bombay Riots and a thoroughly documented “Memorial of the Parsee Inhabitants of the City of Bombay in the East Indies”. It was addressed to the Marquis of Salisbury, the Secretary of State for India in Council and was dated April 13, 1874. It was signed by Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy plus 12 other dignitaries “and 8,438 other Parsees”. It had 14 appendices containing statements of witnesses.

The facts were simple. On June 15, 1873, Rustomjee Hormusjee Jalbhoy published a book in Gujarati containing the biographies of prophets, including the life of the Prophet Mohammad. He claimed to have based it on books published abroad. As in 1851, it was scurrilous to a degree and the writer refrained from reproducing it. An unfortunate feature of the discussion in Parsi and European journals is an utter insensitivity to this aspect, even in the Memorial. Muslims waited on Souter, the Commissioner of Police, to inform him about the charged state of Muslim feelings. Jalbhoy delivered all the old copies to the police. The Memorial called this action by the police “illegitimate”, “ill-advised” and a breach of “the right of free discussion”.

Tension was building up when, to quote the Memorial, on Friday, February 13, 1874, a “mob of Seedees and Arabs armed with sticks and stones invaded Abdool Rehman Street” just after the Friday prayers at the Jumma Masjid. Souter ought to have placed a heavy police presence there. He did not. The lesson has not been learnt to this day. The mob went on the rampage attacking Parsis in their homes. Rioting had begun in all its fury.

On the next day, Saturday, February 14, riots again erupted, this time at Khetwadi. “The rioters were weavers and bhungees,” the Gazette reported. “Sometimes the Parsees were found on the offensive.” Seven Muslims and four Parsis were admitted at the Jamsetjee Hospital. Several other injured were treated. A Muslim cemetery lay between Parsi houses and the Queen’s Road at Sonapur. As a funeral procession marched towards it on Sunday, February 15, Parsis threw stones at the processionists. The police blamed the Muslims for initiating the riots on February 13 and 14 and the Parsis for following suit on February 15. The riots received scathing comments in the Indian Statesman, Madras Mail, Madras Times; Madras Atheneum, Cochin Argus, Neilgherry Courier and The Pioneer.

Peace overtures

A “Reconciliation Movement” comprising leading figures of both communities was launched at the initiative of Narayan Wassoodew and Dr Blaney. The first meeting was held on February 18. The Parsis, who met on February 24, demanded of Muslims expression of a “sincere regret at the conduct of the lower classes of their co-religionists”. Two days later the Muslim leaders met and accepted the demand by a resolution they adopted. The moves failed over a failure to forward to the Parsi leaders an authenticated copy of the resolution, a formality on which they insisted.

Their memorial to London followed on April 13, 1874. It demanded an inquiry into the causes of the riots, the names of its “originators”, police failures and measures “necessary to prevent the recurrence of such riots in the future”. Parsis and Muslims buried the hatchet and moved on. But in 2013 we are still grappling with the problem of devising measures to prevent riots. Two leaders in the forefront of the moves for reconciliation became comrades in the freedom movement and rose to national eminence —Sir Pherozeshah Mehta and Badruddin Tyabji.