Could flagrant and repeated armed robberies in the Parsi Mecca of Udvada, a sea town 177 kms from Mumbai mar the glint of Modi’s 20-crore development boost, including December’s grand Iranshah Udvada Utsav?
By Shailesh Bhatia | Mid-Day
In January of 2014, barely weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had assumed office, he met the religious head of the Parsi community, Dastur Khurshed Kaikobad Dastoor.
He suggested that in a bid that Udvada, home to the Iranshah Atash Behram — the highest order fire temple for Parsis — showcase rich Zoroastrian heritage and stand as symbol of harmony and religious tolerance, a festival be held to allow Parsis from around the world to congregate.
Earlier this year, the Gujarat tourism ministry sanctioned Rs 20 crore for the development of the quaint seaside town that sits 177 kms from Mumbai, to kickstart the development plan whose showstopper is the 3-day Iranshah Udvada Utsav scheduled to be held from December 25 to 27 this year.
The plan included addressing the long standing problem of coast erosion worsened by the wearing away of the embankment along the 1-km long coast, and installing toilets and garbage segregation units. Perhaps, security should have been top of the list on that development dossier.
In the last one year, residents of the holiest place for the Parsis, now numbering no more than a hundred and mostly senior citizens, have been vulnerable to rising crime. The most recent incident dates back to last month when an elderly lady and old time resident, who didn’t wish to be named, had an encounter with housebreakers in broad daylight.
Her maid had stepped out to fetch vegetables when three men entered the house, and tried to throttle her. Mercifully, her maid returned earlier than expected and the men escaped from a rear door.
The three break-ins
Among the more recent incidents was of September 29 when three adjoining bungalows, all vacant, were broken into. Details of what was stolen is difficult to ascertain, say the police, because their owners, who lived outside Udvada or abroad, weren’t keen to file a complaint.
One of the bungalows, named Ashirwad carried Baji N Maloo, its owner’s name on the gate. This reporter found that the heavy metallic door knobs had been cut clean. Ganesh and Leela Jeevan, the couple that serves as caretakers here, said they suspect that the robbers came in through the front entrance since the sea-facing section of the property was heavily fenced.
“In all probability, the crime occurred between 1 am and 6 am. The job was carried out so smoothly, we didn’t hear a thing despite sleeping in a hut right beside the entrance. We discovered what had happened only the next morning,” said Leela. The intruders took with them a heavy metallic safe, which it seems they couldn’t break open. It was later discovered lying on the shore along with a pair of heavy metallic cutters by locals.
Dar-Ul-Sharukh, the home next door, owned by Farookh Billimaoria, suffered a similar state. Its caretaker, Mangubhai Jeevan said the home had been vacant for long since the family was settled abroad. It looked like the intruders were looking for valuables since all the cupboards had been ransacked.
Dianbhai Narayan, the 60-year-old caretaker of Sagar Leela, a home next door, was allegedly locked inside his hut and discovered the theft the next morning, after he exited his home through a window. “All doors of the bungalow were wide open, and the home was ransacked. It was evident that the burglars had used a heavy duty cutter to slice through metallic bolts on three doors, before they were able to enter the house,” said Narayan.
A run-down structure in one corner of town used to serve as a police chowki. Now, the nearest police station is in Pardi, across the railway line, a good 15 kilometers away. It takes about 45 minutes to get to, often giving robbers enough time to make a quick exit after a break-in.
Shahin Jamshed Mehershahi, manager of the N M Wadia Dharamshala and vice president of a local political outfit, has been pursuing the matter of a separate police chowki for Udvada with senior police officers. She said an area had been demarcated for the same.
“Although the police in Pardi is prompt to respond to distress calls, the travel time complicates matters. It isn’t always cash and jewellery that the thieves are after, but antiques, often found in old Parsi bungalows, too.” The most dramatic escape from burglars would have to be Paresh Vitthal’s.
He is the watchman and caretaker of Paradise, a residential complex of 54 flats and a stone’s throw from the burgled bungalows. “On October 3, at 11 pm after I had finished my dinner, I stepped out of my house for a late night vigilance stroll, when three men, two carrying what looked like country made pistols, accosted me,” Paresh alleged.
While one of them shoved a gun into his mouth, the other held his close to Paresh’s temple. Two of them were wearing masks and dressed in black, while the third was wearing a red T-shirt. “My wife, Meenakshi, who witnessed the drama, made a quick exit from a rear door that is concealed by a fridge, and raised an alarm.
Seven residents rushed to our help and we then called the police,” he recalled. The story was confirmed by Meenakshi and Rakesh Hadpati, his brother-in-law, who lives across and was one of the first to respond. Manek Tadiwala, a resident who shuttles between Udvada and Australia, believed there was urgent need for the police to scrutinise every complaint, before rising crimes created a fear psychosis among the seniors residing in Udvada, which continues to resemble a peaceful, medieval village.
None of the break-ins have been solved, admit the Pardi police. Their biggest challenge is the absence of property owners at site. And their reluctance to file a police complaint or share details of what was stolen. The absence of thorough facts hinders investigation, say the police.
According to PSI Bhupinder Singh Sarvaia, the police have decided to maintain detailed reports of crimes occurring in the town, based on information they have gathered individually, even if victims have refused to volunteer information or file an FIR. He said it was impossible for repeat incidents of theft to occur without locals functioning as informants and tipping off anti-social elements.
Following the incident, police patrolling had been intensified, he claimed. A five-member team was handed the responsibility of protecting the locals. As per directives of the state government, they have initiated the Police Mitra and Jan Rakshak schemes, encouraging collaboration of locals and the police in maintaining safety.
The on-duty policemen confirmed that orders had been issued to up vigilance, and that they were operating from the once abandoned police chowki until a new came up. Premvir Singh, Superintendent of Police, Valsad region, said, he had personally met members of the Parsi community in Udvada and assured them of help in case of emergencies.
“Considering most residents are seniors, I have instructed my staff to go beyond the call of duty and offer assistance even if the matter is not pertaining to crime,” he said. Dastur Khurshed Kaikobad Dastoor, the High Priest of Iranshah, seemed to be reassured after his meeting with the collector and senior police officials. “While the stories of break-ins are true, rumours had also been floating,” he said, referring to a climate of fear.
The Iranshah Utsav announced by the Foundation for Development of Udvada and the Udvada Samast Anjuman, which will showcase the glorious history of the Parsis stretching over 1300 years, is a first of its kind event and expected to attract eminent community members from across the world. It could be graced by Modi himself, while the likes of Ratan Tata have confirmed their attendance.
“Special arrangements have been initiated at the SP level to ensure that the festival goes on smoothly. The exact security arrangement plan is yet to be formulated but police presence in the area will be strengthened to ensure that the law and order situation is not compromised,” said Singh.
Senior journalist and editor of community magazine, Parsiana, Jehangir Patel said, “Earlier, Udvada residents didn’t feel the need for policing. Unfortunately, the industrial population from nearby is closing in on a town that was once isolated, making it an easy target. It’s a town of travelers, really. Parsis from across India and the world drive in and out to pay their respects to Iranshah. Which leaves the few odd permanent residents to deal with isolation and vulnerability.”
He thinks the number of residents will only dip. “There was a time when Parsis thought of Udvada as a retirement centre, since Pune was expensive. But that’s no longer true. Most residents have moved out, sold their homes and plots. Parsis zoom in and out, alienated from the place and its people. That should change. We must be invested in the town. We should preserve what exists,” he said.