Myth: Parsis are a peaceful and peace-loving community and unlike other communities, they have never indulged in rioting.
Fact: Anyone and almost everyone would agree that by and large the Parsi community is peaceful and peace-loving and has always been loved by all communities for its charitable disposition and ability to laugh at its own faults and weaknesses. However, history records that the first communal riot in Mumbai was not between Hindus and Muslims, but, between Parsis and Muslims. History also records a riot between Parsis and Muslims in Bharuch in 1857.
In the book, ‘Riots & Wrongs’ (India First Foundation, New Delhi, 2004) R N P Singh, an ex-officer of India’s Intelligence Bureau who was also honoured with the President’s Police Medal and Indian Police Medal, records four riots between Muslims and Parsis! Parsis rioting on the streets of Mumbai in 1832 in what was infamously called the ‘Dog Riots’ is also well documented.
The Kadmi – Shehenshahi Riots:
In the last quarter of the eighteenth century there were several riots and even murders within the Parsi community between the warring Kadmi and Shehenshahi sects. During the fallout, the revered Behdin Homa Behdin Jamshed was falsely accused by a lady belonging to the Kadmi sect and Homaji was later hanged in the year 1783 at the corner of Bazaar-gate Street in Mumbai. Homaji was innocent and had declared before being hanged that the person who had falsely accused him would die a violent death and indeed that’s what came to pass and Homaji is remembered to this date as the Patron Saint of all those who are falsely accused or are embroiled in frivolous litigation.
The Dog Riots (1832):
There was a boom in the population of stray dogs and the then British administration gave orders to cull stray pariah dogs. Parsi were (they still are) very fond of dogs and it was a daily ritual in every Parsi mohalla (street) to leave a morsel of food for stray dogs (Kutra no buk) by day and by night. Parsi traders of that time called a strike and other Indians, particularly Hindus joined the Parsis in this protest.
The strike and riot demonstrated the enormous power that Parsis traders of that time had to disrupt the daily routine of Bombay and their ability to exert their influence in hostility to colonial interference and incursions against Parsi religious sensibilities.
The Bharuch Riots (1857):
On 10th May 1857, literally five days after the beginning of the Indian revolt of 1857 against the British East India Company, a Parsi named Bejonji Sheriaiji Bharucha was accused of desecrating a mosque by some Muslims and a riots broke out. After five days, 200 Muslims gathered near Bawa Rahan shrine in the north of the town and the police were unable to stop the mob from what it had conspired to do. The mob attacked the Dastur Kamdin Dar-e-Mihr and killed its Head Priest, Ervad Ardeshir Hormusji Kamdin. They also lynched Bejonji Sheriaiji Bharucha and dragged his body through several lanes. They also attacked Shapurji Narielwala Agiyari (consecrated in 1783) and assaulted its Head Priest, Ervad Meherwanji Muncherji Kamdin. Mr. Davies, the Magistrate of Bharuch and the Collector, could not stop the riots. Later military troops were brought in from nearby towns of Vagra, Amod, Ankleshwar and Hansot to usher peace and quell the mob.
The Bombay Riots (1874):
Late Shahpur Desai in his ‘History of the Parsi Punchayet’ vividly describes the origin and fallout of the 1874 riots:
Rustomji Hormusji Jalbhoy, a young freelance, with a flare for gorging English literature or other books and disgorging the same in vernacular for the spread of knowledge took into his head to publish in Gujarati a book called ‘Renowned Prophets’. The young man had read authors like Ockley, Washington Irving and Gibbon and thought he was living in as free a society as his English authors did.
There was a passage in Irving’s book, which when translated into Gujarati made an unsavoury reference to Prophet Mahomed. The book was published some time in the middle of 1873 and the reaction of Mahomedans materialized 10 months later, maybe through some incitement, though that has remained a mystery. In early February 1874 the air was rife that Mahomedans wanted to create mischief, a riot, or at least disturb the peace. The police commissioner F H Souter was aware of this and had top detectives under him, who were Mahomedans, and one of whom was recently made a Khan Bahadur.
Aroun February 8-9, 1874, Deputy Commissioner of police, Edginton, called Jalbhoy to his office and told him in the presence of Souter that a deputation of Mahomedans had told him that “their coreligionists were so excited that they would burn down the homes of the Parsis, would maltreat them and do other injuries to them.” Jalbhoy said it was for sheer diffusion of knowledge that he had written the book and on the request of Edginton in the presence of Souter, Jalbhoy stock-piled his unsold copies with the police. In fact later on knowing the names and addresses of purchasers the police even recalled those books too. A deputation of Mahomedans, which was already waiting in the next room, was informed of what Edginton had done. This should have ended the matter peacefully there and then but that was not to be and rumours persisted that there would be trouble. And, it did happen.
Soon after Jumma prayers in the mosque on Friday, February 13, a number of Mahomedans, mostly Siddees and Arabs, came out shouting “Deen, Deen,” went into Abdul Rehman Street, attacked Parsi homes, desecrated the holy fire in Alahi Baugh and started breaking windows and doors, furniture belonging to Parsis living there, looting and burning what came their way. It also happened on February 14 and 15. Parsis suffered considerably.
On February 15, there were two funeral processions led by Mahomedans. They started from the Mahomedan locality of Bhendi Bazaar and wended their way via Bhuleshwar through Parsi localities towards Sonapore, their burial ground. One of the Hindu witnesses, the keeper of a temple, stated the Mahomedans were armed with sticks, etc. The Parsis had information that if they did not organize themselves the two Atash Behrams at Dhobi Talao were not safe and they did do so. Prior to all this the Parsi sethias including the trustees of the Parsi Punchayet had urged government to call military which for reasons best known to them the government had failed to do and depended upon their police force under Souter who perhaps bore a grudge against the Parsis. In fact he once told some Parsis that he would like to see all Parsis killed! Was it then a stratagem? And the trouble started when the procession neared Sonapore, a predominantly Parsi area. Mahomedans said Parsis threw stones and Parsis said the Mahomedans attacked Parsi homes, broke window panes and did other damage. In the melee that followed one Parsi and four Mahomedans, who were injured, died later, most Parsis then disappeared and the police took a number of Mahomedans into custody for rioting. After this the government of the day saw fit to call up military and the disturbance ended with one solitary instance on February 21.
The Bombay Riots (1921):
When riots of a political nature broke out in 1921, Sir Dhunjibhoy Bomanji a very affluent and influential Parsi Sethia of Bombay played a stellar role in protecting some of the endangered Agyaris and Atashbehrams which were in real danger of desecration. While most prominent Parsi leaders of that time tried to negotiate peace through talks and diplomacy with the support of the then British government, Sir Dhunjibhoy reportedly armed a few strong and courageous Parsi volunteers with weapons and posted them on guard duty at various places of worship.
Sir Dhunjibhoy wielded tremendous influence in the naval dockyards and with the police force in Mumbai. He and his charming wife were both highly westernised in their habits and tastes. But in matters of religion they were not only very devout but believed in the power of deeds (done at the right time and at the right place) over empty words. A book on prominent Parsis of that time titled, ‘Parsi Lustre on Indian Soil’ is dedicated to his pious memory.