When ‘Blasphemous’ Posts In Parsi-Run Publications Led To Parsi-Muslim Riots In The Nineteenth Century
A slice of history from 1851 to 1874 when major riots erupted between Parsis and Muslims.
The recorded history of major killings over ‘blasphemy’ of Islam or its holy figures in the Indian sub-continent dates back to at least the seventeenth century when the ninth Sikh guru, Guru Teg Bahadur, and Mughal prince Dara Shikoh were killed on the orders of Aurangzeb.
In the eighteenth century, a prominent name that features in the list is of a Sialkot-native, Haqiqat Rai Puri.
Between Haqiqat Rai and the early twentieth century that saw a spate of murders of Arya Samajist Hindus, two major riots erupted in Mumbai and Gujarat in the nineteenth century between Parsis and Muslims.
Those riots find little mention in the heated discourse around blasphemy-related violence today, likely because the two communities have had no recent episode of communal rioting.
However, in 1851, they rioted for almost a month and the hostilities remained for over a year, followed by another episode of violence in 1857 when casualties included a Parsi priest, and in 1874 that was largely a repeat of what transpired in 1851.
The Riots In 1851 Over A Poor Drawing Of Islam’s Prophet
In October 1851, a Parsi-run Gujarati-language publication titled Chitradyanadarpan (spelled Chitra Gnyan Darpan by some) published a small profile of Islam’s founder Mohammed. The profile was accompanied by his picture.
The publication, the name of which translates to ‘Mirror of Pictorial Knowledge’ in English, ran a column on famous personalities. The text carried an illustration of the personality.
The publication was launched in Mumbai in 1850 as the first illustrated weekly journal in India. Two Parsis, Jehangir H Punthaki and Behramji Cursetji Gandh, were its editors.
The publication wrapped up business only four years later, mainly due to the blasphemy incident. (Source: The Parsis of India: Preservation of Identity in Bombay City by Canadian author-researcher Jesse Palsetia).
On 17 October, which was a Friday, some unknown person pasted a cutting of the newspaper outside the walls of Jama Masjid (then called “Jumma Masjid”). When namazis came out of the mosque and saw the picture, they were enraged.
So enraged they were that they launched an attack on Parsis walking in the streets and on Parsi-run establishments. The then British administration had to call in the army to quell the violence.
S M Edwardes, a former commissioner of police of Bombay under the British Raj, in his book The Bombay City Police: A historical sketch 1672-1916 gave the following account of the episode:
The “Muhammadans” (as they were called then) gathered at the Jama Masjid in large numbers. They began attacking the Parsis and Parsi-owned establishments such as liquor-shops, public-conveyance stables and houses.
To quell the violence, the then Superintendent of Police Captain Baynes and Senior Magistrate Spens deployed a large police force, capturing 85 rioters. However, that proved to be insufficient and troops had to be called in.
Edwardes wrote, “…Towards evening, as there were signs of a fresh outbreak and the neighbourhood of Bhendi Bazaar was practically in a state of siege, the garrison-troops were marched down to Mumbadevi and thence distributed in pickets throughout the area of disturbance. This action finally quelled the rioting, and the annual Muharram festival, which commenced ten days later, passed off without any untoward incident.”
While Edwardes was quick to conclude that the violence was contained soon, another account of the episode gives a more elaborate picture.
Gobind Narayan (1815-1865), who came to Bombay from Goa and established himself as an author of repute, wrote in a book that the riots, which began as early as 10 am on 17 October, went on for a month, accompanied by large-scale destruction.
Those who started the violence chanted “Deen Deen”.
Narayan’s book, which was translated from Marathi and published in English in 2012 under the title ‘Govind Narayan’s Mumbai: An Urban Biography from 1863’, says that what particularly enraged the Muslims was that the illustration was poor and showed Islam’s prophet as blind in one eye.
A drop of ink spilled on one of the eyes, giving an impression that he was blinded in one eye, he wrote.
Narayan quoted from a report published in a Marathi-language Christian periodical titled Dnyanodaya to say that the profile and the picture had been extracted from an English book.
The aggressors from the Muslim side came from upper-castes including “Arabs and Siddies from Janjira” while the Parsi side that retaliated was from “humbler vocations”, as per a 2013 column by Mumbai-based advocate Abdul Ghaffar Majeed Noorani.
Noorani notes that in the coverage of the episode, The Bombay Gazette, which was edited by British journalist and politician James Mackenzie MacLean, was openly pro-Parsi. On the other hand, The Times of India (then called The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce) attacked the Gazette for its stand.
Narayan’s account says that after a year of hostilities between the Parsis and Muslims, the then police commissioner, Secretary Lumsden, and other government officials organised a meeting between representatives of both the communities.
The publisher of the column apologised, saying that the error had happened due to a lack of understanding.
Prominent Parsis and Mussalmans drove in their carriages through major streets of Bombay to announce peace.
The peace, however, was short-lived.
The Violence In 1857
The Parsis and the Muslims rioted again, this time in Bharuch (then called Braoch) in Gujarat. It was the year of the “Great Mutiny” or, as many call it now, “The first war of independence”.
The trigger of the violence is not known, but its origins lay in a “long-standing feud between the Parsis and the Mussalmans of that town”, as mentioned in the The Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency: History of Gujarat (volume 1), authored by J M Campbell and published in 1896.
The Gazetteer dismisses the episode as trivial, saying “it had no political significance” and was “promptly suppressed”.
It says, “The ringleaders were arrested, tried, and sentenced to be hanged for the murder of a Parsi, but there is a no reason to suppose that this disturbance had any immediate connection with the outbreak in the North-West.”
In a slight variation of the facts, however, Palsetia (The Parsis of India) writes that two Parsis were murdered including a high priest.
The occurrence of this episode of violence is also recorded in The Gujarat State Gazetteers: Bharuch District (Supplement), published in 1979 and edited by S B Rajyagor and S Tripathy.
It says that the same year, in the mosques of Bharuch, Muslims held prayers for speedy end of the British Raj.
One Saiyad Murad Ali gathered about 300 to 400 Makranis, Sindhis and Arabs and revolted against the British government. However, king Rajpipla quelled the revolt and Murad Ali fled, it says.
The Riots In 1874
In 1874, an episode of communalism occurred quite similar to the one in 1851, only that the violence erupted eight months after the publication of the ‘blasphemous’ content.
Noorani gives the following account of the trigger of the violence: On 15 June 1873, a Parsi publisher named Rustomjee Hormusjee Jalbhoy published a book in Gujarati containing the biographies of various religious prophets (the book was titled Famous Prophets and Communities). The publisher said he had based it on books published abroad.
Unhappy with the profile, Muslims took up the matter with the then commissioner of police. The officer asked all copies of the book to be delivered to him. The order was duly carried out.
However, on a Friday – 13 February 1874 – people coming out of the Jama Masjid began attacking Parsis on the streets and their establishments and houses.
Noorani quotes from a European journal, Memorial, to say that “a mob of Seedees and Arabs armed with sticks and stones invaded Abdool Rehman Street”.
Following is the account given by Edwardes:
“…A mob of rough Muhammadans gathered outside the Jama Masjid, and after an exhortation by the Mulla began attacking the houses of Parsi residents. Two agiaris (fire-temples) were broken open and desecrated by a band of Sidis, Arabs and Pathans, who then commenced looting Parsi residences and attacking any Parsi whom they met on the road. One of the worst affrays occurred in Dhobi Talao.”
The account says that in Dhobi Talao, Parsis threw stones at a Muslim funeral procession the next day. This resulted in a “free fight with bludgeons and staves, in which many persons were injured”.
Some Parsis also attacked a gang of Afghans near the Dadysett Agiari in Hornby Road.
Edwardes’s account further says that the Muslim side became so aggressive and threatening the next day that the Parsis pleaded the then Governor Sir Philip Wodehouse to send in the military to aid the police who, they said, were failing.
Eventually, the troops of the garrison were called in to restore peace. As many as 106 people were charged for rioting, of whom 74 were convicted and imprisoned.
By many accounts, the Parsis later blamed the British administration of being partisan and not coming to their rescue in time. Prominent members sent letters to higher officials, demanding an inquiry.
It is interesting to note here what Narayan wrote in the context of the 1851 episode.
“…It is worth contemplating the fate of the Parsis and others, if there had been a Muslim government in power,” he wrote.
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