It is hard to believe, but the first known riots in Bombay (now Mumbai), when locals went on the streets against the British authorities was led by the otherwise genteel Parsis, who took up arms for their dogs!
The ‘Dog Riots of 1832’ as it is called, were unlike anything that you would have come across, anywhere in the world, but it was a battle worth fighting for.
In May 1832, the Magistrates of Police (Bombay) decided to extend a regulation issued in 1813, that mandated the Indian pariah dogs within public and government properties to be killed every year between April to May and September to October. This was to control the growing menace of stray and rabid dogs in a port city that was rapidly growing. The extension went through and special dog killers were appointed who were paid eight annas for killing each stray dog. Excited by the monetary incentive, many of these dog catchers began to eye dogs that were neither loose nor dangerous. Justifiably this created a furore.
But the situation became tense on 6th July 1932, a holy day for the Parsis. The teaching of ‘Ehtirám-I sag‘ or ‘great respect for the dog‘ is found in the Zoroastrian religious scriptures. The dogs are said to be the gatekeepers of the heavens and a gaze of the dog is said to ward off evil. The Parsi religious text Avesta, also has detailed commentary on the virtues of dogs and how they must be taken care of. Despite warnings, the police officers in the Fort area of Bombay did not stop the rounding up of dogs. As a result, the Parsis were outraged.
The British, didn’t have a clue. On the afternoon of June 6 when the police began to round up dogs within city’s Fort area, they received warnings that the Parsi residents were getting restless. Soon a crowd of about 200 Parsis ( a considerable number at the time) came out to the streets to mark their protest. In the flurry two constables were attacked. The police came down in full force and as tensions rose the central business and commercial area within the Bombay Fort area came to a standstill. Shops were closed down and work on the docks ceased. By next day, preparations for a full-scale strike were taking shape. Palanquins carrying Britishers were stopped and pelted with stones. Soon, the Parsis were joined by other communities like the Hindus, Jains and Muslims, the protestors now inched close to 500.
Despite all the rioting and protests, there was hardly any causality in the riot, except for two Englishmen who died due to excessive heat. The British were embarrassed by what had happened and the regulation in question was withdrawn. A deputation led by Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, the Baronet, further asked the British not to kill any dogs, but rather just capture them. This too was accepted.
Few remember the ‘Dog Riot’ today but it did have an important impact. It was after this incident that the British decided to bring in many more diverse communities into Bombay. Till then, the Bombay town was dominated by the Parsi residents, but the paranoid British saw the riots a ‘Parsi conspiracy’. As a result it encouraged other communities to migrate to Bombay and settle there.
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