Balliol College, University of Oxford
A Cosmopolitan Crisis: The Bombay Riots of 1874
Variously called the Mahomedan Riots, the Bombay Riots and more recently, the Parsi-Muslim Riots of 1874, the three days of communal conflict in February 1874, were the severest Bombay had witnessed. Sparked by a Parsi author, Rustomjee Jalbhoy’s controversial publication on Prophet Muhammed and intensified by the fears of further retaliation during the impending Mohurrum festival; the riots left 7 dead, over 50 seriously injured and property amounting to about Rs 32,000 destroyed or stolen.
Rather than reducing the violence to an overt expression of pre-existing communal antagonisms, this paper examines the riots as a cosmopolitan crisis, an inevitable consequence of the largely deregulated, pluralistic religious economy in Bombay that published not only ‘high’ reformist literature, but also lesser work like Jalbhoy’s book in Gujarati, a piecemeal translation of various Western commentaries on the life of Mohammed. A survey of the debates surrounding the riot, staged chiefly in the press, reveal more the outrage over an under-staffed police force and a late military intervention, than the socio-religious tensions of the two communities. Here my argument will draw on recent historiography on Bombay, like Sandip Hazareesinghs’, which contends that far from being gifts, modern amenities like a civic infrastructure, adequate police protection etc were often struggled for and demanded from a reluctant colonial administration.
This paper will trace the course of the riots through various arenas- the streets, private residences, the press and finally the court trails of the accused. It will also contextualize the riots of 1874 within broader patterns of Parsi rioting in Bombay- the Dog Riot of 1832, the smaller Tower of Silence Riot of 1873, the Prince of Wales Riot of 1921 and particularly the Parsi-Muslim Riot of 1851. Though spaced 23 years apart, the circumstances and events of both Parsi-Muslim riots are markedly alike- instigated by indiscriminate Parsi publishing, with Mohurrum around the corner, leaders relegating violence to lower class Parsis and Muslims, performing similar rituals of reconciliation and twice unlucky the buggy of Dr. Peel, Assistant Surgeon at the J. J. Hospital, was assailed by the rioting mob. However in 1851, it was a disproportionate sketch of Prophet Mahommed in a Gujarati bi-weekly newspaper that caused offense; the pitfalls of cheap lithographic printing. By 1874 photographic practices were well established in Bombay and words more than pictures seemed to be causing damage. Widely disseminated internationally was a photograph of a beautiful Algerian youth, considered the picture of the prophet.