The Bombay Dog Riots: When Mumbai's Parsis Rose Up In Defence Of The City's Strays

The roots of the conflict can be traced back to 1813 when the British colonial authorities in Bombay introduced a regulation aimed at controlling the city's stray dog population.
The roots of the conflict can be traced back to 1813 when the British colonial authorities in Bombay introduced a regulation aimed at controlling the city's stray dog population. Wikimedia Commons

The year was 1832, and the port city of Bombay was a common ground for diverse cultures and communities. Among them, the Parsi community occupied a unique place and were known for their business acumen, philanthropy, and deep-seated religious beliefs. Little did anyone anticipate that this peace-loving community would spearhead one of the first major riots in the city’s history — all for the sake of stray dogs.

The roots of the conflict can be traced back to 1813, when the British colonial authorities in Bombay introduced a regulation aimed at controlling the city's stray dog population. This regulation, which permitted the culling of stray dogs, was loosely enforced for years. However, by 1832, the city's dog population had surged, and the authorities decided to revisit and enforce the regulation more strictly. The revised law extended the culling period and offered monetary incentives to dog catchers, who were paid eight annas for each dog killed

This policy, intended to curb the nuisance posed by stray dogs, quickly spiralled out of control. Overzealous dog catchers began indiscriminately targeting not only stray dogs but also pets, sometimes even breaking into homes to seize and kill dogs for the bounty. The situation eventually reached a tipping point, inciting outrage among Bombay's residents - particularly the Parsis.

For the Parsis, dogs were not just pets but sacred beings integral to their Zoroastrian faith. According to their religious texts, dogs were considered gatekeepers of heaven, and their gaze was believed to ward off evil. A critical ritual in Parsi funerary rites, known as 'Sagdid' or "dog-sight", involved a dog confirming the death of a person by refusing to look at the deceased if they were truly dead. The indiscriminate slaughter of dogs thus struck a deep, personal chord with the Parsi community and challenged their religious beliefs and cultural practices.

Things really came to a head on July 6, 1832, a holy day for the Parsis. In the Fort area of Bombay, dog catchers continued their grim task, unaware of the mounting anger among the Parsis. A crowd of about 200 Parsis gathered to protest, and tensions quickly escalated. In the ensuing clash, two police constables were attacked. The protest gained momentum as shops and businesses in the area shut down, and other communities, including Hindus, Jains, and Muslims, joined the Parsi-led protest.

The British authorities, taken aback by the scale of the protest, called in the city’s garrison to quell the unrest. The Riot Act was read to the assembled crowd, and several Parsi leaders were arrested. However, the arrests only fueled the protests further, and the city's commercial activities were brought to a near standstill. The economic impact of the strike and the unity displayed by Bombay's diverse communities forced the British to reconsider their stance

Realizing the untenable nature of their position, the British authorities opened negotiations with the Parsi leaders. Led by prominent Parsi businessman Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, the community demanded an end to the culling and proposed instead that stray dogs be relocated outside the city limits. The British, keen to restore order and avoid further unrest, agreed to these terms. The regulation mandating the killing of stray dogs was withdrawn, and the arrested Parsi leaders were released.

The Bombay Dog Riots of 1832 left an indelible mark on the city’s history. They highlighted the influence and organisational capability of the Parsi community and underscored the power of unified action across communal lines. This event also exposed the vulnerabilities of British colonial policies when confronted with strong local religious sentiments. In the broader narrative of India's colonial history, the Dog Riots stand out as a unique instance where the catalyst for conflict was compassion for animals, reflecting the deep-seated cultural and religious values of the communities involved.

In retrospect,  this riot speaks to passion and the enduring bond between humans and their animal companions, and the lengths to which people will go to protect them.

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