Inside India #21: The Bombay Dog Riots

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

The city of Bombay has long been associated with stray dogs – ‘pie’ dogs, as they are often known. These feral canines can be seen everywhere in India’s city of dreams, nosing through garbage, hanging around markets, running along deserted streets at night in vociferous cut-priced wolf-packs. They are often cited as a nuisance, a threat to public safety and hygiene. At various times in the city’s history, there have been calls for them to be culled. 

Some of those calls have, regrettably, been acted upon.

Picture attribution: Image by PicsbyFran from Pixabay Pixabay License. 

In 1813, the city’s British overseers brought in a regulation that allowed for the killing of dogs – or, rather, dogs with no apparent owners. The cull would only be permitted during the hottest parts of the Bombay summer, a time when dead carcasses putrefy quickly. This regulation was not enforced in any meaningful way, but in 1832 the then Bombay police magistrate chose to make several critical changes to the law – extending the period during which dogs could be culled, and offering a bounty for each one killed – that resulted in uproar. 

Clearly, he hadn’t counted on the venality of the local populace. 

Within short order, specially appointed police dog killers were roaming the streets doing away with anything remotely resembling man’s best friend. Many dogs that could not have been described as ‘stray’ fell victim to the cull. There were even reports that overzealous dog catchers were sneaking into private homes just to club poor Fido over the head and take back the corpse to collect their bounty.

Though some lauded this canine holocaust, not everyone was impressed. 

One community, in particular, was outraged by the new law and its deadly consequences.

The Parsees came to India from Persia, chased out of their native Iran by local persecution. They settled in Gujarat, and later Bombay, where they became stalwarts in the city’s rise to commercial prominence. Parsees brought with them their own religion: Zoroastrianism. 

The Parsees do not bury or cremate their dead – they leave them out in stone structures called Towers of Silence, to be eaten by vultures. Vultures are thus revered in Parsee culture. Dogs hold a similarly sacred position – they are thought to act as guides for the soul towards heaven. Indeed, a key Parsee funerary rite is for a dog to be brought before the deceased’s body in order to confirm death in a ritual called sagdid – dog-sight. If the dog stares steadily at the body, then the person is deemed to be still alive. If the dog does not look at the body, then death is confirmed. This method of diagnosing death might not be one often utilised by modern pathologists; but what cannot be debated is the high regard in which Parsees hold our canine friends. 

Indeed, one of the reasons for fleeing their native Iran was the purported cruelty towards dogs displayed by the new rulers of the region. 

Fast forward to 6th July 1832: a holy day for Parsees. 

In Bombay’s Fort area, the police canine killers continue their grisly task, unaware of growing Parsee resentment. Word spreads. A crowd gathers – two hundred or so Parsees – and two dog-constables are attacked. In short order, the city’s commercial nerve centre – run largely by Parsees – is shut down, all but paralysing Bombay. Soon Muslims, Hindus and Jains join the protest.

Later that evening, the city’s British garrison swung into action. The Riot Act was (literally) read to the crowd, and succeeded in breaking up the protest. The ringleaders of the strike were arrested and thrown in jail. 

This, unsurprisingly, had the effect of pouring oil onto the fire. 

In the days that followed, negotiations between the British and the Parsees became heated, but eventually a détente was reached. It was decided that, rather than cull stray dogs, an attempt would be made to relocate such dogs outside of the city’s limits. The Parsees were duly appeased by the underlying commitment to preserve canine life, however practical the reality of following through on the initiative might be. 

The Bombay Dog riots – considered to be the first of the many riots that have plagued India’s premier metropolis – demonstrated the power base that the Parsees had managed to create in a relatively short time on the subcontinent. The riots also exposed the vulnerability of British policies to local religious sentiments and helped reinforce the general policy of non-interference in religious practise that marked the British time in India. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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