Muharram in Bombay, c. 1893-1912

Posted by bint battuta on November 21, 2013 · 17 mins read
Muharram rituals associated with Shi'a communities in the Middle East and commemorating Ashura signify the division of Shi'a from Sunni communities. However, Muharram rituals metamorphosed into non-Shi'i rituals in India. As Kidambi (2007) remarks, even Hindus participated in the rituals in Mumbai during the nineteenth century. In fact, observing Ashura day was an inter-community/inter-religion event and the procession on Ashura day was the greatest festival of Mumbai during the nineteenth century, often called the taboot procession. Birdwood (1915) described the procession as the most picturesque event of South Asia.

The Muharram rituals in Mumbai have radically changed since the nineteenth century. The commemorative act as an inter-communal festival came to an end with the riot of 1893. Edwardes, the Commissioner of Police of Bombay at the time, argued that the riot of 1893 broke out as a result of the Hindu Nationalist movement led by Tilak. The movement was initially anti-British, but Tilak widened his movement against Muslims as well (Edwardes 1923, 104—105). Violence between Muslims and Hindus during the month of Muharram became so frequent in the following years that colonial authorities put tight regulations in place regarding the Muharram rituals. The regulation imposed in 1912, during Edwardes' era, was particularly important in transforming the Ashura commemoration in Mumbai. This regulation banned the issuing of licences for non-Muslims who wished to carry out the procession. In reality, the regulation (1912) indirectly stopped the procession and was part of the process that gradually made the commemoration a solely Shi'i ritual in Mumbai. Although the Ashura commemoration is still known as the Muslims' (both Shi'a and Sunni) ritual in Indian cities, it is mainly a Shi'i ritual in Mumbai.

from Reza Masoudi Nejad, Practising Fractal Shi'i Identities through Muharram Rituals in Mumbai

Muharram procession in Bombay, c.1880. Muharram procession in Bombay, c.1880.

By the last decade of the nineteenth century colonial authorities also began to register a growing concern about the conduct of the annual Muslim festival of Muharram. The ten-day long festival, recalling the martyrdom of Husain at Kerbala, was one of mourning for Bombay's Shi'as (one of the two principal sects within Islam). But it was the carnivalesque Sunni (the other major sect within Islam) mode of celebration, centering on the parading of large wooden models of the mausoleum of Hussain at Karbala, known as ta'ziyas or tabuts, and accompanied by wandering tolis (street gangs) that was more prominent in the city during the late nineteenth century. Each street or neighbourhood had its own toli, largely comprising of youths drawn from the labouring classes irrespective of their religious affiliation. The size of the tolis varied depending on the affluence of the neighbourhood and the fund-raising abilities of its leaders. The clowns, mimics and acrobats that accompanied the tolis accentuated the carnivalesque character of the festival, 'the like of which for extent and eccentricity, is to be found in few other cities in the world'. The Muharram festivities had been relatively free of violence for the better part of the nineteenth century, but during the 1890s an intensification of inter-neighbourhood competition and rivalry as well as the growing size of the street gangs 'raised the specter of a threat to general stability' in the official mind.


One significant consequence of the 1902 act was that the vast discretionary powers vested in the commissioner of police and his immediate subordinates served to entrench them in a pivotal role within the politics of the urban neighbourhood and the street. Of course, colonial police officials had intervened from time to time in local disputes on an informal basis even before the passing of the 1902 act. But the police could now actively deploy the detailed and sweeping powers bestowed by the new act in dealing with recalcitrant elements. At the same time, those who rendered themselves useful to the police could reap the reward for their services by being granted 'favours' of various kinds, most notably, with regard to licenses for activities that now required police permission. Furthermore, by widening the discretionary powers of the police, the new act also predisposed the European upper ranks of the force to act on their anxieties about the threat to public order in an 'oriental' city and to intervene in local disputes in a manner hitherto unprecedented. The corollary to this, however, was that the police became more directly exposed and vulnerable to popular resentment on account of their actions.

The 'Muharram riots' that repeatedly rocked the city during the first decade of the twentieth century are illustrative of some of these themes. During the late 1890s, as noted previously, European police officers had increasingly began to perceive the Muharram festival as a threat to public order on account of the seemingly 'licentious' and 'riotous' behavior of the lower classes who participated in the festival in large numbers. During the early years of the twentieth century, the powerlessness of the 'traditional' leaders in the face of these elements, and the inability of the police to adequately manipulate the informal sources of influence within the neighbourhood, precipitated a more direct application of force from above. Most notably, the police commissioner liberally deployed the 'special powers' bestowed by the 1902 act in an attempt to underscore British authority over the city.

The tensions over the conduct of the Muharram festival centered largely on Doctor Street, a locality that had been predominantly inhabited by the Sunni lower classes until the 1890s. The Bohras, who were of the Shi'a sect, gradually began to move in to this street during the last decade of the century. By the turn of the century the neighbourhood had come to be dominated by the houses and mosques of the Bohras, a reflection of the economic prosperity of this 'respectable' trading community. It is likely that their economic and social superiority began to arouse resentment among their poorer neighbours, a feeling that was aggravated when the Bohras sought to assert their authority over Doctor Street by preventing the passage of the Muharram tolis through the locality.

On 23 March 1904, when a Muharram toli made its way through Doctor Street 'playing music as is, and has been for many years, the custom in this street', they were set upon by a crowd of Bohras. This incident prompted the police to immediately register its presence in the neighbourhood. The next night when another procession entered Doctor Street, a police party stationed outside the Bohra mosque stopped the music, resulting in a minor affray. Three days later a procession that set out from Rangari moholla, a neighbourhood predominantly inhabited by Muslim labourers, was again prevented by the police from going into Doctor Street and stoned by the Bohras living in an adjacent street when they passed through that area. The Rangari moholla processionists retaliated by attacking any Bohras whom they encountered on the streets. As a punitive measure, the police commissioner cancelled the festival license of the Rangari moholla and closed Doctor Street to all street processions for the remainder of the festival. The decision by the police to ban processions from passing through Doctor Street provoked widespread resentment among the adjacent neighbourhoods. The mood was thus sullen when the festival ended and shortly thereafter, popular anger against the Bohras of Doctor Street exploded into a riot in which the community was targeted for attack. Enraged crowds repeatedly surged through Bohra-dominated neighbourhoods in symbolic acts of violation of their territorial space. Bohras were attacked on the streets and the police were stoned at various points, prompting the police commissioner to call for military aid in suppressing the violence.

The tensions opened up by the riot of 1904 continued to simmer in the following years. In 1906, the Bohras of Doctor Street petitioned the police to use the special powers bestowed by the 1902 act to prevent the Muharram tolis from passing through the street between the fifth and final night of the festival. Police officials responded favourably to the Bohra petition and stationed a large contingent of policemen in Doctor Street during the festival in 1907. Their actions stoked the embers of popular resentment and eventually led to an even bigger conflagration in 1908. The riots that year were triggered by an affray involving a Julaha procession and some Sunnis who were praying in their mosque on Falkland Road on the immersion day. The police arrested three of the Sunnis allegedly involved in the incident, the news of which spread rapidly through the city. As a mark of protest many of the tolis refused to proceed with their tabuts and proceeded to attack both Bohras and the police. The law-enforcement agencies resorted to firing to clear the streets, resulting in forty-three casualties.

In 1909, the Government of Bombay appointed a Muharram committee to coordinate with the police in maintaining peace during the festival. The members of the committee were mostly drawn from amongst the traditional sources of authority in the various Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods, as well as men who had attained a position in the world of commerce and industry. Although the festival that year passed off without any violence, it became apparent that these elites had very little control over those who participated in the celebrations. S.M. Edwardes, who assumed charge as police commissioner in that year, was extremely critical of the government decision to appoint the Muharram committee. The Bombay executive authorities, in his view, 'had failed to prove that they are the ultimate masters of the city'. As a result, the street gangs had turned the festival into 'an orgy of license, obscenity and disturbance'. The following year, Edwardes set about using his special powers to crush the threat posed by the street gangs during the festival. He announced that although processions would be allowed to pass through Doctor Street, no music whatsoever would be permitted while they were there. As news of this decision spread many of the leading neighbourhoods protested by refusing to take out their tabuts. The toli leaders of these neighbourhoods also sent a petition to the government accusing Edwardes of being partial to the Bohras. Although there was no overt violence, Edwardes' actions intensified the antagonism between the police and the Muharram tolis.

The friction produced by the actions of the executive authorities led to an open confrontation in 1911. As we have seen, the special powers of the 1902 act allowed the police commissioner to prescribe the routes for processions. Invoking these powers, Edwardes presented the Muharram tolis with a precise processional route map that precluded them from venturing into Doctor Street and the adjacent Bohra-dominated localities. Once again, the police commissioner's decision provoked popular resentment in the Sunni localities and many of the neighbourhoods refused to apply for festival licenses. His active role in intervening in the conduct of the festival lent further credence to the popular perception amongst the lower orders that the police commissioner had been 'bribed' by wealthy Bohras. But Edwardes' decision also opened up dissensions within the various neighbourhoods over the question of applying to the commissioner for a festival license. The internal conflict between the various Sunni neighbourhoods erupted in violence on the penultimate night of the festival, prompting Edwardes to call in the military. While this dispersed the crowds, it also sparked off a riot on the final afternoon of the festival as protestors clashed with the police and the military. The troops resorted to firing, killing twenty persons and injuring scores of others.

In the aftermath of the riot of 1911, Edwardes made out a case for redefining rather than merely regulating the nature of the Muharram celebrations in the interests of public order. Specifically, he proposed doing away with the tolis, which were 'merely an excuse for rascality to burst its usual barriers and flow over in the city in a current of excessive turbulence'. To this end, Edwardes invoked his 'special powers' and issued a new set of Muharram regulations in 1912 that prohibited all tolis throughout the festival. The lifting and circulation of tabuts on the final night of the festival was to be strictly confined to the limits of the respective neighbourhoods in which each tabut was placed and the appearance of any tabut in defiance of this rule was to be considered 'an act of disobedience'. As in the previous year, all the Bohra localities were closed off entirely to all Muharram celebrants throughout the ten days of the festival. Finally, a deposit of hundred rupees for good behaviour was now made mandatory for all those who wished to procure Muharram licenses. To give effect to these regulations, on the eve of the festival Edwardes used his powers as a presidency magistrate to remand to judicial custody 'all persons known to have been involved in the Muharram disturbances and to be likely to foment disorder'. Consequently, an absence of the usual carnival atmosphere and the throngs of people on the streets marked the festival of 1912. Most of the mohollas had decided against building any tabuts as a mark of collective protest as soon as the new regulations were issued. 'Taking it all in all', Edwardes wrote in a self-congratulatory vein, 'the badmash element felt itself outclassed and except in the case of Madanpura … contented itself with lying low and hurling threats and objurgation at the Police Commissioner.' At the same time, he pointed out that the most noteworthy feature was 'the rise in the number of “Majlis” at which the Maulvis discourse nightly on religious matters and the very great increase in the number of Mahomedans attending them'. 'Religion took the place this year of irreligion', Edwardes declared, 'order and tranquillity reigned in the place of riot'.

from Prashant Kidambi, 'The ultimate masters of the city': police, public order and the poor in colonial Bombay, c. 1893-1914


Dr. Afaq Ahmad Qureshi. | November 20, 2013

Excellent. Extremely enriching and informative.

YAJiV | November 21, 2013

Another story of crazy colonial bureaucracy stopping some inter-communal festivities with classic divide technique. Have to say if only those Hindu nationalist could have rioted harder against the British, instead of picking on the Muslims(who never ate as much beef as the brits) in 1893 maybe independence would have came sooner null partition... then BANG super south asian state(would make for fun bit of alternative history dreamyyy ohh wait forgot I'm an anarchist :P_) SUPERB_READ

Qalandar | November 25, 2013

Timely, given that I stay in a disproportionately Shiite corner of Bandra West, and had an up close look at Muharram (I've only been able to do that since moving to Bombay in 2011; growing up in Dubai, any public expressions of Shiism were pretty much banned)...

TAK | November 30, 2013

".. they were set upon by a crowd of Bohras. This incident prompted the police to immediately register its presence in the neighbourhood. The next night when another procession entered Doctor Street, a police party stationed outside the Bohra mosque stopped the music, resulting in a minor affray. Three days later a procession that set out from Rangari moholla, a neighbourhood predominantly inhabited by Muslim labourers, was again prevented by the police from going into Doctor Street and stoned by the Bohras living in an adjacent street when they passed through that area. " As a Mumbaikar, I cannot imagine the gentle and genteel Bohras "set upon a crowd" or "..stoning" a Sunni toli.

Ruchira | December 03, 2013

Hindus celebrated Muharram in many other parts of the subcontinent.

Ajit | December 15, 2013

All the rioting seems to have been the work either of the participants (using the festivities as an excuse for causing mayhem) or sectarian fights among Bohras, Sunni Muslims etc. This glorious tradition continues in modern day Pakistan. Why give undeserved credit to Hindus, Tilak or the colonial administration ?

Week 10 Media Post | Alay Syed | November 01, 2014

[…] {{site.baseurl}}archives/homistan/muharram_in_bombay_c_1893-1912.html […]