Between nation and empire: Iranian bakers, publishers and nomads in early twentieth century Bombay

By Tania Bhattacharyya
Submitted to Session P4754 (The Allure of the Mundane: What to Do with the Micro and the Daily in Middle East History?, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
On 31st October 1931, in southern Bombay, a group of men attacked a dozen Iranian owned tea shops, bakeries and hotels, which the Iranian consul called a “riot”, and the British Indian government a “disturbance”. Ostensibly an expression of resentment on the part of “Indian Mahomedans” (Sunnis) towards “Moghuls” (Shia Iranians in Bombay) the origins of the violence was in a minor fight. A chauffeur who had ordered tea at an Irani hotel, punched the young serving boy when the latter accidentally spilt tea on him. The Shia Iranian owner of the shop however, remonstrated on behalf of his Sunni employee with the offending Sunni chauffeur, which then spiraled into a fight between the two and their friends, and later a wider attack on “Moghul” establishments.

The difficulty with studying histories of the everyday lives of non-elite urban inhabitants in Indian Ocean port cities is that these lives appear in colonial archives precisely at the moment of the disruption of the quotidian, when the agents of law are called in to restore order. As some subaltern historians have begun asking, can we only study subaltern lives at the moments when they rebel? And yet, as this small-scale riot between Iranian “Moghuls” and Indian “Mahomedans” in early twentieth century Bombay reveals, such moments of disturbance can often be the best means of extrapolating the norms of the everyday. Thus from the records around the 1931 riot we know that a large number of Iranians living in the port city of Bombay in the late nineteenth early twentieth centuries were tea shop, hotel and bakery owners, that their clientele consisted largely of the working class inhabitants of the city of different religions, and that religion often provided the occasion for discord and difference in the city but was not necessarily always or even most often the primary cause of it.

The management of the riot on the other hand brings into evidence the role of the British and Iranian governments in trying to manage the flow of migrants between the two countries. Studying the discourse around the small riot of 1931 alongside the Bombay government’s records on naturalization requests from Iranian publishers and deportations of Iranian “gypsies”, this paper examines how the micro histories of everyday lives of Iranian communities in twentieth century Bombay were both influenced by and in turn shaped the apparatuses of empire.