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The Petition as Event: Colonial Bombay, circa 1889–1914

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2019

Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester Email:
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The historiography on colonial petitioning has primarily construed it as an authorized ritual of supplication designed to affirm and reproduce established power relations. This article restores to the analysis of the petition its status as a potential ‘event’ that could exceed its documentary confines and generate new communities of action. Focusing specifically on colonial Bombay, circa 1889–1914, it highlights three ways in which petitioning marked a rupture in the relations between rulers and ruled, and heralded significant shifts in the local constructions of state and society. First, the article shows how Bombay's Indian residents deployed the petitioning process to contest the unprecedented degree of state intervention in their quotidian lives following an extraordinary civic crisis that engulfed the city in the last decade of the Victorian era. Secondly, the article contends that the petitions that ordinary Indians in Bombay submitted to the different agencies of urban government point to a more complex set of orientations to the colonial state than has been acknowledged by scholars. Thirdly, the article argues that by the end of the nineteenth century, collective petitioning in colonial Bombay had become embedded in forms of political action with which it is conventionally regarded as being incompatible.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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I wish to thank Douglas Haynes and Samira Sheikh for their incisive comments and thoughtful reflections on the arguments of this article. Rochana Bajpai, Aparna Balachandran, Rohit De, Dinyar Patel, Keith Snell, and Robert Travers subjected the first draft to a close reading and made a number of valuable suggestions. The usual disclaimer applies about any errors of fact or interpretation.


1 There is now a growing body of historical scholarship on petitioning. For a recent sample, see the essays in van Voss, Lex Heerma (ed.), Petitions in Social History, International Review of Social History Supplement 9 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Verner, Andrew, ‘Discursive Strategies in the 1905 Revolution: Peasant Petitions from Vladimir Province’, Russian Review, 54:1 (January 1995), pp. 6590CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Zaret, David, ‘Petitions and the “Invention” of Public Opinion in the English Revolution’, American Journal of Sociology, 101:6 (May 1996), pp. 14971555CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Palat, Madhavan K., ‘Regulating Conflict through the Petition’, in Palat, M. K., Social Identities in Revolutionary Russia (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), pp. 86112CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Chalcraft, John, ‘Engaging the State: Peasants and Petitions in Egypt on the Eve of Colonial Rule’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 37:3 (August 2005), pp. 303325CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hirst, Derek, ‘Making Contact: Petitions in the English Republic’, Journal of British Studies, 45:1 (January 2006), pp. 2650CrossRefGoogle Scholar; de Costa, Ravi, ‘Identity, Authority, and the Moral World of Indigenous Petitions’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 48:3 (July 2006), pp. 669698CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Knights, Mark, ‘Participation and Representation before Democracy: Petitions and Addresses in Pre-modern Britain’, in Shapiro, Ian et al. (eds), Political Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 3557Google Scholar; Premo, Bianca, ‘Before the Law: Women's Petitions in the Eighteenth-century Spanish Empire’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 53:2 (April 2011), pp. 261289CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Rose, Colin, ‘“To be Remedied of any Vendetta”: Petitions and the Avoidance of Violence in Early Modern Parma’, Crime, History and Societies, 16:2 (2012), pp. 527CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Lex Heerma van Voss, ‘Introduction’, in van Voss (ed.), Petitions in Social History, pp. 1–2.

3 Siddiqi, Majid Hayat, The British Historical Context and Petitioning in Colonial India, with an Introduction by S. Inayat A. Zaidi, XXII Dr M. A. Ansari Memorial Lecture, Jamia Milia Islamia (New Delhi: Aakar Books, 2005), p. 22Google Scholar.

4 Raman, Bhavani, Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), pp. 161191CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Potukuchi Swarnalatha, ‘Revolt, Testimony, Petition: Artisanal Protests in Colonial Andhra’, in van Voss (ed.), Petitions in Social History, pp. 107–130.

5 Siddiqi, British Historical Context, pp. 17–40.

6 See, for example, Haynes, Douglas E., Rhetoric and Ritual in Colonial India: The Shaping of a Public Culture in Surat City, 1852–1928 (Berkeley, California and Oxford: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 8194, 108–174Google Scholar; Siddiqi, British Historical Context, p. 21.

7 On ‘structure’ and ‘event’, see Sewell, William H. Jr, Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 124–151, 197–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Stern, Philip J., ‘Power, Petitions, and the “Povo” in Early English Bombay’, in Balachandran, Aparna, Raman, Bhavani and Pant, Rashmi (eds), Iterations of Law: Legal Histories from India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 187209Google Scholar.

9 Ibid., p. 204.


10 On this point, see also Siddiqi, British Historical Context, p. 22.

11 The form, it would appear, was not very different in Tsarist Russia in the same period. See Palat, ‘Regulating Conflict’, p. 86.

12 Siddiqi, British Historical Context, pp. 20–29; Raman, Document Raj, pp. 167–182.

13 Haynes, Rhetoric and Ritual, pp. 81–94.

14 Ibid., p. 82.


15 Ibid., pp. 81–94, 108–144.


16 Palat, ‘Regulating Conflict’, p. 86. In this context, see also Siddiqi, British Historical Context, pp. 24–29; Aparna Balachandran, ‘Petition Town: Law, Custom and Urban Space in Colonial South India’, in Balachandran, Raman and Pant (eds), Iterations of Law, pp. 147–167.

17 ‘Petition from Jooram Bawa Patell and other Portuguese fishermen of Bombay’, Bombay Revenue Proceedings (hereafter BRP), 1 July 1840, Consultation No. 4228, British Library London (hereafter BL), India Office Records (hereafter IOR), P/373/20, Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections (hereafter APAC).

18 On this point, see also Balachandran, ‘Petition Town’, pp. 147–167.

19 Dossal, Mariam, Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope: Mumbai, 1660 to Present Times (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 58Google Scholar.

20 Conlon, Frank, ‘Functions of Ethnicity in a Colonial Port City: British Initiatives and Policies in Early Bombay’, in Basu, Dilip K. (ed.), The Rise and Growth of Colonial Port Cities in Asia (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1985), p. 51Google Scholar. At times, the need to work through such traditional leaders in the interests of order even overrode the imperative of maximizing revenue collection. For instance, in July 1830 one Lowjee Ameechund petitioned the Bombay government for the right to farm the revenues collected by issuing travel passes to passengers embarking on sea voyages at Masjid Bunder. He was turned down because the Collector of land revenue in Bombay advised his superiors that it was ‘better to continue to the Heads of the various castes the privilege of granting the Passnote, for by that measure they become responsible for the persons who quit the island—the present practice seems the best that could be adopted for that purpose, and a monopoly could not produce better effect’. Letter from B. Doveton, Collector of Land Revenue, Bombay, 7 July 1830, BRP, Consultation Nos 135–6, 14 July 1830, BL, IOR, P/370/33, APAC.

21 Conlon, ‘Functions of Ethnicity’, pp. 47–54.

22 Dossal, Theatre of Conflict, p. 59.

23 Ibid., p. 103.


24 Ibid.


25 Reeves, Peter, Pope, Andrew, McGuire, John and Pokrant, Bob, ‘The Koli and the British at Bombay: The Structure of their Relations to the Mid-Nineteenth Century’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 19:1 (1996), pp. 97119CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 On this point, see also Siddiqui, British Historical Context, p. 22.

27 Conlon, ‘Functions of Ethnicity’, p. 52.

28 Masselos, J. C., Towards Nationalism: Group Affiliations and the Politics of Public Associations in Nineteenth Century Western India (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1974), p. 16Google Scholar. Occasionally, Bombay's European merchants also affixed their signatures to such inter-community petitions. Ibid.

29 The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, 19 June 1839, p. 392.

30 Masselos, Towards Nationalism, p. 17. See also Dobbin, Christine, Urban Leadership in Western India: Politics and Communities in Bombay City, 1840–1885 (London: Oxford University Press, 1972)Google Scholar.

31 The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, 28 September 1844, p. 630.

32 See also Siddiqi, British Historical Context, p. 23.

33 The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, 1 March 1848, p. 178.

34 ‘Petition to the East India Company Court of Directors from upwards of 2000 of the leading native inhabitants of Bombay complaining of the interference of certain Christian missionaries in their lives’, Board's Collections, BL, IOR, F/4/1932/83296, 1841–42, APAC; Wilson, John, Anti-Conversion Petition Addressed to the Governor in Council of Bombay (Bombay, n.d.)Google Scholar; The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, 25 January 1840, p. 59. For recent scholarly analysis of this controversy, see also Palsetia, Jesse S., ‘Parsi and Hindu Traditional and Nontraditional Responses to Christian Conversion in Bombay, 1839–45’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 74:3 (September 2006), pp. 615645CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Copland, Ian, ‘The Limits of Hegemony: Elite Responses to Nineteenth-Century Imperial and Missionary Acculturation Strategies in India’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 49:3 (July 2007), pp. 637665CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Friend of India, 30 May 1839. Quoted in Palsetia, ‘Parsi and Hindu Traditional and Nontraditional Responses’, p. 629.

36 Siddiqi, British Historical Context, p. 29.

37 Edwardes, S. M., The Rise of Bombay: A Retrospect (Bombay: Times of India Press, 1902)Google Scholar; Chandavarkar, Rajnarayan, The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900–1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kidambi, Prashant, The Making of an Indian Metropolis: Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay, 1890–1920 (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 Waters, George, Bombay the Beautiful: A Lecture Delivered at the Sassoon Mechanics’ Institute, Bombay (Bombay: Sassoon Mechanics’ Institute, 1896), p. 18Google Scholar.

39 See Catanach, Ian, ‘Plague and the Tensions of Empire: India, 1896–1918’, in Arnold, David (ed.), Imperial Medicine and Indigenous Societies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), pp. 149171Google Scholar; Arnold, D., ‘Touching the Body: Perspectives on the Indian Plague, 1896–1900’, in Guha, Ranajit (ed.), Subaltern Studies Vol. V (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 5590Google Scholar; Klein, Ira, ‘Plague, Policy and Popular Unrest in British India’, Modern Asian Studies, 22:4 (1988), pp. 723755CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Chandavarkar, Rajnarayan, ‘Plague Panic and Epidemic Politics in India, 1896–1914’, in Slack, Paul and Ranger, Terence (eds), Epidemics and Ideas: Essays on the Historical Perception of Pestilence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 203240CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kidambi, Prashant, ‘Plague, Pythogenesis and the Poor in Bombay, c. 1896–1905’, Urban History, 31:2 (2004), pp. 249267CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 For a detailed discussion of the colonial state's measures to combat the plague epidemic in Bombay, see Arnold, ‘Touching the Body’; Klein, ‘Plague, Policy and Popular Unrest’; Chandavarkar, ‘Plague Panic and Epidemic Politics’; and Kidambi, ‘Plague, Pythogenesis and the Poor’.

41 On the popular violence directed against the plague administration in Bombay, see ibid.

42 Snow, P. C. H., Report on the Outbreak of Bubonic Plague in Bombay, 1896–97 (Bombay: Times of India Press, 1897), p. 74Google Scholar.

43 Times of India (hereafter TOI), 12 January 1897, p. 6; TOI, 15 January 1897, p. 6.

44 TOI, 20 February 1897, p. 3; TOI, 9 March 1897, p. 5.

45 ‘Petition from Mahomedans in Bombay regarding compulsory segregation’, Government of Bombay (hereafter GOB), General Department (hereafter GD) [Plague Branch], 1897, Vol. 71, Compilation No. 123, Maharashtra State Archives (hereafter MSA). See also TOI, 6 April 1897, p. 5; and Catanach, Ian, ‘Who are your Leaders?: Plague, the Raj, and the “Communities” in Bombay, c. 1896–1901’, in Robb, Peter (ed.), Society and Ideology: Essays in South Asian History Presented to Professor K. A. Ballhatchet (London: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 208209Google Scholar.

46 Letter to the Chairman, Bombay Plague Committee, No. 1990P, 18 March 1898, GOB, GD [Plague Branch], 1898, Vol. 407, Compilation No. 367, MSA. Interestingly, some of the members of this committee were Indians associated with the plague administration.

47 Snow, Report, pp. 18–19.

48 Ibid., p. 73.


49 ‘Complaints and Memorials’, GOB, GD [Plague Branch], 1898, Vol. 582, Compilation No. 202, MSA.

50 Ibid., Vol. 320, Compilation No. 202, MSA.


51 Snow, Report, pp. 120–122.

52 ‘Complaints and Memorials’, GOB, GD [Plague Branch], 1898, Vol. 582, Compilation No. 202, MSA.

53 Gupta, Akhil, Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), p. 167CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 Ibid.


55 TOI, 18 March 1898, p. 6.

56 ‘Complaints and Memorials’, GOB, GD [Plague Branch], 1898, Vol. 407, Compilation No. 367, MSA.

57 Snow, Report, p. 120.

58 TOI, 16 March 1897, p. 6.

59 Letter from Bomanshaw Entee, 7 March 1898, ‘Complaints and Memorials’, GOB, GD [Plague Branch], 1898, Vol. 320, Compilation No. 202, MSA. Ironically, the petitioner was a Justice of the Peace who had provided much assistance to the government in its search for plague cases in his locality. The district plague official who received Entee's petition noted that ‘a complaint of this nature coming from a gentleman who has done us much good as a visiting Justice demands careful inquiry’. Ibid.

60 Petition to Private Secretary to Governor from Members of the Bombay Bar, 7 December 1897, GOB, GD [Plague Branch], Vol. 109, MSA, quoted in Catanach, ‘Who are your Leaders?’, p. 212. Likewise, leading native merchants complained in March 1898 that official attempts ‘to prevent the population from moving freely at will from place to place’ had ‘disastrously affected all trade and commerce in Bombay’ and thereby ‘occasioned very great inconvenience and hardship to all those who have to travel’. Petition from Motilal Kanji and others to Andrew Wingate, Plague Commissioner, Bombay, 26 March 1898, GOB, GD [Plague Branch], 1898, Vol. 388, Compilation No. 297, MSA.

61 Snow, Report, p. 123.

62 Ibid., pp. 122–123.


63 TOI, 13 May 1898, p. 3. The house owners of Nowroji Hill submitted a similar petition a few months later. See GOB, GD [Plague Branch], 1898, Vol. 320, Compilation No. 202, MSA.

64 Annual Administration Report of the City of Bombay Improvement Trust, for the year 1899 (Bombay: The Times Press, 1900), p. 3.

65 For a detailed analysis of the Trust's schemes, see Kidambi, The Making of an Indian Metropolis, pp. 71–113.

66 Orr, J. P., The Finances of the Bombay Improvement Trust (Bombay: The Times Press, 1919), p. 1Google Scholar.

67 Edwardes, S. M., Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island, 3 vols (Bombay: The Times Press, 1909–10), Vol. III, p. 83Google Scholar.

68 ‘The Humble Memorial of the Land-Owners, Residents and Ratepayers of the F and G Wards of Bombay to His Excellency the Right Honourable Henry Stafford Northcote, Governor of Bombay, May 1900’, p. 6, GOB, GD, 1909, Vol. 28, Compilation No. 218, Part I, MSA.

69 Ibid.


70 ‘The Humble Petition of the Undersigned Fishermen, residing in Koliwada, Mandvi, Bombay to His Excellency the Right Honourable Henry Stafford Baron Northcote, G.C.I.E, Governor of Bombay’, 10 March 1902, GOB, GD, 1905, Vol. 29, Compilation No. 194, Part I, MSA.

71 ‘Petition from Koli fishermen, Koliwada, Mandvi, Bombay, to Samuel Rebsch, Chairman, Bombay Improvement Trust’, 19 February 1902, ibid.

72 ‘Note by Samuel Rebsch, Chairman, Bombay Improvement Trust’, 22 February 1902, ibid. But two years later, officials claimed that the Kolis of Mandvi had ‘no claim to any special consideration’ as far as their relocation was concerned. Proceedings of the Bombay Improvement Trust, 11 October 1904, GOB, Judicial, 1904, Vol. 38, Compilation No. 129, Part II, pp. 372–373, para. 2, MSA. Still, this did not deter the Kolis, led by their patel—Mahadev Dharma Nakhawa—from presenting yet another petition to the Trust in April 1905 asking for ‘a small piece of ground where they can in future continue to land and fish near their colony and the markets, where they can, as they do now, stack materials and mend and dry their nets’. TOI, 13 April 1905, p. 5.

73 ‘Petition of the Bombay Ratepayers’ Association to His Excellency the Governor of Bombay in Council, Adopted at the Public Meeting of the Citizens of Bombay, held on the 5th of May, 1903’, GOB, GD, 1905, Vol. 29, Compilation No. 522, MSA.

74 Ibid.


75 ‘The Humble Memorial of the Land-Owners, Residents and Ratepayers’, pp. 16–17.

76 ‘Petition of the Bombay Ratepayers’ Association’, pp. 2–4.

77 Edwardes, Gazetteer, Vol. III, p. 7.

78 Masani, R. P., The Law and Procedure of the Municipal Corporation of Bombay (Bombay: The Times Press, 1921), pp. 241243Google Scholar. For a sample of the petitions and representations considered by the Standing Committee of the Bombay Municipal Corporation, see Bombay Municipality, Record of the Proceedings of the Municipal Corporation and its Standing Committee (Bombay, 1889–1914), Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, Mumbai. I am grateful to Shekhar Krishnan for procuring extracts from these annual reports.

79 TOI, 17 July 1890, p. 5.

80 Ibid., 8 November 1910, p. 8.


81 Ibid., 18 April 1890, p. 5. The municipality turned down this request on the grounds that the petition did not emanate from ‘bona fide residents’ and that it ‘had never made grants for the establishment of dispensaries’. Ibid.


82 Pherozeshah M. Mehta, ‘Bombay's Private Streets’, ibid., 2 August 1899, p. 6.

83 TOI, 31 January 1907, p. 8. The petitioner also pointed out that this was not the first time that the residents of the area had put forward this demand. Five years earlier, mill workers in the neighbourhood had petitioned the municipal commissioner, ‘urging the establishment of a market’. But that request had not been ‘considered favourably’. On this occasion, however, the municipal commissioner agreed to sanction the erection of a temporary market. Ibid.

84 Ibid., 24 December 1890, p. 5.


85 Ibid., 1 September 1892, p. 3.


86 Ibid., 24 October 1903, p. 7. The Divisional Health Office reported to the Standing Committee that the petition ‘was not an isolated instance of complaints regarding the matter; hardly a week passed without some complaint being made about the position of some one or other dust-bin carts in Bombay’. Ibid.


87 Ibid., 12 November 1903, p. 3.


88 Ibid., 10 December 1908, p. 9.


89 Ibid., 28 November 1912, p. 5. Lopez, the municipal commissioner declared, was an inveterate petitioner ‘who usually confines his petitions to matters connected with that district [Mahim]. It is not likely that he uses the Fort Market to any extent himself and it has not been complained of by any local resident.’ Ibid.


90 By way of a contrast, see Palat, ‘Regulating Conflict’, pp. 86–87.

91 TOI, 22 October 1891, p. 3. But the petitioners also adduced another reason for their opposition to the proposed fish and meat market near the Cotton Green. Such a market, they pointed out, would ‘inevitably cause a deal of nuisance by reason of the smell which would be emitted from the refuse that must accumulate and be thrown about in and near the buildings’. Ibid.

92 Ibid., 7 September 1899, p. 6.


93 Ibid., 28 June 1900, p. 6.


94 Ibid., 23 September 1915, p. 10.


95 For a fuller discussion, see Kidambi, The Making of an Indian Metropolis, pp. 115–156.

96 H. G. Gell, Commissioner of Police, Bombay, to Acting Chief Secretary, Judicial Department, Bombay, 12 April 1904, GOB, Judicial, Abstract of Proceedings, April 1904, A 25, MSA.

97 Petition from Vohra Mahomedan inhabitants of Doctor Street to S. W. Edgerley, Chief Secretary, Bombay, 27 February 1906, GOB, Judicial, 1906, Vol. 160, Compilation no. 555, MSA.

98 Petition from Mizra A. Lateff Beg Mogul and Mahomed Hussein bin Mahomed Essuf Darji, GOB, Judicial, 1910, Vol. 182, Compilation No. 571, MSA.

99 Petition from Syed Yacub Mahomed and others of Rangari Moholla, Bapu Hajare Moholla, Kasai Moholla and Mazagon, GOB, Judicial, 1910, Vol. 182, Compilation No. 571, MSA.

100 TOI, 26 April 1889, p. 4.

101 Ibid., 30 July 1889, p. 5.


102 Bombay Presidency Police, Secret Abstracts of Intelligence (hereafter BPPSAI), 1890–1914, passim, Office of the Commissioner of Police, Mumbai.

103 Palat, ‘Regulating Conflict’, p. 87.

104 BPPSAI, XIX:26 (1906), p. 243, para. 483(a).

105 Ibid., XIX:34 (1906), p. 318, para. 646 (a); TOI, 17 August 1906, p. 7.


106 These petitioners were spurred on by the support extended to the postmen by ‘Swadeshi’ nationalists in Bombay associated with Bal Gangadhar Tilak. BPPSAI, XIX:38 (1906), p. 360, para. 736 (a).

107 Ibid., XX:2 (1907), p. 26, para. 49 (b).


108 For instance, when the Bombay Municipal Corporation introduced a new measure in 1903 to introduce a meter system for the water supply to the city's mosques, representatives and members of all the Muslim communities met at the Ismail Habib mosque in Memon Street to draft a petition in protest against the move. TOI, 30 March 1903, p. 5. The Parsis, likewise, would gather in their fire temples. Dinyar Patel, personal communication, 7 June 2016.

109 For example, when the Bombay Ratepayers’ Association organized a large public meeting in May 1903 to protest against the policies of the Improvement Trust, the city's Novelty Theatre was chosen as the venue for the event. TOI, 6 May 1903, p. 3.

110 See, in this regard, Robert Travers and Rohit De's ‘Introduction’ in this special issue.

111 Research on the early phase of English East India Company's rule in the subcontinent has shown how Indians used petitions to express political demands and also pointed to the ways in which the practice of supplication was linked to other forms of collective resistance. See, for instance, Swarnalatha, ‘Revolt, Testimony, Petition’; and Balachandran, ‘Petition Town’.

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