Known for their vibrant culture and tradition, the East Indians are one of the original inhabitants of Mumbai. Mainly concentrated in rural areas, members of the community once upon a time, owned large tracts of land in these pockets. With rapid industrialization, many of them sold their land and shifted to urban areas of the city to seek better growth opportunities. The community has always been an integral part of the city's history. The Bombay East Indian Association (BEIA) was established on May 26, 1887 to protect the interests of the community.
To celebrate 125 years of its existence the BEIA has organized year-long celebrations throughout the city. “The celebrations will commence on April 21 at the Bandra Gymkhana. This will be followed by various events in Vasai, Vile Parle and other areas of the city till April 2013. Events will showcase the rich tradition of the East Indian community. Various cultural activities will be organized and our unique East Indian cuisine too will be on display.
An invite has been sent to Prithviraj Chavan, Chief Minister of Maharashtra. We hope he agrees to be the Chief Guest of the event,” said Lilla D’Souza, President of BEIA. Crompton Texeira, Executive Committee member of the BEIA further elaborates, “On April 21, 2012 the East Indian ladies will be seen dancing in their traditional nine yards colourful lugras and the men in tipri kalsau. Koli folk with lugra and langoti. There will be music, dance, fun and food.”
For many members of the community, it has been a lifelong association with the BEIA. Texeira remembers performing as a child during one of the events of BEIA. Since then he has been an active member of the Association. “I was asked to perform for the BEIA in 1969. I shied away looking at the affluent crowd. Being a son of a farmer, I wasn’t really confident then. In 1970, I attended an event where renowned East Indian musicians, Franco Gonsalves and Lawrence D’Mello were performing. I was impressed by their performance. It was in 1972 when I performed for the Association, the song was ‘Hathavar Hanoon’ (Getting on Your Hands). Since then I have been performing as a stage artiste, singer and composer at various events,” recollects Texeira who lives in Kalina. Faust Gonsalves (74) from St. Martins Road, Bandra, fondly talks about the days when gatherings specific to the community used to be held at the Bandra Gymkhana. “As the crowd grew in size, we started organizing events at the St Andrews ground in Bandra. That's where we used to catch up with each other,” said Gonsalves, member of the managing committee of BEIA.
While year-long colourful celebrations will evoke a whiff of nostalgia amongst many members of the community, others believe BEIA has failed to protect the interests of the community. Walter Murzelo, a social activist from Malad, who is also a member of BEIA said, “BEIA hasn’t played the role that it was supposed to play, for the East Indian community. Members of the community who are settled in rural areas have been neglected. This is precisely the reason why smaller organizations have cropped up in various areas. These smaller groups work to address the economic and educational needs of East Indians who live in that area.” Members also lament the fact that this 125-year-old body doesn’t even have an office. Meetings are held once in a month at the Bandra Gymkhana. “Since the BEIA doesn’t even have an office, people find it difficult to even reach out to the organization. You need to have an office where people can walk in with their problems,” said Murzelo. The problem of BEIA, said Lilli D’Souza, “is the lack of funds due to which the Association is not able to function effectively. As a result, many local groups have sprung up in various places to deal with the problems of East Indians. The BEIA has just 4,000 members. Many people do not even express interest in the functioning of the BEIA. We have a lifetime membership rule where you need to pay a nominal fee of Rs 50 to become a member. Few years ago, we had reduced the fee to Rs 10. Still the response was low. Our main source of funding is through membership fees, but the Association doesn’t have too many members.”
Many feel that problems of East Indians from rural areas have been completely neglected. “The saddest part of our East Indian Community is the stark divide that exists between the urban and the rural East Indians,” said Texeira. Murzelo concurs, “There are a lot of East Indians in Gorai and Uthan. They have their own set of problems and the BEIA has failed to address these problems. Hence, nowadays you see smaller groups mushrooming in various parts of the city so that specific problems can be addressed.” As a solution to connect various members of the community, Jude Petrolah D’Souza (43) from St Francis Pakhady in Vile Parle (E) suggests that, “In various areas the government must give us an office where members of the community can gather and discuss their problems. The BEIA should circulate newsletters among its members so that we know about the upcoming events during the month. This is how all of us can stay connected. Right now, it appears that there is a huge communication gap between the BEIA and the rest of the community.”
There are other serious issues that the BEIA plans to pursue. “The BEIA gives scholarships and prizes to those who excel in studies and to those who have achieved professional skills, but yet the BEIA is lacking in many ways. It is now trying to fight for the Other Backward Class (OBC) status for some of the members; it is asking the government to allot a place for an East Indian Bhavan in Mumbai. Members are trying to fight for Gaothan rights and get back the land acquired by the government which has not been utilized till now,” said Texeira. However, Lilli D’Souza says that the BEIA has done a lot for the community but it needs to address the concerns of those settled in the rural areas. “We have three main issues. Inspite of urbanization, there is a section of people who still live in rural areas and their mode of living hasn’t changed much. They continue to be poor. Many East Indians have sold their land and in some cases the government has taken away our lands stating that they would be put to good use. We have found that our lands are lying vacant. In land-starved Mumbai, these tracts of land are now being targeted by developers. Our third concern is, even though the government has granted us an OBC status, many of us fail to get an OBC certificate from the government. We want the government to make OBC certificates more readily available to East Indians. These are the matters the BEIA wants to actively pursue in the future,” said Lille D’Souza, who has been the President of BEIA for the last 15 years. Many members however feel that the government should also make an effort to preserve the East Indian culture and its heritage. “For example-—Khotachiwadians (people from Khotachi Wadi) in Mumbai are fighting tooth and nail to protect the village from developer. The government should also think about our welfare, otherwise I believe the community will soon become extinct,” warned Jude Petrolah D’Souza.