Snoop Dogg feels the bite of Parsi legal culture

Since the nineteenth century, members of the Parsi community have turned to law to resolve religious issues. But the case of the American rapper is different.

The American rapper and hip-hop artist best known as Snoop Dogg has a penchant for the ancient Middle East. He used Pharaonic motifs in California Roll, his music video that featured Pharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder. He also made a cameo appearance in King, a video set in ancient Persia that features Iranian-born singer Amitis Moghaddam. Intercut with scenes of hookah-smoking, pole-dancing women wearing very little, Snoop sits on a throne beneath the winged symbol of Zoroastrianism known as the fravahar (or the farohar).

Since King was posted on YouTube in early June, Snoop’s people have been getting a taste of another Zoroastrian tradition: litigation.

According to press and community accounts, Darayas Jamshed Bapooji, president of the Parsi Zoroastrian Association of Kolkata, has filed a lawsuit in the Calcutta High Court against two companies associated with the video. The governments of West Bengal and India are also defendants. (Residents of the US, both Snoop and Amitis are presumably out of reach.) The petitioner in the public interest litigation asserts that the video outrages and insults the religious feelings of the Parsi Zoroastrian community. He wants a court order directing authorities to ban the video in India.

Intra-community disputes

Organised opposition began when the team of Parsi Khabar, a “portal of information about Parsis and Zoroastrians”, created an online petition in protest against the video’s use of the Zoroastrian symbol.

In one way, there is nothing new about such disputes spilling into the courts. Since the nineteenth century, members of India’s Parsi community have readily turned to law to resolve sensitive religious issues.

Can ethnic outsiders who claim to have converted to Zoroastrianism be beneficiaries of Parsi trust funds and properties? Can wealthy Parsis validly leave money to fund death commemoration or muktad rites in perpetuity? Can priests be denied physical control of a Zoroastrian fire temple? Can they be prevented from performing controversial religious ceremonies? Can construction of a new tower of silence be blocked?

Questions like these have often been decided not by Parsi panchayats or other community bodies but by the courts. Not only have all the parties in such cases been Parsi – but often the lawyers and the judges have been, too.

History of civil litigation

In another important way, however, the King case looks different from most traditional Parsi religious suits. It is not a lawsuit against other Parsis, aspirational or otherwise. It is aimed at outsiders. Not that this is unprecedented. In a famous episode in 1923, the Bombay Parsi Panchayat had threatened to sue a magazine called The Graphic for publishing an aerial photograph of skeletons in Poona’s Tower of Silence.

Still, the fact remains that the vast majority of lawsuits over the Zoroastrian religion in India have been Parsi-versus-Parsi actions. Could Parsi legal culture be turning outward under the unlikely influence of Snoop Dogg?

On Snoop’s side too, there is a long history of involvement with civil litigation. The rapper has been sued many times, including in an employment suit filed by his former bodyguards and for multiple cases of alleged copyright infringement by other performers. He has also sued others, particularly in contractual disputes, like the current one with beer-maker Pabst.

Diversity of reactions

To be fair, there is a mix of opinions on King in the Parsi community. On social media, many have expressed outrage. Others regard the Kolkata response as an overreaction. Yet others have turned to humour.

The folks at Bawatips have added this caption to a screenshot of Snoop as Persian king: “Some people are just born Parsi… while the rest try hard at being one.” They have Parsified his name and wonder whether “Snoop Kutrawala” wants to do his navjote, the Zoroastrian initiation ceremony. Let’s hope they don’t give him any ideas. A Snoop Parsi trust case could only end badly.

It is possible that the singer Amitis and her video producer, both of Iranian background, did not see a strong reaction coming. They may simply have turned to a symbol that Muslim Iranians cherish as fiercely as Zoroastrian Parsis through national pride rather than religion. They may even have been unaware that smoking is prohibited for devout Zoroastrians.

But a more cynical reading is that Amitis and her associates realised that causing religious offence generates publicity. It does.

More targets elsewhere

There is also the Indian political context. The Parsi community seems to enjoy preferred status with the Modi government. The Ministry of Minority Affairs, for instance, has been generously co-funding the Jiyo Parsi initiative to increase the Parsi birth rate. Minority Affairs Minister Najma Heptulla’s 2014 remarks prioritising Parsis over Muslims are now famous.

Will the court stake a similarly favourable attitude toward the Parsi community represented by its more conservative elements? The Kolkata petitioner is appealing to the court to protect the religious rights of his “microscopic” minority community.

And will all of this cool off Snoop’s ardour for India? He appeared in the Bollywood blockbuster Singh is Kinng with Akshay Kumar in 2008. The taste of Parsi legal culture may make future collaborations in India less likely.

Snoop and Amitis need not despair. There remain plenty of religious communities to offend elsewhere.

Mitra Sharafi is a legal historian at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison. She is the author of Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947.

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