The culture war in the United States has nothing on the battle for Mumbai’s soul.
Over the past month, the head of the Social Service Unit of the Mumbai Police, Vasant Dhoble, has burst into nightclubs and bars wielding a field hockey stick and arresting patrons. Invoking archaic laws like the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949, which requires a permit to drink alcohol, the police have arrested folks for crimes amounting to enjoying a night out at a bar.
The arrests have costs. Several women were arrested at a pub and charged with being prostitutes (men had to pay to get in; women got in free). Two sisters arrested in the “prostitution” raid sued Dhoble for defamation and wrongful detention. But the Bombay High Court ruled that Dhoble was within his rights to arrest and investigate them. One woman was detained for several weeks and then gave an anonymous interview to a local TV show, saying her family had disowned her. “They say I have spoiled their name,” she said.
Here’s the interview:
Mumbai is home to Bollywood (imagine if this were happening in Hollywood), and Dhoble’s actions have sparked a backlash. A 30-year-old businessman named Tehseen Poonawalla filed a complaint against Dhoble with the National Human Rights Commission in Dehli, saying his mother won’t eat out after 8 p.m. for fear Dhoble will show up and arrest her. A young politician named Rahul Kanal is organizing a protest on Sunday, and has started a Facebook page called Dhoble: Oppresser of the Innocent Citizen.
A 320-year court backlog
Many of the country’s newspapers have slammed Dhoble’s moral policing. A column in The Asian Age argued that an excess of laws leads to countless opportunities for the police to take bribes and overburden the court system. It said Indian courts are “like the Hotel California: you can never leave,” and cited a judge who in 2010 noted there were 31 million cases on trial in India, which would take 320 years to clear.
The actor Kabir Bedi told an NDTV News talk show that Mumbai is in danger of becoming Saudi Arabia. “Mumbai should be a 24/7 kind of city,” he said. “Unless something happens from top down, this will continue, and be used as a source of power and profit by the police.”
Here’s the talk show:
Mumbai’s bar and club owners are exasperated, saying that the crackdown is hurting their businesses, and laws, like one saying only 10 couples at a time can occupy a 1,000 sq. ft. area, have not kept up with Mumbai’s exponential growth. But critics note that Dhoble is raiding establishments that flout the law, operating without permits.
What about the 99 percent?
The folks who support Dhoble’s campaign are either few in number or, more likely, aren’t quoted by the media as often as the city’s rich and beautiful elite. But a letter in the Hindustan Times from Manuela Saldhana, a middle-aged social worker, gives a sense of their concerns. Saldhana writes that “a lot of pubs, bars and lounges have mushroomed all over the city, creating mayhem for residents nearby. Our streets get littered with cigarette butts, beer cans and used condoms. Drivers zip up and down the roads to capture parking spaces, often blocking our building gates and footpaths with their clients’ cars.”
Saldhana thanks Dohble for making things a little easier “for us residents.”
Whether for just or corrupt reasons, Mumbai Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik is standing by his man Dhoble. Patnaik was quoted on expressindia.com as saying the aggressive crackdown would continue. He called out the city’s elites. “How many people can actually even afford to enter such places and have a drink… maybe a thousand-odd,” Patnaik said. “I am not here to serve them, but the rest of Mumbai.”
From Bollywood to Bangalore
The moral policing is not limited to Mumbai. Bangalore, center of India’s thriving tech sector, has outlawed live music at establishments that serve alcohol. Vibhas Venkatram, the drummer of a local heavy metal band called Eccentric Pendulum, told Latitude News the move has destroyed the city’s live music scene. The band has only had two gigs this year, at live festivals in town. He says the ban is a blatant attempt to stop the younger generation from becoming too Western. “They’re trying to ban these things so the Indian element will be restored,” said Venkatram. “But it is pretty pointless. If there’s a generation gap, it is because it’s meant for the culture to change.”
But, as the Bangalore paper the Deccan Herald pointed out, at least Bangalore isn’t Mumbai.