The campaign by Mumbai officials to enforce the law seems more about imposing the “right values”
A few days ago, Mumbai chocolatier Priti Chandriani was raided by officers of Maharashtra’s excise department. Her offence? She kept liquor at home for use in the chocolates. Possessing more than two bottles is an offence according to the Bombay Prohibition Act, enacted in 1949, and she allegedly had 20 of them. The raid has been seen as yet another example of over-enthusiasm of the State’s law and order machinery in trying to impose archaic rules in the letter rather than the spirit. And beneath the veneer of ensuring that the law is followed is a moral crusade against “evils” like drinking alcohol.
Shaken and stirred
In the last two months or so, Mumbai has been shaken and stirred by the campaign the city police has launched to stamp out any breach of laws, however trivial, related to drinking, dancing and running of restaurants, clubs and even small juice centres. Private parties have been raided on suspicion of drug use and restaurants asked to prove that they have all the licences. A restaurant, bar or nightclub needs between 30 to 40 licences to operate — some of them involve getting character certificates from the police — allowing for corruption and wide interpretation of rules and regulations. Nor do patrons escape the eagle-eyed scrutiny of the police: tipplers need to have a permit to drink anywhere. The cops don’t simply ask to see the permits; their current procedure is to make everyone wait, videograph them and take down their identity details. Occasionally, as in the case of a “rave” party, the crowd is marched to a hospital where it is made to give blood and urine samples to check for drug usage, a process that can take hours.
In some cases, the Social Service branch, which is headed by ACP Vasant Dhoble, a hand-picked officer of the Commissioner of Police, has been a bit more heavy handed. In one raid at a restaurant, 11 women were “rescued” because they were suspected of being prostitutes and then sent off to a remand home where they were kept in custody for a few days. A controversial officer, Mr. Dhoble has been named in many cases of assault in the past and is known to carry a hockey stick, which he is said to use liberally on suspected offenders to dispense quick justice.
Not surprisingly many Mumbaikars, especially youngsters, are up in arms at the imposition of laws that have been conventionally followed more in the breach. No one has had a permit for years, ever since prohibition was lifted in 1973. The Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949, enacted by Chief Minister Morarji Desai, stopped the free sale and distribution of liquor in shops, bars and restaurants. Soon a parallel cottage industry of bootleggers and moonshine-makers sprang up. In 1973, sale was freely allowed but technically every buyer and drinker needed a permit; no one remembers being asked for it for nearly 40 years.
Mr. Dhoble and his bosses are using that long-ignored provision and citizens are shocked that the State’s remit runs to entering people’s homes and private spaces and booking them for offences. It has had a dampening effect on the night life of the city that prides itself for its partying and entertainment culture and which has aspirations to be a global metropolis.
Ignoring the protests, the government has let it be known it will not come in the way of these tough measures. The Police Commissioner claims he wants to clean up the city. He has nothing to say about why his officer should use violent tactics to scare innocent citizens. The fact that Mr. Dhoble has continued on his merry way despite criticism shows that he has the full backing of his department and political bosses. Some citizens’ groups, fed up of noisy clubs in their residential neighbourhoods, have come out in support of the police crackdown, which has undoubtedly boosted the police’s case.
But behind this ruthless drive is not so much a desire to enforce the law — on drinking and on running a restaurant — as much as trying to impose a moral code. The Prohibition Act says, inter alia, that a host should ensure that each guest has a permit before a drink is served to him/her; failure to do so could result in imprisonment between three months and five years. The excise department itself has recognised that this is drastic; indeed, the very notion of a permit is old fashioned and should be done away with. Yet, instead of slowly doing away with six-decade old rules, the State government in 2005 raised the drinking age in the State from 21 to 25. This is more than anywhere else in the world.
The police claim that theirs is not to question whether the laws are out of date or not but to just make sure they are followed is a red herring. Maharashtra’s Home Minister, the Police Commissioner and Mr. Dhoble himself have all said at various times that they want to ensure that the youth of the city does not get corrupted. The ladies who run resident associations have also indicated that they find the morals of the young very lax. The drive seems more about imposing the “right values” and driving out evils like the use of liquor than ensuring that every law about running a restaurant or indeed imbibing is followed.
Maharashtra has always had a schizophrenic relationship with the consumption of liquor. Many of its Ministers and politicians control sugar co-operatives that manufacture liquor. One senior State politician has family interests in wine production and is known to push for a friendly tax regime. But at the same time, mofussil politicians have always had a moralistic agenda. The State has a long history of reformist minded social workers who have tried to clean up society. It is no coincidence that Anna Hazare, who has made his village liquor free by publicly beating and shaming drinkers, hails from here. On this one issue, the politicians are one with him.
That is the real worry for Mumbai’s citizens because this is a never ending story. Moral policing erupts every now and then; one Shiv Sena politician some years ago went on the warpath against couples cuddling on Marine Drive for some privacy. The current Home Minister R.R. Patil had enforced the shutting down of dance bars in 2005 claiming they were dens of prostitution; over 75,000 girls were thrown out of work overnight and many had no choice but to join the flesh trade. Cosmopolitan and fun loving Mumbai is in perpetual conflict with those who frown at the laxity in public morals; the sad fact is that it is the latter who hold the levers of power.
The morality drive is already having a chilling effect. Bars and restaurants are suffering from lack of business and citizens worry about having parties, unsure if they are breaking some law or the other. Even having a quiet pre-dinner drink is fraught with danger. No one is sure where the moral crusader with the hockey stick will strike again. And the city that claims never to sleep has been turning in early nowadays.
(Sidharth Bhatia is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist and author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story, HarperCollins, 2012)