There is a strong conservative streak beneath Mumbai’s cosmopolitan surface and politicians know how to mine it
With so many problems troubling the sprawling metropolis of Mumbai — garbage collection, infectious diseases and of course potholes — anyone would think that the city’s municipal corporators would be working overtime to find some solutions. Instead, their time and attention is being spent on trying to clean up the moral turpitude of the citizens. They have declared war on mannequins — yes, those expressionless plastic dolls — on display inside and outside shops that sell women’s lingerie. (Presumably, those mannequins that wear saris will remain unaffected.)
It all began with a municipal corporator belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who declared these mannequins were embarrassing to women and also evoked lusty and even criminal feelings in men. Plus, not surprisingly, they also represented corrupt western culture, since they were usually found wearing lacy — and therefore racy — lingerie. Every time she passed the roadside stalls and shops in her constituency — the middle-class, central Mumbai suburb, Ghatkopar — and saw these lifeless models clad only in bras and other unmentionables, she was appalled. So she asked the Municipal Corporation to do something about it.
‘Against Indian culture’
It would have remained as a politician’s personal view, but it escalated. Her idea appealed to the Mayor, Sunil Prabhu, who belongs to the Shiv Sena, which is an ally of the BJP. He immediately put it to vote and the 227-member general body of the BMC passed a resolution demanding that the Municipal Commissioner frame a policy on “indecent display in public areas.” This will give powers to civil officials to order shopkeepers to remove a mannequin if they think it is dressed in a way that will “provoke” men to commit crimes against women.
Naturally, shopkeepers are appalled at this blatant intrusion into their commercial affairs and even the BMC’s own officials are reported to have cried off from taking on this responsibility, stating that such matters would come under the police. The municipality’s responsibility ends at ensuring no zoning laws are broken by encroaching on public space; enforcing public morality is not their problem.
The corporator, Ms Tawade, and her colleagues, especially from the BJP and the Sena, put up a defence of their demand, which centred mainly on the “against Indian culture” line and its alleged connection with crimes against women. To many citizens, the whole matter looked silly and moral policing of the worst kind. This is how the city reacted, if one were to go by the mocking comments in newspapers and on social media.
It would be a mistake to think that there are no supporters of this kind of thinking. They may not write to the newspapers, may not tweet or post on their Facebook account and also not appear on talk shows, but the municipal corporators, who represent citizens at grass-roots level, do understand their constituency well. They know that however progressive Mumbai might appear on the surface, there is a strong conservative streak that remains invisible. Unsaid, at least openly, is the divide between those who believe in “Indian culture” and the deracinated elite which has embraced foreign ways. Every now and then, this conservatism comes out into the open, startling those who nurture fond notions of the city’s liberal — and westernised — ethos.
Policing Marine Drive
In the 1990s, a prominent Shiv Sena leader, Pramod Navalkar began a campaign against canoodling couples on the Marine Drive promenade. In a city devoid of privacy, Marine Drive — and several other similar spots such as seafronts and parks — offer a degree of anonymity to youngsters. The couples are usually left alone by passers-by but Navalkar wasn’t going to and went after them.
He is long gone, but public display of affection (PDA) is frowned upon by not just politicians but also the police. Couples routinely report being harassed by the police who ask them to leave if found to be getting too intimate. Some months ago, a boy was taken to the police station because he gave a peck on the cheek of a female friend.
Last year’s onslaught on drinking places and nightclubs was greeted by many Mumbai residents who said they worried that their children were getting corrupted. They even supported the aggressive tactics of Assistant Commissioner Dhoble who used to carry a hockey stick to frighten errant bar owners and had been caught on video pushing a few people around.
More often than not, while all kinds of reasons for taking any action are advanced — alien cultural practices, legal technicalities or even security — the conservative impulse hides a reformist mindset. In 2005, the Minister of Home, R.R. Patil, banned bar dancers all over the State, claiming that many migrants from Nepal and Bangladesh were in the trade. But Mr. Patil has long harboured a reformist zeal to banish social ills, much like Anna Hazare, who backed the minister to the hilt. It did not matter that thousands of young girls were thrown out of work overnight — the government did not for a moment consider that they be given some economic help or rehabilitation. All that mattered was that the morals of the public, especially lustful men, were protected.
In the case of mannequins, no jobs will be lost and no one but the shopkeepers who find the dummies useful to advertise their wares will really be affected. Undoubtedly, the vendors will find a way to get around this rule too. It is not a major issue that affects the public in any significant way. But this is yet another example of the assault on the broad-mindedness of Mumbai by the forces of reaction, which diminishes this city bit by bit.
(Sidharth Bhatia is a Mumbai-based writer and journalist and author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story, HarperCollins, 2012.)