City of rights and wrongs
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Well, it's not just about dance bars. Policeman Vasant Dhoble — The Economist called him "Inspector Killjoy" — took it to the next level. He went about systematically raiding pubs and discotheques in Mumbai, years after dance bars were banned. Prodded by the then commissioner of police, with the tacit approval of the political powers that be and egged on by many, Dhoble revelled in what his hockey stick could achieve and laws couldn't. His logic was simple, or should I say, far too simplistic — boys visit bars and pubs to have a good time; bar owners populate the place with girls from various parts of the country. First, the youngsters have a drink, then smoke up, and over a period of time, get inextricably mixed up with criminals, finally becoming criminals themselves. So restaurants open till late evening and serving liquor became Dhoble's targets. Those who visited such restaurants lived in fear that they might be detained and humiliated by the police before being let out. He did an encore with hawkers, driving them away from streets and localities, and one hapless hawker paid dearly with his life. Only a change in regime at the city police brought an end to this sordid saga.
Talk to police officers and they open a fascinating window to city life. For them, a dance bar had always been a repository of information. Besides curious adults who would visit a bar for fun, these were frequented by underworld sidekicks as well. The police picked up good intelligence at such places. Regulating and monitoring bars, to be sure, is not a police issue. Police interference only breeds corruption; by letting a shop remain open late into the night, a local constable can earn a month's salary in a day. If at all, it's about civic administration — where to allow such bars and rules relating to shops and establishments, such as the time till which they can remain open and excise duties. Perhaps it is also about the income tax department, which can ensure that taxes are paid. Without naming politicians and detailing their party credentials, police officers can tell you that many bars are actually owned by local politicians and their affiliates.
But what is peculiar about Mumbai, and Maharashtra, is its propensity to ascribe moral codes. It percolates down to various spheres. Be it film posters, theatre plays or Hindi cinema, advertisements or even vernacular plays, a ban in the island city can be orchestrated by the regional parties — the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Shiv Sena — almost instantaneously. Shops with mannequins displaying undergarments can be shut down and thrown out of the city even if most women don't really feel awkward passing through them. Corporators from all parties unanimously passed such a proposal. What is unnerving, though not surprising, is that even the civic administration shares the political mindset that these mannequins can infect an onlooker with prurient thoughts. Forget the civic body and its babus, what comes as a shocker is when an artist, who one would assume to be a vocal proponent of freedom of expression, desires that only men get to see his work. Playwright Ashok Patole decided that only men were fit to watch his play, Ek Chavat Sandhyakal (A naughty evening).
This is what I mean when I say Mumbai morality is only skin deep, but pervasive. The middle class chooses not to filter the noise that politicians make about what's right and wrong. It ignores questions of fairness. For instance, that dance bar girls have the right to a livelihood is not really a question of what's right or wrong. It is about fairness. And Mumbai ignored it. The question for us is: do dance bar girls have a right to earn an income and sustain their livelihood?
A few months ago, at a public forum in a five-star hotel in upmarket south Bombay, one of the biggest individual investors said Mumbai must do away with the ban on dance bars. This, he reasoned, will give the city a cosmopolitan flavour and also help it compete with other financial centres of the world. There will be many flippant arguments on either side of the debate. But we need to be fair and rein in the morality theatre.