Dummy politics

The ban on lingerie mannequins in Mumbai fits into a long tradition of moral policing

In Mumbai, the lingerie mannequin has finally acquired the distinction of raunch. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has unanimously passed a proposal by a Shiv Sena corporator to ban such mannequins, lest they prompt "wrong acts" by men. The sight of plastic flesh dangling from shop windows has led to the "pollution of minds in today's generation", says Ritu Tawade, a BJP corporator from Ghatkopar. Apart from causing a rise in sex crimes, it has apparently made female passersby blush. Provisions of the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act have been invoked to back the decision. Sadly, this is only the latest in a sorry tradition of moral policing in Mumbai.

Politicians and police in the city patrol the bounds of decency, one they consider permanently fragile. Last year, the avenger-cop ACP Vasant Dhoble went on a hockey stick-wielding spree across Mumbai's nightclubs and shops, waging war on gambling and prostitution. But the threat could come from anywhere, at any time. In January this year, a Mumbai Police advisory warned of couples stealing away to deserted beaches at low tide and indulging in "indecent behaviour". Archaic clauses of the Bombay Police Act, 1951, have been summoned to support such monitoring. Successive state governments in Maharashtra have shared this keen sense of propriety. In 2005, the Congress government banned dance bars in the city, on the grounds that "dancing was derogatory to the dignity of women" and led to their exploitation. In 2008, IPL watchers were presented with "conservatively" dressed cheerleaders, a compromise devised by the government after the Shiv Sena demanded that "US-style" cheerleaders be banned.

This conservative crackdown isn't limited to the Shiv Sena and MNS — across the political spectrum, parties have competed to be part of Mumbai's war on vice. While they speak of the safety and dignity of women, certain notions of social and cultural purity are clearly at stake. The city that was once the heart of India's modernity is now a frumpy version of its former self, one that gets hot and bothered at the sight of a mere mannequin.

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