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Moral policing in Mumbai

5 July 2012

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Indian Express, July 04 2012

The campaign against fun

by Shilpa Phadke

Dhoble’s hockey stick wielding days are hopefully numbered. But what about the crackdown on Mumbai streets?

Moral policing in Mumbai has a new face in Vasant Dhoble, but this city is not unfamiliar with efforts to impose moral order. Nor is it news that the police is not progressive — as recent comments by the Delhi/ NCR police have eloquently demonstrated. However, two things deserve comment: one, whether on the streets or in the pubs, much of the hullabaloo about morality is inevitably directed at women. Two, when privatised spaces of pleasure are under threat, it is cause for media publicity and citizen outrage, but attacks on fun on the streets are met with a resounding silence.

In the last two decades, spaces for fun in public have been shrinking. Over the years in Mumbai the police have, at various intervals, rounded up couples on the streets and threatened to fine them or inform their parents. Not just couples, even people simply hanging out in public having a good time, especially at night, are suspect. Spaces of protest have been reduced to pretty much just Azad Maidan. The quest for the global city has also been one to move people from the streets to consumption spaces, marking off those who can pay to have fun from those who can’t. But even these spaces are not entirely unthreatened.

In January 2009, women eating lunch at a pub in Mangalore were attacked and beaten by activists belonging to the Sri Ram Sene on the ostensible grounds that “pub culture” was a corrupting and immoral influence on Indian women. In the months following this attack, women in the city of Bangalore were randomly attacked for wearing Western clothes, for appearing too visible and inadequately “Indian”.

In May 2006, the local police in Lokhandwala in the suburb of Andheri alleged that they had received complaints that women sex workers were fixing up clients in the open seating spaces outside some popular neighbourhood coffee shops. As a result, the police prohibited the coffee shops from serving customers in the open area outside their restaurants. Even private parties are not exempt. In 2005 in Chennai, couples were photographed at a private party in a luxury hotel kissing on the dance floor leading to legal cases being made and the inevitable question of the purity of Tamil culture and the role of women within it.

Similarly in the Dhoble-led incidents, women were arrested and sent to remand homes on grounds of prostitution. The narratives in the media of the women who were arrested were that they just wanted to have fun. Women must be not just perfect customers but also perfect representatives of some ossified notion of Indian culture. The middle-class woman is celebrated and desired in the new city but also simultaneously reviled for being too independent, too “free” and too desirous of having fun.

And yet, these are the comparatively safe spaces — spaces where women are actually desired as customers, at least by the managements, since they reflect the global claims of the establishment. From the point of view of the global city, attacking upmarket establishments seems counter-intuitive for the image the city is striving to project of a cosmopolitan space. It doesn’t take much analysis to know that Dhoble’s hockey stick wielding days are already numbered. But it is worth reflecting why pleasure or fun is always at the edge of the illegitimate. Pleasure is suspect, its morality is suspect, its value is suspect because it brings with it a sense of lack of control — it cannot be legislated or regulated. That’s what makes the Dhobles of this world so uncomfortable.

And yet, those protesting the overzealous implementation of “archaic” laws might be more than a little shortsighted. For the problem is not just Dhoble but the new middle-class zeal to protect the spaces we have designated as ours. It’s not Dhoble so much that’s the problem; it’s the middle-class sense that moral policing belongs on the streets. Any defence of the right of those who occupy these new spaces of globalisation to pleasure cannot take place in the absence of the more general right of all citizens to pleasure in public space.

The battle for the right to party in a pub cannot be separate from the right of bar dancers to dance in the downmarket bars. The right of canoodling couples to Bandra Bandstand must be central to any discussion on the moral policing of upmarket coffee shops, bars and lounges. So long as we seek to protect one kind of pleasure (the right to party) at the cost of another (the right to occupy the streets), there is plenty of room for moral crusaders to have their own party.

It is worth adding here that contrary to popular perception, our research on women’s access to public space in Mumbai has demonstrated that when shops, restaurants and yes, even hawker stands, discotheques and bars are open late into the night, the streets are safer and more accessible — not just for women but for everyone. The more people we have on the streets awake and having a good time, the less policing is actually required. No, really.

Phadke, who teaches at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, is co-author of ‘Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets’


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