You know you’re back in Mumbai when you open a newspaper and you read about the police harassing customers at a restaurant for some minor or imaginary transgression of some arcane law. Police apparently barged into some lounge bar for not closing on time and then booked some of the guests there for behaving indecently with the police. Indecent behaviour is incidentally not taking off all your clothes in public and dancing around lamp posts or propositioning innocent passers-by with lewd gestures. It is not standing in a line when told to do so by the police. It does not matter to the Mumbai police that the customers at a restaurant had not actually broken any laws. If the police wishes, the police does.
Of course, then you read the rest of the city news and it’s all about murders and rapes in government shelters — possibly crimes less horrific than people sitting in a lounge bar beyond 1.30 am. After Assistant commissioner of police Vasant Dhoble’s dramatic run as moral guardian of Mumbai ended, many hoped that this would be the end of this sort of police harassment. Evidently not.
The funny thing is that for all that Mumbai prides itself on its cosmopolitan and liberal attitude and its entertainment potential the authorities are completely out of sync with it. For the past two decades, successive governments have done whatever they can to either tax Mumbai’s entertainment and night life out of existence or failing that, apply outdated laws to keep people in check.
Concerts, live performances, alcohol consumption, late nights, safety, dancing, eating out are all seen as morally reprehensible. For years, some have blamed the influx of small-town and village politicians into powerful positions in Mumbai for such regressive acts. But it’s not just about the politicians, it’s also about policemen and there is little to suggest that Mumbai’s IPS officers have any larger world view or perspective than the average constable who follows their example.
The rubbish talked about Mumbai being made a world class city is not just tired and cliched, it is downright false. Almost nothing has and is being done to bring Mumbai up to par in terms of quality of life by the authorities. Contrary to what the government believes, taking 10 years to build a bridge and five years to build a portion of a railway line is not infrastructure development. Not only is all this too little too late, it is also a neat attempt to fool people into thinking that something is being done. More likely, as we all know, lots of money is being made at our expense and not to our benefit.
The cynicism which has corroded governance in Mumbai has allowed the police to get away with this behaviour. It may seem like so little to get upset over — a raid on a few party-goers. But it speaks to a mindset. It speaks to a system which does not respect the citizen. It tells you how and why murder accused Vijay Palande could use his influence to duck the law as long as he could. It explains why the alleged rape and torture at government shelters can and will be ignored by the police for so long.
When a police force can run amuck like it does in Mumbai — and undoubtedly in the rest of India — we know that words like liberal, cosmopolitan and world-class are laughable and meaningless. And the lack of respect for the law has been evident in Mumbai in recent times and this too directly goes to the police being pre-occupied with non-issues or colluding with politicians.
If the government and the police are serious in their promises, they need to upgrade their laws, get rid off the Bombay Police Act and concentrate on making life a little easier for the people of the city. My advice to the rest of us would be: please don’t hold your breath!
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona