The campaign against bars and night clubs in Mumbai appears to be less about upholding the law and more about enforcing a moral code on the city. In recent weeks, the dreaded Social Services branch, which has wide ranging powers has been very active, barging into everything from night spots to parties to even juice centres to ensure that laws are being followed. The laws that are being allegedly flouted range from “immoral” activities (prostitution) to use of drugs to drinking without a permit to even remaining open beyond the officially stipulated deadlines.
No citizen will oppose strict policing if it is about keeping the city safe. To give an example, most Mumbaikars are all for the anti-drink and drive campaign that has produced excellent results. People actually think twice before drinking at parties and either have a designated driver (who remains sober) or take a taxi.
The bull-in-a-china approach of the current crusade to bring moral order to the metropolis however is troubling. Not merely because of the manner in which it is being conducted — in one case the senior cop in charge apparently barged into a juice bar with a hockey stick and threatened the owner – but the fundamental premise behind it. The authorities, which include the home minister, the police commissioner and the senior policeman leading the crusade have all spoken about the need for Mumbai’s youth to learn good values. The Commissioner of Police wants everyone in bed by 11 pm and the head of the Social Security branch wants to rescue kids from becoming morally bankrupt.
The modus operandi is to round up everyone at a venue and treat them as criminals. In the Juhu case, the 100-plus party goers were all taken to a hospital, made to give urine and blood samples on the assumption that they had drugs in their system and then also charged with drinking without a permit.
The permit system itself is a relic of a deeply conservative past which played havoc with the city. Though prohibition, enforced rigidly under then chief minister of Bombay Morarji Desai and his successors was lifte in the early 1970s, the “permit” system remained. The laws says everyone must have a permit to drink and also to keep liquor at home; the legal drinking limit is a couple of bottles of beer (and equivalent) in one day. This is ridiculous. The government cannot impose a drinking limit on society; it can make liquor expensive, but it must stay out of people’s personal decisions that do not harm anyone. The permit rule is hardly enforced, but it can always hangs as a sword of Damocles and can be deployed whenever the police wants to. In this day and age, do permits make sense, especially when liquor is perfectly legal (and the government makes a lot of money out of it?)
Behind all this is a reformist mentality that sees the public as in need of saving from its own failures. Anna Hazare flogs drinkers in his village; since that will not work here, why not humiliate them? It will hardly be surprising if the action against Voodoo was more about controlling a “scourge” like homosexuality than about enforcing the law.
A vibrant night life is a must for any big metropolis. Cities cannot be only about work and community; play is very important too. Mumbai has no parks or gardens worth the name and the quality of life has deteriorated rapidly. Entertainment spots (and not just multiplexes and bowling alleys) are a must to allow people to meet friends, socialize and let off some steam. At the same time, the city must remain safe and secure for the citizen. Mumbaikars will fully support the police in its effort towards that end, but this has to be done keeping in mind the citizens’ own needs too. The government of Maharashtra must realise that tall glass and steel structures do not a Shanghai make. It is a matter of regret that there is no minister from Mumbai in the government, someone who understands the metropolitan (and cosmopolitan) mind. Attacking and closing down a bar here and there with strong arm tactics will not make citizens morally upright; but it will certainly make them wonder if this is a city worth living in.
— The author is a Mumbai-based writer and commentator on current affairs