Drinking, dancing & Dhoble
In recent times in Mumbai, anywhere that people meet for a drink, one name inevitably comes up: Dhoble. This is the surname of an assistant commissioner of police who has earned quick infamy by a series of raids on restaurants and pubs. The more outrageous cases have been widely reported.
There was one on a restaurant from where 11 women were picked up by ACP Vasant Dhoble on suspicion of being prostitutes. His reasoning was that they must be prostitutes since they had free entry to a party being held at the place, while men had to pay a cover charge to enter.
Another raid on the tony Cafe Zoe took place because it was apparently playing music without a license, and had more than 166 people per 1,000 sq feet, or about a tenth of what you’ll find on any railway platform in Mumbai. It was fined for overcrowding.
The excise department, perhaps feeling left out, also started to do its own number. They went and arrested a 55-year-old woman from her home because she had a few bottles of alcohol at home, which she used for her hobby of making liquor chocolates. They were using a 1949 law under which drinking and owning alcohol without a licence is prohibited in Mumbai.
The Mumbai police commissioner and the head of the excise department both backed these “initiatives”. Both claimed that the officials were merely upholding the law.
For this, they should be thanked. These gentlemen have succeeded in bringing much-needed focus to a very important issue, which is that we have laws against pretty much everything. Are you a woman? You can be detained on suspicion of being a prostitute. Are you a man? If you’re Muslim, you could be suspected of being a terrorist, and spend the next few years in jail. If you’re Hindu or Christian, well, there are so many other crimes. Owning a bottle of beer will suffice as a crime in Mumbai.
Are you poor? That is an indirect crime. If you’re poor you are probably also unemployed or employed outside the formal sector, like 93 per cent of the population. So maybe you make ends meet by selling tea at a roadside stall or some such. Well, that’s illegal. You’ll be allowed to operate only if you bribe the local municipal authorities and the local police, after which they will come to you for free chai and the weekly bribe, aka hafta.
And so it goes.
India is a country with too many laws and too little justice. Approximately 65 per cent of the people in our jails are not convicts, they are people who have been arrested on suspicion. Often it emerges after years that the person was innocent. What do the police do to give back a man his lost years?
It is an axiom of justice that no innocent should be punished even if 10 guilty persons get away. A second axiom is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Here, the reverse happens. Those assumed guilty are filling our jails while the people who actually perpetrate the big crimes are successful in government and business.
Anna Hazare and his followers seem to believe that all this can be fixed with yet another, stronger, law. They are wrong.
Their mistake is born of the Indian tendency towards shortcuts. It is the same attitude that people show when they ask doctors to give injections for fevers. It appeases some strange sensibility; it is not as mild as a simple capsule, nor as harsh as an operation. It is neither here nor there.
My belief, in fact, is that a surgery is what is required. The entire body of India has become corrupt with cancerous growths, many of which we inherited from the British. We should simply cut them off and throw them away.
The silly laws that empower our constables and enforcement officials to become extortionists should be repealed. That would be the single most effective measure against corruption. Let our legislators frame fresh laws keeping in mind the contemporary realities of our country and its place in the world. Laws that have no relevance to contemporary society should be done away with.
The point of living in an independent country is that we can live by our own democratically legislated laws. That is why we have Parliament and Assemblies, and pay for the upkeep of our legislators.
As a taxpayer, I would like to ask them what useful work they do. Last year Parliament worked for 73 days out of 365. More than 30 per cent of that time was wasted in disruptions.
Meanwhile, citizens suffer.
The Indian Penal Code was framed by the British in 1860. The great revolt of 1857 had just taken place. The Raj was shaken. It needed laws that would empower the British, who were few, to control the natives, who were many. These laws came into force in that milieu. The British rulers made way for Indian ones in 1947. Why have our leaders kept those same laws and same powers for themselves till now? Is it so they can unleash the occasional Dhoble on us to show they are still the mai-baap sarkar of the Raj?