It’s hard to think of a police officer anywhere in the world who has been both lionized and criticized as much as Mumbai’s assistant commissioner of police, Vasant Dhoble. As head of the police social service division, Dhoble has in a few short months led Mumbai cops in a self-directed mission to shut down parties, crack down on bars and regulate the city’s bustling nightlife using archaic prohibition laws that were never taken off the books. He has been hailed as a moral crusader—and a wet blanket. There are Facebook groups praising his work, many of them started by older Mumbai residents—on one he is hailed as “the real face of truth”—and others denouncing him. In June, when 1,000 people marched to protest Dhoble and his brand of moral policing while holding cutouts of field hockey sticks (a nod to the hockey stick Dhoble carries during his raids), two other protests in his defence were held the same day. “Dhoble go back,” said one banner. “We need more Dhobles to save Mumbai city,” said another.
India’s prohibition laws are nothing new: article 47 of the Indian constitution says a state can mandate prohibition of the consumption of “intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.” Prohibition faded from the scene in Bombay (as Mumbai was called) in 1973, but the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949 remained. It just wasn’t enforced till now. The act requires private citizens and bar owners alike to carry permits to buy, possess, consume or transport alcohol. Dhoble and his squad have followed the letter of that law, forcing bars to apply for up to 10 liquor licences (including separate ones to serve domestic and imported liquor), asking patrons to show their permits, and conducting raids on bars, restaurants and even private homes—in one case targeting a woman making liqueur-filled chocolates in her kitchen.
Phemie Fernandes, a 29-year-old Mumbai resident, says the older generation is fine with the crackdowns. “They sleep more peacefully at night knowing their kids are at home,” she says. And certainly, residents’ associations in areas like Bandra and Khar, tired of complaining of noise from the many bars in their neighbourhoods, have thrown their support behind Dhoble. Young people have not, however, and bar owners are understandably peeved by the raids. In one scandalous incident, four women, purported sex workers, were detained for questioning in the glare of cameras. They turned out to be a group of German tourists out for a drink at a bar recommended by their guidebook. (The government believes Dhoble’s efforts have hurt tourism. According to the Times of India, one cabinet member noted in a recent meeting that it isn’t a police officer’s job to go around to clubs, hockey stick in hand.)
“The question is, why are they imposing [the restrictions] now?” asks Vyjayanthi Rao, assistant professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research in New York City. One reason may be an increase in alcohol-driven crime. “There’s been an alarming rise in drunk driving,” Rao says, adding that in the past five years, Mumbai has also seen an increase in violence against women. The ban on alcohol may do its part to protect women who work with NGOs for microcredit loans. These women work, gain independence and make money, only to have their husbands squander it on alcohol.
But Mumbai women’s groups have not exactly rallied around Dhoble’s cause. That’s in part because in another way, Dhoble has targeted women. Some young women report feeling hassled by Dhoble’s men for going out. “This sort of policing happens with practices that are considered too modern for India, whether it’s drinking in public or women going out and having a good time,” Rao says.
On the surface, the campaign sounds merely like the work of a puritanical police officer, but it turns out to be a complicated issue combining class, gender and globalization. The permit requirement, for instance, makes it exorbitant for the poorest of Mumbai’s residents to drink: a lifetime permit costs around 1,000 rupees ($18). There are issues with acquiring permits, too, says Ritu Birla, director of the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Toronto. “When you go into these government offices, if you’re a poor person, you’re not going to be treated in the most efficient way.” On one hand, the suppression of alcohol is a rejection of elitist Western values. On the other, it makes drinking in bars an upper-crust activity.
Birla sees it as another example of India’s “moral anxiety,” which has manifested in panics over gambling or even dancing. And the issue could vanish as quickly as it came up. Last week Mumbai’s new police commissioner, Satyapal Singh, made it one of his first acts in office to reverse the special status Dhoble had received under his predecessor; Dhoble’s unit will now report to the crime branch, which is widely being seen as a signal that his influence is already on the wane. The Indian press is full of gleeful headlines reporting that the “moral policeman” has been “cut down to size,” “reined in,” his “wings clipped.” This being Mumbai and Vasant Dhoble, the hand-wringing can’t be far behind.