“How can one issue orders to Dhoble to stop his crackdown. He is only going by the book and cracking down on those who have actually flouted rules. If someone has a problem with the laws being archaic, then they should ask for amendments to the rules rather than targeting the officer who is doing his job,” a top Mumbai Police officer told The Indian Express.
This view – the law is an ass, not the police – is also shared by a number of critics of the Mumbai nightlife crackdown. A recent Times of India editorial warned:
A Talibanesque police force running riot can cause grievous economic harm to Mumbai as well. The city is one of India’s top entertainment and tourism hubs. But it can hardly remain so if authorities assume the role of moral vigilantes and attempt to shut down partying and nightlife. To stop such vigilante-ism from seeking the cover of the law, Maharashtra’s archaic rule book must be upgraded in consonance with rapidly changing times, to meet 21st century standards.
Get rid of colonial-era laws that have killed our upwardly mobile, cosmopolitan lifestyle, and all will be well. Fair enough, but what about those other pesky laws – the ones that don’t affect our right to shake a leg or raise a glass?
Forget the Bombay Shops and Establishment Act (1948), Bombay Police Act (1951) and the Bombay Prohibition Act (1949). How about a law that’s a wee bit older? As in Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code (1870).
The provision was used to arrest journalist Seema Azad and her husband Vishwa Vijay and sentence them to life imprisonment. Their official crime: sedition. Their real crime: exposing corruption and illegal mining in UP.
They join the ranks of Prakash Ram, a farmer in Uttarakhand, environmental activist Piyush Sethia in Salem, Srinagar-based lecturer Noor Mohammed Bhatt, Sudhir Dhawale, a Dalit rights activist from Mumbai, 73-year old adivasi activist Gananath Patra in Orissa, and nearly 3,500 protesters at Koodankulam.
Yes, Arundhati Roy too was slapped with sedition charges for a speech. But she’s a celebrity whose arrest will bring with it a media circus. Countless and nameless others can and are being targeted with impunity for a non-bailable offence that carries life imprisonment and is described in these vague terms: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India.” [Read more in Outlook Magazine's 'A Stick Called 124(A)']
At least, the Mumbai liquor laws are specific about what constitutes a violation. Section 124 [A] is not.
It’s absurdly easy in modern, cosmopolitan, 21st century India to be accused of “anti-national” activity. All you have to do is make enough noise – be it about mining, corruption, police encounters, or land grab policies – to piss off the government. “The sedition law is a weapon in the hand of the State which evokes doubts, suspicion and hatred in the mind of the people against whom the charges are made. Such an undemocratic and anti-people law must be repealed immediately. In fact, it should have been done many years back,” Kuldip Nayar tells Outlook.
The problem isn’t one law that requires us to carry a liquor permit. Or another that allows the police to arrest you for distributing anti-mining pamphlets. The issue here is the Indian state’s interest in retaining laws that enable the willful and arbitrary exercise of brute force.
“Now so far I am concerned that particular section (124-A) is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons…the sooner we get rid of it the better,” declared Jawaharlal Nehru in a 1951 parliamentary debate.
So why are we still here, six decades later?
The “archaic” laws endure because they are immensely useful. They allow the police – and the politicians who control them – to harass, arrest, or jail a citizen on one pretext or another. They are helpfully vague and broadly worded. Anything can get you in trouble – having a drink, selling chocolates, possessing Maoist literature, making a speech on Kashmir…
The sad truth is that the upwardly mobile middle class accepts, even at times condones, an oppressive state because we consider ourselves immune to its excesses. Stuff like this doesn’t happen to PLUs. And if it does, we can always “pull strings” or bribe our way out of it — or someone else will do it for us. A bar’s customers, for example, rely on its owners to pay the required bribes to the right policemen so we can enjoy our cosmopolitan in peace. When that safety bubble explodes, we’re suddenly outraged by laws that were on the books all along.
Until Dhoble came along, the (in)justice system worked perfectly for people with resources. The laws gave the police the power to behave like a mafia. They harassed lesser citizens at will, and used the threat of harassment to extort “protection” money from all, streetside vendors and restaurant owners alike. And no one cared about the rules as long as there was a way around them.
What’s frightening about Dhoble is that he is enforcing the law in its true spirit – with integrity and earnest zeal. Stripped of the grease paint of corruption, we are confronted by the naked might of the state in all its legitimate glory.
The liquor regulations in Mumbai are but bastard children of mega-laws like Section 124 [A], tiny mirrors of a labyrinthine legal system held hostage to a Leviathan-like state. Why rail at the reflection when we are unwilling to confront the monster behind?