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Wrong on Ghaziabad: The Kiran Bedi argument for moral policing

Some of the facts are fuzzy, others debatable, but here is what is indisputable about the events that occurred on the night of 13 May  in Ghaziabad. A young couple was sitting in a car. They were drinking liquor. The residents of their community took offense at their behaviour. The two were then brought to the local police station, where the girl was slapped by a policeman and an elderly resident of the community.

A Kashmiri couple sits together under the shade of a tree in a garden in Srinagar

Reuters

The incident was captured on camera by local TV journalists who asked her -- while in police custody -- various offensive questions, including whether she was a prostitute, caught performing sexual acts, etc. The usual media uproar ensued.

Former police commissioner Kiran Bedi quickly ran into trouble for telling ANI News:

Girls also need to be better.  Drinking in a public place by girls with boys is not a right thing. It is unlawful. But then getting slapped by the policeman is a double wrong. So two wrongs do not make a right. Drinking, man or a woman, is a wrong, then getting slapped by a policeman is a second wrong.

The statement was interpreted as advocating a sexist double-standard on women and liquor. But as the full quote makes clear, Bedi was careful to insist that public drinking is illegal, irrespective of gender.

Her critics were not, however, entirely wrong. Bedi is indeed guilty of a more subtle form of sexism, the kind that permeates our police force, and is shared by its top officials such as Uttar Pradesh ADG Kumar. And it was in full display on NDTV's Stop The Buck, where both Bedi and Kumar urged viewers to focus on the letter of the law. One, drinking in public is illegal. Two, the police was obliged to investigate the complaint filed by the residents. The rest of what may or may not have occurred, Kumar insists, is "under investigation."

The argument is intentionally technical, disingenuous, and enabling -- as in, this is the argument that enables moral policing in this country. It reveals how the police force and existing laws actively collude in and enforce retrograde codes of morality, particularly on women.

As Bedi herself admitted on the show, the girl has committed a "minor legal wrong." (No one is talking about the guy, by the way) Drinking in a car with a boyfriend hardly constitutes drunk and disorderly behaviour. It was a minor crime that received a vastly disproportionate punishment. Both Kumar and Bedi would prefer us to blame the residents of Shalimar Gardens who filed two complaints accusing the couple of creating a public nuisance and obscenity.

"The police are duty bound to respond," argued Bedi, "Who are we to say what is a nuisance to those people? How can you and I judge?"

The argument sounds fair-minded to a fault, but is in fact deeply flawed. If the police does indeed blindly respond to every complaint of obscenity or public nuisance -- a claim that is dubious in itself -- then all of us will be forced to behave according to the offended party's standard of morality.

Let's take the allegation that the couple was found in a "compromising" position. As the other NDTV panelist Centre for Social Research scholar Ranjana Kumari pointed out, "Young people… meeting each other, hugging each other, even kissing each other is considered a 'compromising' position. How is compromising defined?" The local residents claim the girl was found in a state of undress. "Ijjat bachai he uski (We saved her honour)," one woman smugly tells a reporter. But what is their definition of "naked"? The woman who slapped the girl -- without provocation on camera and in the police station -- tugged at her clothes and accused her of being her of being "nanga" (naked). She was wearing a sleeveless top and jeans.

"We are a society that doesn't consider it obscene when a man relieves himself in public but it is obscene when a woman wears certain kinds of clothes," noted fellow panelist AIPWA Kavita Krishnan. Bedi's response was again technical: public urination is also illegal.

So it may be. But how many of us file a compliant against the public parade of male genitalia? And how likely is the police to respond in such cases? And in how many cases will they haul the offending man to police station and assault him? Men drink in public all the time, as well. And yes, they too are beaten up by the police but only if they are being drunk and disorderly. Two men hanging out in a car with a bottle of whisky is considered normal. Just "car-o-bar," as Krishnan put it.

Bedi's careful hewing to legalities -- what is or  not against the law -- airbrushes the more unpleasant reality of how policing actually works in this country.  It matters less what the law is than how it is selectively applied by the police, who more often wield it as a lathi to harass ordinary citizens, including young couples in public places. The law itself becomes a tool of moral policing. In fact, Ms Bedi, it is the police who "judge" what behaviour constitutes a nuisance and who is guilty of obscene activity -- and their judgements are grossly sexist and retrograde.

Not only do policemen enforce the law at will, they also wilfully flout it. They took the young woman to the police station despite strict rules that stipulate no woman should be taken into custody after sundown without female police personnel. Kumar claims the policemen were forced to "rescue" the couple from angry residents. If so, why did they allow those same residents to assault the girl? And it's an odd kind of rescue that entails physical assault and humiliation in front of TV cameras -- which in turn constituted an illegal violation of her privacy.

Bedi draws a false moral equivalence when she declares "two wrongs don't make a right." The legal wrongs committed by the police were egregious, yet she describes them in the mildest terms: "They overdid it, mishandled it."

When Krishnan asks why the police did not display greater sensitivity -- say, by asking the couple to move elsewhere -- Bedi responds: "Our expectations are very high. We are looking for the highest quality, highest sensitivity, very knowledgeable, very sharp and perfect, and also very well resourced."

Club all the assertions together and what you get is a neat justification of moral policing. Policemen are duty bound to investigate every complaint of obscenity/public nuisance, however minor -- except when they choose not to. In doing so they can flout the law -- slap the accused, allow others to abuse and assault them, permit the presence of cameras etc. But in the end, it is the target of moral policing who will face charges and go into hiding -- not the policemen who remain untainted and uncharged until the "investigation is complete." In conclusion, anyone who expects our police force to do better is making an unrealistic demand for the "highest quality."

"I always urge young people, 'Know the law!'" declares Bedi in a fit of maternal concern for the young and the foolish. At least this young woman now knows there is only one law that matters. The law of the lathi.

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