Tough moral crusade against Mumbai's party folk is making few friends


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The Independent Online

First comes the beer, then the peanuts and finally a slip of paper, printed in Marathi and stamped with the number 757335.

"This is your permit," explains the waiter. "This enables you to drink." The issuing of alcohol permits to drinkers in Mumbai to comply with a long-forgotten law is the latest twist in an unlikely showdown between glitzy party-goers and law enforcement officers who have been accused of moral policing.

In recent weeks, policemen wielding hockey sticks have raided clubs, arrested models and paraded them in front of television cameras. They have also been dusting off a host of archaic regulations most people never knew existed.

Police insist they are simply trying to enforce the law and say their actions are supported by a majority of people. But a more vocal section – including socialites, Bollywood types and other members of the city's elite – say they have gone too far. It is not just suspected drug users who have been targeted, they point out, but foreign tourists and even a woman detained for making and selling alcohol-filled chocolates.

It is around 10pm on a Tuesday night and Soda, a bar in the west Mumbai neighbourhood of Versova, is steadily filling up. It's a young, well-dressed crowd, listening to US rock and drinking beer. The owner, Vikram Ram, has taken the precaution of posting signs announcing the bar does not stay open past 1.30am. His three premises have not been raided and he chooses his words carefully, saying he understands the police's position. Yet he says that to open his bar legally he required 24 separate licences. His customers are less restrained. A group of graduates from the Jain Institute say people are feeling affronted. "He is targeting the youth," says one. "I don't want someone like Dhoble doing this."

The Dhoble they refer to – assistant commissioner of police (social service branch) Vasant Dhoble – sits in an office at police headquarters. As the police operation has gathered pace, the moustachioed 54-year-old, said to be a teetotal vegetarian, has earned fame and notoriety as the face of the raids.

In one incident he was seen waving his stick while raiding a juice bar that had stayed open too late. In another he told reporters that four German tourists he had detained were prostitutes and he cemented his reputation when police raided a private party at a hotel where more than 90 people – including two professional cricketers and the children of local politicians – were arrested.

Today, Mr Dhoble's hockey stick leans against the wall. "I don't care whether people like me," he says. Some say the crackdown has disrupted what was previously a cosy arrangement between bar owners and neighbourhood police who received payments for looking the other way when it came to licences and staying open late.

Indeed, Mr Dhoble's boss, the police commissioner Arup Patnaik, says laws were not always enforced.

He admits the crackdown on partying is targeting a segment of society.

"Elite sections thought they were above the law and that nobody should ask for their papers – that was the attitude," he says.

Mr Patnaik claims public opinion supports him. "We are trying to stop deviation [from the law]. This is a city of 15 million people. I'm not here to serve the 1,000 people who want to party after 1.30am in the night."

One of those leading the fight for the right to party is Viren Shah, a socialite who owns a small department store located opposite police headquarters.

Mr Shah, who says he and his friends now always carry a drinking permit (as required by a law dating from 1949) whenever they go out, says the city's reputation was at risk of being damaged.

"There are drugs everywhere in the world, but that does not mean you have to create problems for everyone," he says.

People are also concerned about the wider impact on the city's reputation. Upen Patel, a British-born Bollywood actor, says: "These raids have for sure helped curb the negatives. However, they have curbed the positives too."