First comes the bottle of beer, then the dish of complimentary peanuts and finally a small slip of paper, printed in Marathi and stamped with the number 757335. “This is your permit,” explains the waiter, as he slides it onto the table, his voice rising against the din of the music. “This enables you to drink.”
The issuing of alcohol permits to drinkers in Mumbai to comply with a long-forgotten 1949 law is just the latest twist in an unlikely showdown between the city’s glitzy party-goers and law enforcement officers who have been accused of moral policing.
In recent weeks, policemen led by senior officers wielding hockey sticks and who have tipped off the media in advance, have been raiding bars and clubs, arresting models and part-time actresses and parading them in front of television cameras. They have also been dusting off a host of archaic regulations, most people never even knew existed.
The police insist they are simply trying to enforce the law and say their actions are supported by a majority of people. But a more obviously vocal section – which includes socialites, Bollywood-types and other members of the city’s elite - say they have gone too far. It is not just people suspected of taking drugs who have been targeted, they point out, but juice bar owners, foreign tourists and even a woman who was detained for making and selling alcohol-filled chocolates from her home.
It is around 10pm on a Tuesday night and Soda, a bar in the upmarket west Mumbai neighbourhood of Versova, is steadily filling up with customers. It’s a young, well-dressed crowd, listening to American rock and drinking beer that comes in pitchers.
The owner, Vikram Ram, has taken the precaution of posting signs outside his bar, announcing that it does not stay open past 1.30am. Mr Ram’s three bars have not been raided, and he chooses his words carefully, saying that he understands the police are enforcing laws they did not make. Yet he says that to open his bar legally, he required 24 separate licences. “This is why the law needs to change,” he says.
His customers are less restrained. A group of recent graduates from the city’s Jain Institute, a well-ranked business school, claims bars are now shutting earlier and people are feeling affronted. “He is targeting the youth. They like to go out and have a nightlife,” says one graduate, Aaditya Dave. “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 in the south of the city where trees drip with monsoon rain. As the police operation has gathered pace, the moustachioed 54-year-old, said to be a teetotal vegetarian, has earned both fame and notoriety as the face of the raids.
In one incident he was seen waving his hockey stick while raiding a juice bar that had stayed open too late, in another he told television reporters that four German women he had detained were prostitutes (they were tourists) and he cemented his reputation by being present 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 stands leaning against the wall, not far from a hockey award he won during his playing days and a large bouquet of deep red carnations he says are from an admirer. “I don’t care whether people like me. I have not carried out a survey into how many people like me or not,” he says, before explaining that he is not permitted to talk to the media. “I am interested in the scrupulous enforcement of the law.”
Some in the city say the crackdown has disrupted what was previously a cosy arrangement between bar owners and neighbourhood police who received regular payments for looking the other way when it came to license and staying open late.
Indeed, Mr Dhoble’s boss, police commissioner Arup Patnaik, describes the crackdown as an attempt to ensure pubs, clubs, hookah bars and restaurants were made to follow the law – something that had not always happened before he was promoted last year. The force says, that with the support of the state’s home minister, officers under Mr Dhoble’s command have also been targeting the trafficking of women and children, and that 217 women had been rescued so far this year.
Yet seated behind his desk – a vast, intimidating expanse of polished wood in his second-floor office – he admits the crackdown on drinking establishments is targeting a particular 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.
He says that while elements of the English-language media were opposed to the crackdown, the vernacular media supported him and his officers, not – he insists – that he cares whether he has public support or not. He also denies that his force has taken a moral stance. “I am a policeman – whatever the law is, it stands. I don’t make laws,” he adds.
Mr Patnaik claims public opinion supports him. “There was a concerted effort through Facebook and Twitter [against the police] but I think most people saw through that game and that is why it fizzled out,” he says. “We are trying to stop deviation [from the law]. This is a city of 15m people. I’m not here to serve the 1,000 people who want to party after 1.30am in the night.”
In the aftermath of the police crackdown, opponents have organised themselves on Facebook into groups such as Mumbai Unite which has more than 20,000 supporters while several leading establishments have shut down while they await new licenses. Other bars are closing earlier.
Many people are choosing to party at home, rather than risk hitting the bars. One of those leading the fight for the right to party is Viren Shah, a socialite who owns a small department store located directly opposite police headquarters.
When the crackdown started he hung a vast banner from his building announcing his objections and saying Mumbai should be proud of its night-life. Following complaints from the police, he has since replaced it with smaller signs. Mr Shah, who says he and his friends now always carried a drinking permit with them whenever they go out, says the city’s reputation was at risk of being damaged.
“There are drugs every where in the world, but that does not mean you have to create problems for everyone else,” he says, referring to the police’s claims that they are targeting drug dealers. “There is now a scary atmosphere. People are frightened of Mr Dhoble and his team.”
People are also concerned about the wider impact on the city’s reputation. Upen Patel, a British-born Bollywood actor, says: “People in Bombay have a work hard and party harder mantra. The entire clamp-down on the night life and the recent high handedness of certain members of the police has for sure caused everyone to sit up and take notice of the fabulous night life which was once taken for granted. Yes, these raids have for sure helped curb the negatives. However they have curbed the positives too.”
Malini Agarwal, a veteran observer of the city’s social and party scene who writes a blog as well as a column for the Mid Day newspaper, confirms that people’s behaviour had drastically changed. Many are afraid to go out, and risk being present when a raid takes place. But she senses people are also starting to push back. “People are resilient. People find a way. I was at Royalty [a popular night club in the Bandra neighbourhood] last night and it was packed,” she says.
One thing that appears clear is that neither side is backing down. In recent days it has been reported that the police commissioner Mr Patnaik has ordered all his stations to join in with the crackdown on bars and clubs. He has also warned them that local officers will be held responsible for any such businesses discovered to be breaking the law by his right-hand man, Mr Dhoble. The stand-off is set to continue.