It is 10 o’ clock on a Saturday night. A group of friends are seated at a table in iBar, a small pub in Bandra. More than their drinks, they are interested in a little piece of paper. It is a drinking permit. After a recent spate of crackdowns on rave parties, pubs and restaurants in Mumbai, it has become a highly sought-after document for a night out, a must-have that now ranks with the hippest fashion accessories.
Members of the cluster at the table scrutinise their friend’s drinking permit, pepper her with questions, then vow to get their own made. There is a strange silence before everyone breaks into exasperated sighs. “Why are we even doing this? For God’s sake, I am 30 years old, I have a child, I deserve to drink,” says a financial advisor. “This just makes me feel disgusted—as if we don’t have enough to do.”
Someone seems to have read their minds. As the group leaves iBar, a bouncer at the exit hands them day-long drinking permits. They would be better off with lifetime permits, no doubt. But getting one of these is a bit like getting a Mumbai local train pass renewed: fill a form, attach proof-of-age, stand in a queue, give in your photograph, cough up Rs 1,000, and there, you have a lifetime drinking permit.
Demand for permits has skyrocketed in the last few weeks, ever since the Social Service department of the Mumbai Police began enforcing a strict set of codes, routinely raiding pubs, restaurants and discotheques as part of this exercise, rigorously detaining or arresting people deemed offenders.
Drive around Bandra at night, and it looks like there is a curfew in force, with an unusual number of cops at every corner. On Wednesday night, the scene is especially eerie. The otherwise bustling night club Hawaiian Shack is empty, even though drinking permits are gingerly being awarded at the entrance to those who fish out identity cards to confirm their having come of drinking age. Inside, wrought-iron chairs and tables occupy what was once a dance floor. Everyone makes it a point to leave before the clock strikes 12. Outside, the streets are deserted and ominously dark. It’s not just Bandra. All of Mumbai is afflicted.
At an office on the ground floor of the Mumbai Police Headquarters in Crawford Market, there is a knock on the door. A police constable in plainclothes enters and stands to attention. After days of heat, the city has had a short drizzle, and rainwater drips down his hair as he smiles. Speaking to the officer seated in the chair, but looking at the wall opposite in reverence, he states the purpose of his visit. He says, “FIR, sir”, but either because of the monsoon cheer or his thick Marathi accent, all that emerges from his mouth is ‘FR’, the ‘I’ having been gobbled up.
The officer turns: “What? What is FR?”
“FR, sir, FR.”
A discomforting silence descends on the room. By the time the officer asks him how long he has been in service, the rainwater on the constable’s face has disappeared and been replaced by sweat.
“Sir, tees saal (30 years),” the constable mumbles.
The officer turns to the others in the room—a lackey arranging files, a commoner who wants a favour, and an Open reporter —and says, “See, this is the kind of people I have to work with.” There is laughter. Then, without even looking at the constable, the officer dismisses him with a wave.
Humiliated, the constable leaves without a word.
The officer is Vasant Dhoble, Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) of the Social Service (SS) department, the man responsible for bringing Mumbai’s nightlife to a halt. He was a little known policeman till May, but is now referred to as ‘Mumbai’s Dabangg’ in newspapers. Many commercial establishments suspected of illegal activity have been shut, many have been fined for a variety of reasons, and in at least one instance, women in a restaurant have been arrested on charges of being prostitutes. Two of them sued him for defamation but the Bombay High Court dismissed their petition saying that he was within his rights.
One intriguing quality of Dhoble is that, all the outrage against him notwithstanding, there is nothing he has done that violates the letter of the law. Dhoble is also perhaps the first policeman in India to become a trending topic on Twitter. On a recent Friday night—according to media reports—at the hip Café Zoe that opened around four months ago, as patrons were settling down with their drinks and having a good time, a shout arose in the air: “Dhoble is here, get out!”
In his office at the Mumbai Police Headquarters, Dhoble is every bit a policeman. He sits on a chair with a white towel on it; there are a number of marble paperweights on his glass-topped table. What seems like an aberration is the hockey stick beside him. When asked if he plays hockey, he says, “Khelte bhi hain, bajaate bhi hain.” (I play it, I rattle it too.) On this Friday afternoon, he refuses to speak with the media, the police commissioner having ordered him to refrain from granting interviews.
The next day, we find him in his chamber, but he is busy working on the computer. He is writing a Microsoft Word document. He has made a database of all the nightclubs and pubs in the city, and is deciding which ones to raid next. Unlike the day before, where he was dressed formally in a shirt, trousers and boots, today he is casually attired—his shirtsleeves are rolled up and he is in denims and sneakers—perhaps in preparation of an impending Saturday night raid. He is more open today, as he reads with delight the media mentions he has got. He maintains clippings of these articles.
“Let newspapers do their duty, and I will do mine,” he says, referring to the pressure news channels and dailies have been exerting on him. “If there is wrongdoing being committed, if licences are not in place, and there is overcrowding, why should I not raid those places?”
A number of individuals come visiting him throughout the afternoon. Almost all of them commiserate with him on the articles being written about his raids, and wonder why he should be so unfairly targeted. To this, Dhoble smiles and says, “Rich people’s woes.”
Later, under an archway to a building in the headquarters, an officer in the SS department defends his boss. “There are so many cases of AIDS in Mumbai. Why? It’s nightclubs like these that are making our morals loose,” he says, “Women get drunk, everyone does drugs. Just look at the bottles strewn around after a party. In our times, there were no such places. We only had Doordarshan and we got on just fine.”
Dhoble was transferred to the SS department in February last year on an assignment to check ‘moral bankruptcy’ in society, according to officers in his department. Before he arrived, the SS wing was known to conduct four or five raids per week, mostly to bust prostitution rackets and establishments that employed child labour. Now, however, according to Dhoble, some 30-40 raids are mounted every week, and nightclubs and pubs are under a special scanner. “Suddenly, there are so many nightclubs all over the city—in small lanes, in residential areas. How do they get their licences? These enterprises flout rules, bribe officials. That’s why our superiors got a tough cop like Dhoble into the picture,” says another inspector with the SS department.
DHOBLE HAS NOT disappointed his superiors. In Mumbai now, any movement after 12.30 am is almost considered a crime. This means everyone needs to get home by then. Even at home, you may not be safe. Fashion choreographer Alison Woodham’s 22-year-old son Ronit invited a few friends over for dinner recently. The doorbell rang just as Ronit, his friends having left after a hearty home meal, was preparing to wrap things up for the night. It was the police. “These cops said that there was a party going on and Ronit needed to come to the station and pay them Rs 12,000,” says Alison, “But there were no guests in the house, so they then said that one is not allowed to have people over after 12. They told him to pay Rs 6,000 and then finally took Rs 3,000 and left.”
The next day, Alison lodged a complaint at the local police station. Ronit even identified the extortionist cops in a police line-up, but the mother and son are not sure what will come of it. “Ronit is scared,” says Alison, “He is like, ‘What if these cops find me somewhere?’ And I have an 18-year-old daughter. What if she gets bullied by these cops when she goes out? I so worry for my children.”
Shaan Bhavnani, a disc jockey at Aer in Four Seasons, says that many people are now scared to go out at night. “You can’t even dance anymore. If you bop your head, you may end up in jail.” Habitual party-goers are the hardest hit. “I used to party five times a week,” says Parul Kakad, who owns two restaurants in Australia but lives in Chembur. She hasn’t been out for more than a month now because all her favourite places in Mumbai have shut down: Trilogy at Sea Princess and China House at Grand Hyatt. “I was at a popular club in town one night, and Dhoble walked in at 12.30 and started taking down names and numbers of everyone there. It wasn’t even 1.30, the club’s stipulated closing time. He then kept everyone there till 2.30—what sense does that make?”
Neha Varghese, who owns Trilogy, wants the police to realise that without its nightlife “Mumbai’s economy will fall apart”. She wants to re-open her nightclub, but can’t and won’t until she has all the required licences. “We have been in business for 25 years and are going to do everything by the book. We need a disco permit (a DJ licence is all Trilogy has), and it’s taking too long,” she says. What she wants is for the police to explain exactly what’s required of Trilogy.
To most pub owners, that remains a mystery. “I was actually told that I had to pay Rs 1 lakh to play pre-recorded music on a DJ console,” says Nikhil Chib of SoBo hotspot Busaba, “But if you tell them you know the law, they behave themselves. I just think these laws, which belong to the 1930s, should be amended. The government needs to realise how much [revenue] it can earn on nightlife: be smart, make money the legit way.” This phase, he hopes, will blow over.
Nisha Bedi went to a party recently and was strip-searched while leaving the club. “Where are my human rights? Cops are not allowed to do this unless they have a warrant,” she says. Nisha has a Facebook page that features people posing with placards such as ‘Partying is not a crime’ and ‘Work hard, party harder.’ “The laws belong to an era gone by. As a politician friend was telling me the other day, they were made by the White man to keep the Brown man in his place. Why are we still following them?” she asks.
A few months ago, a group of women detained in an Andheri raid were branded as ‘sex workers’ and sent to a women’s home. Their families are still fighting court battles to have them released. “The situation has gotten out of hand,” admits a police source, “It is all about getting credit. Every police station wants to conduct a raid.” Shamita Singha, owner of a bar in Bandra, worries about the police’s attitude towards women: “If you are at a sundown pool party, you will be in a bikini, right? That doesn’t mean you are a prostitute.”
In mid-May, a partially televised raid at Juhu’s Oakwood Hotel saw 96 persons being nabbed, including IPL players Rahul Sharma and Wayne Parnell, for their alleged participation in a rave party that had drugs doing the rounds; about 110 gm of cocaine was seized at the venue, claim the police, but those who were present call all these charges “hogwash”. The hotel’s owner, Vishesh Vijay Handa, was arrested under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. He was granted bail, but the case is set to drag on.
If someone like Dhoble can hold the city to ransom, then the blame falls squarely on outdated laws. Consider this: adulthood is defined as 21 for purposes of marriage, elections and so on, but to drink alcohol in Maharashtra, one needs to be at least 25 years old—an age limit upped from 21 for reasons best known to the Congress-NCP led government in the state. All liquor-serving establishments are required to display this rule on signboards at their entrance and on their premises.
IT WAS IN APRIL that Dhoble first started hitting the news. He was seen in plainclothes, threatening employees of a popular juice stall in Juhu with a hockey stick (he didn’t use it but did manhandle them). The stall, Amar Juice Centre, which is frequented by people returning from a party, has often been in the news for operating beyond permissible hours and disrupting traffic. “Dhoble would often come by and threaten our staff, so we put up CCTV cameras to capture his actions,” according to Manjunath Joshi, the stall’s manager, “That day, he pulled me by my neck and kicked me in front of everyone. I and two other staff members were taken to the police station, where we were made to pay a fine for littering. Even after this incident was reported in newspapers and we filed a complaint to the police commissioner, he came by on two occasions and picked up our employees. He just doesn’t care what people think.”
The policeman himself has had a chequered past. In 1994, when he was an assistant police inspector (API) at DN Nagar police station, he was accused of a custodial death—that of an alleged thief named Abdul Gaffar Khan. He was sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment, but it was later revoked and he was given a clean chit by the Bombay High Court. He has also been accused of misplacing 12 dossiers when he was an inspector in the Crime Intelligence Unit in 2008; these were files of communications between Interpol and the Mumbai Police about the gangster Dawood Ibrahim.
According to 49-year-old Ravindra Pandey, who filed an RTI query about the action taken against Dhoble for misplacing those files in September 2011, “One can believe it’s an act of carelessness if a file or two go missing. But how can 12 files get lost? What’s more, he was let off with a simple warning. No action, as I learnt from the RTI query, was taken against him.” Pandey’s brother BP Pandey is an advocate on a case involving a deal gone bad between two property developers. ACP Anil Mahabole, a controversial policeman in the Mumbai force who is accused of rape and a few corruption charges, reportedly sought a bribe from one of the developers. When the policeman’s name cropped up in the case, Dhoble, who is allegedly a close friend of Mahabole, threatened Pandey in an attempt to ensure that no case against Mahabole was made. “I was called to the Nagpada police chowki,” says Pandey, “Dhoble was around in the area for a raid. He asked me to talk sense into my brother and not press charges against Mahabole. When I refused, he tried to hit me but was stopped by other policemen.”
However, there are some who say that the rampant misuse of rules and laws by eateries and pubs has given highhanded cops like Dhoble a pretext to run riot. YP Singh, a well-known former IPS officer in the Mumbai police force—who took voluntary retirement in 2004 because of what he claimed was a high level of corruption in the force—believes that many of Dhoble’s actions are justified. “If he ill-treats people, casts aspersions on their character—that cannot be condoned,” he says, “However, there are so many establishments that flout rules. These have all sprung up by paying bribes to police officers. The commissioner now wants to clear the rot, and that’s why Dhoble has been given a free hand.”
Dhoble offers us a cup of tea but not an interview. Later, outside the office, we spot an individual we saw working with Dhoble on the list of the city’s pubs, and catch up with him. He is out on a walk and identifies himself as a ‘writer’ of the department (who writes the case papers of raids). He has been working in the department for over five years and is visibly happy about the way things are going. “All these people have to be taught a lesson,” he says, “Just because we have started raiding them, they kick up such a fuss.” We ask him about Dhoble’s hockey stick, and he says, “Yeh sir ka style hai.” It’s his style.