If you were a human being with human sensibilities, what would offend you more—the death of a man or a nightclub being forcibly closed? A few months ago when Assistant Commissioner of Police Vasant Dhoble started raiding clubs in Mumbai, celebrities, has-been-would-be page three riff-raff, music directors, reality show stars, token youth with a token halo around their token heads and all the upper middle-class characters you find crawling around the corners of public discourse, were distributing sound bytes on how freedom was under threat. Recently, displaying the same stubborn fervour, Dhoble went about removing hawkers. One of them died of a heart attack. Dhoble has since been transferred. All those who had earlier made the nightclub raids an ideological battle didn’t have much to say.
You can almost see them opening the morning newspaper, reading about the hawker’s death, remarking to themselves— “There he goes again”—and then moving on to the next headline. But something quite the opposite is also happening. There is an outpouring of middle-class support for Dhoble. Some residents’ associations are out on the streets. This is that constituency whose teenage children Dhoble had hauled up during the earlier raids. They root for him now because they like clean streets, pavements to walk on, a decent life. It is a reasonable demand if not for the fact that hawkers are also human beings. They have for years been part of the system, been corrupted by it and are corrupting it like everyone else in this country.
The mirror that Dhoble holds to the middle-class shows up their own extreme self-interest. They want a good society only for themselves and so Dhoble can be monster or friend depending on which side they think he is on.
Recently, there has also been a drive to clear unauthorised slums in Mumbai. The reasons we don’t know yet, but there is always an agenda when a lazy and corrupt system begins to act. It could be the builders’ lobby or it could be about undercutting the opposition’s vote banks or any of a thousand other conspiracy theories. There are so many forces at work that the truth, like quantum mechanics, is always just one more possibility. About a kilometre from where I live, 1,500 huts were demolished overnight. I had seen them grow and proliferate for almost a decade. One person died then too. Those who stay in apartments, the ‘legal citizens’ of Mumbai, have welcomed the demolition.
Their reasoning is that encroaching on public spaces is against the law. But this was exactly the argument Dhoble made when he shut down the clubs. The letter of the law specified the time clubs should close doors. But then you saw counter-arguments and concepts like good laws and bad laws bandied about by the liberal media. It was argued that outdated rules should be discarded, implying of course that Dhoble had no business enforcing them. None of this hair-splitting is evident today when it comes to slums or hawkers.
What is amusing is that those who live in the apartments have no idea how much better off they are because of the slums. All the cheap labour, from drivers to maids to vegetable vendors to electricians to plumbers, comes from these slums. Get rid of slums and the cost of living will soar almost immediately, starting with your maid going on leave to somehow build a home again. Get rid of hawkers and you quadruple the spend in a restaurant. Whether anyone likes it or not, all lives are intertwined in a city, not just those of the rich with the rich. A well-off man can walk around with a blindspot for everything that does not fit his picture of a decent life, but he is still dependent on the squalor around him. There is also the general idea of empathy. A home is a home, whether it is a flat or a slum. And its absence is felt just as intensely by everyone.
Dhoble is effective because he has tunnel vision. He has really never been the problem. He is not even a symptom. He is just a maverick who fell through the cracks in a black hole, a man who (it is said) cannot be bought but does not rebel against the men who get bought and give him orders. Once he has served his purpose, his senior IPS officers send him into hiding. He is both a weapon and a shock absorber. Which is why he will be back.