There is a cultural divide that is deepening, and those who speak of freedom of speech might do well to listen to the other side for a change
IT ISN’T a very common sight. A policeman striding into bars and pubs armed with a hockey stick enforcing closing hours. Or ‘rescuing’ innocent girls from massage parlours. Or questioning women found staying late at pubs whether they are prostitutes. A cop enforcing rules with any degree of enthusiasm is rare, but to see someone define their duty with such zealousness and perform it with such indiscriminate ardour is very uncommon indeed.
No wonder ACP Vasant Dhoble captures the collective imagination of urban India even as opinion about his actions is sharply divided. To one side, his actions represent a clear case of moral policing, the impending Talibanisation of India, a sign of a growing intolerance of anything that is funny or fun. To the other side, he is a folk hero, a protagonist in a Madhur Bhandarkar film, the man from the streets locked in a laconic masculine battle with the fetid forces of depravity and moral sickness that ooze in from the ‘outside’.
The outrage is easy to understand, for it is part of a well-established liberal narrative of angst that crops up every time any individual freedom is threatened. It is the support for Dhoble that needs to be better understood, for it mobilises an anger that is neither fully comprehended nor appropriately acknowledged except through broad and often dismissive characterisations. Given the visibility of the economically and socially enabled and the powerful control they exercise over mainstream media, this anger is at first denied and then labelled as regressive, narrow-minded and archaic.
Part of the anger against the well-heeled and the well-partied is rooted in the contradictions that this class papers over: sexual exploitation of women is bad, but bar girls are a sign of a city’s vibrance; drugs for the poor make them victims but turn the rich into party animals; drinking irresponsibly is bad but underage drinking can be winked at. Exalted notions of liberty and freedom of expression are equated with acts of everyday sensory release allowing the liberal discourse to attach the tag of moral policing to any action that asks questions of such behaviour. This is the vodka shots version of freedom, where the right to numbing gratification becomes the overriding freedom worth protecting. For the vast majority that watches this spectacle with a degree of incomprehension, the anxiety about the loss of a familiar way of life is one that is encountered every day but one that can be expressed only once in a while.
When a Dhoble comes along, much of this held-back anger finds a flag to fly under. On his part, Dhoble uses sophisticated tools. He counters the extra-legal with the micro-legal, digging up archaic laws and recruiting an outdated past in his crusade against an inexplicable present, one that seems to carry us off with it. The hockey stick is a particularly communicative sign, a deliberate conch shell blast of disruptive force that relocates the raw culture of the street into the ordered arena of the uniform.
On the face of it, the solution is clear enough. Change the archaic laws and having done so, enforce what emerges with transparency and fairness. On paper, this is difficult to argue with. After all, the excesses of those having a good time cannot be matched by the excesses of the regulatory authorities; mutual asymmetries do not add up to justice. But there is an asymmetry of a kind that needs to be acknowledged. In the ultimate analysis, the burden of restraint lies on the State, not on individuals, however powerful they might be. When an overzealous State uses the law selectively in order to pander to popular sentiment, it stops being a detached administrator of a system and becomes a social interventionist espousing a particular culture, allowing it to act against all manner of ‘undesirable’ lifestyles.
Having said that, it is important to acknowledge that the support of Dhoble is rooted in a real anxiety, one that cannot be hand-waved away using time-worn phrases of liberal doublespeak. There is a cultural divide that is deepening, and those who speak of freedom of speech might do well to listen to the other side for a change.
Tehelka, 14 July 2012