The English press in Mumbai is in campaign mode – at least the city’s leading newspaper is. Furious at a crackdown on the city’s nightlife by a cop known for his rough and ready ways, The Times of India, with its sister publication Mumbai Mirror, has gone all out to stop the crackdown – to no avail, it would seem.
The target of the campaign is ACP Vasant Dhoble, in charge of the Social Security Branch of the Mumbai Police. Dhoble has a controversial record. Convicted by a trial court for beating a man to death in 1983, he was dismissed from service, spent two days in custody, but was acquitted by the High Court and reinstated. The Supreme Court upheld his acquittal, but ordered further investigation into the incident, apart from awarding compensation to the victim’s family.
The incident occurred in 1983; the Supreme Court verdict came 20 years later. In the interim, Dhoble got into further trouble. A year after he was reinstated in 1996, Dhoble was involved in an alleged “encounter”, in which he was accused of gunning down the wrong man. An inquiry ordered by the High Court termed the encounter fake. But this finding was rejected by the High Court. The matter is pending in the Supreme Court.
Dhoble likes to carry a hockey stick. At a raid in April on a juice centre outside a hospital, against which the local people had complained, Dhoble strode in, hockey stick in hand, wearing plain clothes, and in full view of the customers, manhandled the manager before taking him away. In his numerous raids on the city’s pubs, cafes, and lounges, Dhoble has barged in post-midnight. His men have taken pictures of customers and made them cool their heels while their names and addresses are taken down. Single female customers have been charged with prostitution and sent to remand homes. A 19-year-old claimed her family had disowned her after she was released from the Home. Two sisters, currently in a Remand Home, have sued him for defamation. So determined is Dhoble that the letter of the law be followed, he has even booked establishments for “overcrowding”!
Dhoble is known to have the backing of the city’s Police Commissioner as well as the State Home Minister. The CP is reported to have said that he would like the city to be in bed by 11 p.m., while Dhoble scoffs at the term “nightlife”: “What night-life are you talking about?’’ he asked the Mumbai Mirror. “I've seen how girls and boys are exploited in these places of entertainment. My aim is also to save them. We would not need to do moral policing, if the youth understood good from bad. I've seen many people in trouble and have rescued them. I am not against anyone who is following the law, only those who are breaking them.’’
Expectedly, cries of “Talibanization”; “Maximum city becoming minimum”; “Mumbai losing its international appeal’’ have gone up from the English press. While highlighting his recent rampages, The Times of India has interviewed everyone affected: customers and their families, bar owners, lawyers, policemen… And rightly so. But it has not thought fit to seek out a single supporter of Dhoble’s actions. After he raided the juice centre, the residents who had complained against it came out in his support. When the press campaign against Dhoble seemed to be peaking, some civic activists of Bandra, the “happening” suburb, where most high end pubs and lounges are located, held a meeting backing him.
The opinions voiced by these organised groups of supporters were reported, but that’s not the same as actively seeking out contrary views. The press was all over the suburb of Mira Road when many Muslims accused in the 2006 serial train blasts were picked up from there. But Mira Road is also known for its bars. Its residents would do anything to have them closed down. Indeed, three were closed by Dhoble recently, though the suburb is outside his jurisdiction. He was specially sent there by the Home Minister.
Surely the English press, which projects discotheques and pubs as the symbol of a pulsating city, can’t be unaware of their flip side? The disturbance caused to residents; the danger to women out at night, the risk of drunken driving...
Since he took over, Dhoble is said to have shut down 20 bars. He has penalised restaurants for being open past the 1.30 a.m. deadline; offering hookahs which are banned; allowing customers to dance though their licence doesn’t permit it; serving alcohol without licence, using footpaths as extensions; and allowing prostitution and drugs on their premises. Except the dancing, can any of these transgressions be defended? Among Dhoble’s targets have been bars owned by a Shiv Sena leader’s wife and the wife of a Deputy Commissioner of Police; customers fined include the son of the State Health Minister. Rarely does a cop take on such powerful people.
Dhoble is also the first policeman to arrest clients of prostitutes as mandated by the Prevention of Immoral Traffic Act, 1986. A diamond trader and his friend were arrested from a hotel along with two prostitutes, and had to spend six days in police custody.
Can these aspects be ignored and Dhoble be painted simply as a villain? The irony is that when he was involved in far graver episodes of violence, the same newspapers didn’t bother to campaign against him. His convictions, acquittals, and indictments were merely reported, not commented upon. No question was raised as to whether such a man should be allowed to remain in the police force.
The rudeness with which cops deal with customers during Dhoble’s raids provoked a long article in The Times of India. But for the majority of our citizens, rudeness is a given in any brush with policemen. How come that doesn’t make news? Slum-dwellers always complain that the police, who accompany the municipal demolition squads, go out of their way to smash water drums, tear study books and overturn grain containers. Yet this rampage doesn’t warrant more than 400 words on the inside pages, if that much. Often, these demolitions flout court orders and are carried out on the behest of builders. Still, there is no outrage.
It’s not police brutality that gets the English press’ goat. When former Police Commissioner R. D. Tyagi was indicted by the Srikrishna Commission, and along with his men, later charged with the murder of eight innocent Muslims during the 92-93 riots, the English press, by and large, supported him. IPS officers were quoted about their “morale” being affected; they even threatened not to ever tackle law and order situations again. Publishing their opinions was right. But no reporter or edit writer thought fit to point out that shooting dead a man kneeling at your feet, or dragging a handicapped man down the stairs, isn’t tackling law and order. These were the kind of acts that
Tyagi’s men had indulged in. He led the raid though he didn’t enter the premises.
Nor has the State’s backing of brutal cops ever been questioned by the English press. Had it carried out the kind of campaign against Inspector Nikhil Kapse, that it is now carrying out against Dhoble, this man indicted by Justice Srikrishna for killing six innocent people, four of them namazis inside a mosque, during the 92-93 riots, wouldn’t still be in service. The Congress-NCP government rushed all the way to the Supreme Court to protect him from a High Court-ordered CBI inquiry, unnecessary as it turned out, because the CBI exonerated him too! One couldn’t see much media indignation on either occasion.
Among Dhoble’s recent victims has been Yusuf Bhure, a 64-year-old restaurant owner who alleges he was hit so hard by the ACP that he collapsed and now has a damaged ear. Bhure had to approach the State Minority Commission for help. Except for Mid-Day, the English press now up in arms against the same officer, didn’t even bother to report the incident.