ACP Vasant Dhoble: Law on the Loose
Shruti Parmar attempts to understand the cop we cannot ignore.
This is Mumbai’s current favourite re-tweet:
Had we sent Dhoble to the Olympics, we would’ve been assured a medal in at least one sport: Spoil.
Funny; but something’s seriously changed in Mumbai right now and it’s hard to overlook the second thoughts in a city that was known to never sleep. All thanks to ACP Vasant Dhoble (57), a police officer who heads the Social Service (SS) Branch of the Mumbai Police, under which come sections as varied as the Anti-Trafficking Cell, Copyright Violation and Anti-Gambling Cell, Adulteration Cell, Weights and Measures Cell and the Social Counselling Cell.
Raiding 40 to 50 pubs, hotels, restaurants, bars, pubs, brothels, gambling dens, hookah parlours, cyber cafes, spas & massage parlours every week, a hockey-stick wielding Dhoble has made the Shiv Sena and MNS activism passé. Parties are videographed as evidence, youth flouting laws are paraded before the media and owners are physically threatened. Two women have allegedly been wrongly charged as prostitutes and sent forcibly to a remand home as part of this ‘blitzkrieg’. ‘Go Back Dhoble’ protests & ‘Dhoble: Enemy of the Innocent Public’ facebook pages abound. He has been accused of Talibanising Mumbai and even compared to Hitler for his aggressive crackdown on the city’s nightlife.
Famous or infamous, Dhoble, himself, is no stranger to controversy. And this makes mud- slinging easier.
Inducted 37 years ago into the Police Service at Pune, Vasant Rao Dhoble has a history of misdemeanours that make all his current ‘moral policing’ seem like hypocrisy. He has been suspended for being caught red-handed accepting a bribe, charged for the custodial death of Abdul Gaffar Khan, as well as been held responsible for ‘misplacing’ 12 dossiers related to India’s most-wanted gangster Dawood Ibrahim.
Yet, the Commissioner of Mumbai lauds his courage while The Economist concedes him honesty. And Dhoble has had more hits than misses.
Since December 2011, Dhoble’s SS Branch in plainclothes and through its network of more than 200 informers in Mumbai has conducted numerous raids. Prostitution rackets have been busted, illegal bar girls rehabilitated, many girls have been rescued from the flesh trade, bar owners and patrons are being arrested for flouting the 1:30 am deadline, for encroaching on sidewalks and streets, smoking hookah in public places, not having the required licenses and permits, evading entertainment taxes, etc. They are being booked under various sections of The Bombay Police Act, 1957, The Bombay Shops and Establishments Act, 1948, The Prevention of Cigarettes and other Tobacco Products Act, The Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act and the BMC Act.
Informers with Dhoble’s pictures have been employed to follow him so that they can warn bar owners before he arrives and they can shut shop and escape. Dhoble moves a step ahead. He doesn’t inform even his driver about their next raid. Sometimes, his car is taken to a completely different location while his Team carries out the planned raid. The phones don’t stop ringing at his Crawford Market Police Station with complaints and Sources at their best. “Beta, so jao varna Dhoble aa jayenga” is the order of the day.
How has this police officer become so important? A policeman has ideally been a society’s hero. In an hour of need, danger, crisis and difficulty, when we don’t know what to do and whom to approach, the police station and a policeman happen to be the most appropriate and approachable unit and person for us. In a 21st century India, along with maintaining law and order, the khaki-clad lathi-wielding police force is expected to discharge its duties without fear or favor; with more efficiency and spirit of service to the people. A politicised, metropolitan city like Mumbai requires a strong and proactive police force most necessarily. “Pull the cops off the streets of Bombay for just one day,” the late Pramod Navalkar, Shiv Sena leader, once said, “and see the mayhem that will overpower not just the city but Maharashtra and the entire country. Firm policing is why you and I can walk the streets fearlessly and sleep easy at night.” Although operating with far inferior technology and equipment, the Mumbai Police as we know have always been compared to the Scotland Yard. But the image has changed. Today, a police officer is also to us as a society, is just a corrupt bribe-seeking official. This probably explains our collective discomfort with Dhoble.
Here is a police official in our daily lives who refuses to be bribed. Who questions us about laws we couldn’t care less about. About laws that we however, know we/those around us are breaking. And he doesn’t stop at that. He takes us, me and you, as we are drinking illegally or partying to the disturbance of our neighbours, to police stations and to remand homes as the law says he must do. This is embarrassing. This can’t be happening.
And that’s the bad news. We are blaming Dhoble for making us fearful for indulging in something that we see as harmless. The ‘false positives’ that Dhoble has had in his onslaught, have affected a class that does not want to be in the police radar. They would break laws, knowingly and unknowingly, and get away with it, not spend time fulfilling the punishment by law.
A metropolitan city like Mumbai needs its nooks and corners and it’s time to vent, to enjoy, accommodating its pleasures. This is part of the city’s fabric. Attacking it and looking down on it as immoral and illegal is being extremist on a non-issue. But, who’s to blame?
And therein lays the good news. The good news is that we’re most aware of the law right now. We can campaign to change the archaic ones and we know that bribing is not going to rescue anybody. The law is meant to be known and followed. The policing of fear will make us more law abiding. Interestingly, the pro-Dhoble citizen group demands the same things as the anti-Dhoble group. While one met at a Khar library, another protested without permissions on Carter Road. The agenda was common– change the archaic laws.
Why can people get married at 21 but only start drinking at 25? Why do we need to sign false claims of requiring alcohol for medical purposes and have a permit to consume alcohol? Should prostitution be illegal? If Dhoble wields a hockey stick, WHY isn’t there a law to tackle that?
India is changing. The world’s values have evolved. Like a Law student says, “The maxim is ‘cessante ratione, cessante lex’. The law is enacted for a purpose. What when the purpose changes or is fulfilled or becomes irrelevant? No more law. The question is how does a law incorporate the culture of a diverse society like India, to accommodate our modern thinking and yet not ‘miss’ the crime.
Thanks to Dhoble, we’ve gotten to the point.
And this is where allegations of ‘moral policing’ against Dhoble fall flat. This isn’t exactly like the Shiv Sena vandalising in the name of Valentine’s Day, it isn’t exactly like the Sri Ram Sene beating up women drinking and dancing in pubs. That is hooliganism, barbaric, a violation of human rights, a business of fear-generation; that is illegal. In Dhoble’s case, it’s the law that is being enforced.
He himself says, “We have a job to do. When we receive information from our informants, we have to take it seriously. If we find that establishments are breaking the law, we will have to take action against such errant establishments. I know people don’t think good about me. This is a free country. I cannot change people’s perception. They are free to think what they want. I am not concerned about public perception, I am concerned with my work. That is all that matters to me…The media has every right to write what they want. I do not bother about good publicity or bad publicity. If I get many positive reports about me, I will not be given added perks. My job is important, not what the media thinks about me. I am here to work. My superiors will decide if I am doing my job or not.”
Public perception is crucial. For Dhoble, it has been moulded by opinions on the traditional media and social media, none of which are best informed or unbiased. Salman Khan’s tweet for instance, isn’t apolitical. His brother Sohail Khan owns the nightclub Royalty in Bandra, one that Dhoble and Co. have raided. Most politicians have stakes in the bars and clubs of Mumbai. The lobby of those affected is pumping money into anti-Dhoble campaigns. Illegal trade is after all big business. Those who support him are mostly extreme fundamentalists who cannot think beyond an orthodox perception of ‘Indian culture’, violence and hate; or intellectuals whose flexibilities of thought no actual law encapsulate. And the problem is also of our tradition to worship or demonise personalities rather than deliberate on real issues and practical solutions.
Who is Dhoble then? Is he a cultural fundamentalist at heart or just a cop doing his job? Does he have political motives or does he just love his 15 seconds of fame? Is he genuinely interested in the welfare of society or is he someone who, frustrated with the law himself, is out to prove a point?
We have our answers in hindsight. Dhoble is an agent for change. He is a reminder of the law to a society that has sidelined it. For all the right reasons, he can be loved or hated but should definitely not be ignored. He is a testimony of the hypocrisy of our lives in a metro today. We decry illegality of any kind and demand to know what our politicians and police are doing when a crime occurs and yet we live illegal in our daily lives. We enjoy living a culture not ours and yet ultimately pride a great Indian culture that clearly defines the profane and the vulgar. We may go all out, on amnesic virtual or dharna protests but we don’t push for systemic changes that will ensure there’s a quicker judiciary process as a deterrent for all.
What happens to a libertarian city however in this quest for safety? Is its culture affected for the better or the worse? Can provisions be made to accommodate the nightlife of Mumbaikars and still keep the city crime-free? The people must have a collaboration to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not; what’s the severity of action taken to the seriousness of the crime committed; of what makes sense to us as a society now if the laws have outlived their purpose. It will have its own loopholes, but we have to have law-abiding citizenship if we are to progress. The police need to be firm for us to take them seriously, but there must be rational provisions to protect unnecessary harassment.
We needn’t joke about Dhoble, for that would be mocking ourselves. But we need to spend every minute of that time on thinking and discussing solutions to the problem- with the law, with our country and with ourselves.
Let’s begin with: #ThankyouACPDhoble.