Vice Squads

Throughout its history, Mumbai has grappled uneasily with controlling and regulating the business of pleasure

Residents in Bandra rally on 24 June against the recent crackdown on bars and restaurants in the city that have allegedly violated long-ignored regulations. INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE
01 August, 2012

ON 24 JUNE, a few weeks after the Mumbai police started raiding upscale bars and dining establishments that were allegedly violating long-ignored regulations related to liquor permits, crowd densities and DJ performances, a scraggly bunch of young people made their way down a seaside promenade in Bandra to demand their right to party. One chap held up a sign with a perfectly reasonable offer: “We invite Mumbai police to discuss our differences over a drink.” Other placards were more insistent: “Mumbai youth need freedom. Give it to us or we’ll take it.” Nonetheless, it was all most decorous. There were no masked anarchists or hooded youths flinging petrol bombs and smashing windows.

In the days leading up to the march, the organisers told journalists that they expected between 5,000 and 10,000 protestors to show up. At the event, about 150 people made their way down Carter Road in a polite and orderly fashion. Clearly, Mumbai had lost some of its old fighting spirit. After all, two centuries ago, an attempt by the authorities to modify controls on liquor to increase revenue collections had provoked a rather different reaction: full-scale riots lasted for most of 1811 and continued into the next year. That wasn’t all. The rioters expelled some prominent people from their caste who had failed to support them.

The rioters were Bhandaris, members of one of the earliest caste groups to migrate to the islands. The Bhandaris had settled in the area around 1295 and made their living tapping and selling toddy. They coaxed the tall palm trees that flourished in Mumbai to yield its sweet sap, known locally as nira. By mid-day, this liquid would ferment into intoxicating toddy; it was also distilled into a spirit called arrack.

Such jollity, of course, came at a price. For their privilege of extracting palm wine, the Bhandari community paid a tribute known as “aut salami”, or toddy-knife tax. When the British acquired Bombay as dowry after Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1661, they were dismayed to find that they had acquired a “beggarly, ruined” set of islands with little revenue potential. All the islands seemed to have were liquor-bearing palm trees, so like the Portuguese before them, the British went out obtaining a share of abkari, as the tax on toddy was called. Of course, they realised that the old arrangements weren’t lucrative enough for their liking so in 1694, they framed a fresh set of requirements for licensing taverns. Among the provisions was one that decreed that permits for selling wine, beer, arrack and mum (a kind of ale brewed from malt) should be granted only to “persons of good behaviour”.

In the early 1730s, to maximise revenues, they began to auction the rights to tap the trees on government land, leasing the plantations for three years. But the Bhandaris, who were still working the palm trees more than four centuries later, complained that the new system caused them great hardship. In an attempt to mollify them, the government in 1737 sold the community the right to tap the trees for R12,000. This didn’t satisfy the Bhandaris either: this time, they claimed that their own leaders were exploiting them.

The solution the British devised involved charging the Bhandaris for every tree they tapped. To ensure that everyone paid up, the government appointed an administrator at a monthly salary of R30, assisted by four inspectors (monthly salary: R10)—the predecessors of the bureaucrats who have struck fear among the city’s contemporary party set. Over the decades, the system would constantly be tinkered with, as the government vacillated between auctioning all the trees on public land and charging the Bhandaris per tree they worked. The government also widened its sources of revenue by taxing the distillation, import and sale of liquor.

By the early 19th century, abkari was the Bombay government’s second-largest source of revenue, after land. The riots of 1811 where started by the Bhandaris after the government decided to collect the toddy tax itself, rather than obtaining it through agents, as had previously been the practice, writes Mariam Dossal in her painstakingly researched book Mumbai: Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope. The government collector, the Bhandaris claimed, was much more inflexible in his dealings, refusing to lower taxes when production dropped or to let them “exchange a dry tree for a wet one”. As Dossal notes, the city’s first land surveys were conducted with the aim of establishing how much abkari could be assured from its coconut, brab and date palms.

That spirit of revenue-maximisation from tree-climbing times continues to infuse the regulations that circumscribe the nightlife of 21st-century Mumbai. The Bombay Abkari Act introduced in 1878 stayed in operation until 1949, and its emphasis on vigilance against violators continues to dominate the Maharashtra state excise department’s attitude to its job. Though Maharashtra imposed a rigorous state of prohibition in 1950, the rules were amended in 1973 to allow anyone with a permit to consume alcohol—a relaxation encouraged by the powerful sugarcane lobby, which realised that there was money to be earned from converting its molasses into rum and other varieties of that intoxicating paradox, Indian Made Foreign Liquor. The state Gazetteer delicately explains the volte face thus: “The [prohibition] policy proved ineffective as the law could not check effectively the drinking habits of the people. The lack of social education was one of the major factors responsible for this failure.” But all was not lost, for the Gazetteer adds that the decision to allow firms in the state to manufacture IMFL “checked the production of country liquor by illicit methods [and] resulted in increased revenue due to excise”.

Mumbai’s eagerness for regulating liquor has been matched only by its passion for attempting to control the sex trade. From the police regulation in 1812 (the year after the Bhandari riots), requiring the authorities to make lists of brothels and the prostitutes who worked there, to the Contagious Diseases Act of 1870, prohibiting prostitution by unregistered women, to the Bombay Devadasi Protection Act of 1934, aimed at eradicating the practice of dedicating women to temple deities, the authorities have always had sex on their minds. And yet, as Ashwimi Tambe points out in her book Codes of Misconduct: Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay, the city’s sex trade has expanded enormously over the past century.

Indicative of this are the salacious books about the city’s delights that proliferated in the mid-20th century. They include Allen Ross’s Bombay After Dark (“The most whispered about city in the world! Its exotic sex practices put the Kama Sutra…to shame”), Captain FD Colaabavala’s Bombay By Night (“Swinging city of the East, Bombay sizzles after dark. It is a riot of fun and sex in the raw”) and Benedict Costa’s Bombay: The Twilight Zone (“A factual and shocking account of Bombay, once the Pearl of the Orient and now a den of vice, rape [and] prostitution…”)

But these chroniclers of the dark side aside, Mumbaikars have long been alarmed by the devadasis, courtesans and other women of the night who have made the city their home. That’s evident from the biography of Mumbai that the prolific author Govind Narayan wrote in 1863. “Dancing girls have cast an eclipse of sorts on Bharat Khand,” he grumbled, his complaints excellently translated by Murali Ranganathan as Govind Narayan’s Mumbai. “Women of the loose sort are spread all over Mumbai…These ladies have become very rich and do not listen to anybody.”

Six years after Narayan wrote his book, city administrators had something new to worry about. “Before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the foreign prostitute from Eastern Europe was practically unknown in Bombay and such immorality as it existed was confined to women of Eurasian or Indian parentage,” SM Edwardes noted in his 1923 work, The Bombay City Police. The establishment of regular steamer-communication, he rued, had brought “the riff-raff of Europe” to the city. So many of these European women found their way to brothels on Cursetji Sukhlaji Street in central Mumbai’s Kamathipura area, that it came to be known as safed gully or white lane. Though Eastern European escorts have since found new locations from which to operate, Kamathipura and Falkland Street nearby continue to house many brothels, and are rarely subjected to the sorts of raids that the city’s bars and restaurants have come to fear.

Looking through the official records, it’s easy to explain the enthusiasm Mumbai’s authorities have shown in controlling booze even as they turn a blind eye to the notorious cages of Falkland Road and Kamathipura: sex is only about morality but liquor, in a city obsessed by the bottom line, is, after all, about money.