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.