On vigils, vigilance and vigilantes

On April 15, as patrons peacefully sipped what I presume were glasses of juice, an unstoppable force met a very movable object. I’m talking about a hockey stick and a hapless juice center owner. The man at the other end of that hockey schtick, wielding it more deftly than Shah Rukh Khan did with Chak De, was Satan-incarnate, preserver of India’s moral values and guardian of the country’s feminine modesty, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Vasant Raghunath Dhoble (Social Service Branch).

Next up, Hurricane Dhoble hit bars and nightclubs in Mumbai to deal with the menace of prostitution. A ripple of fear ran through Mumbai’s already harrassed citizens, just trying to have a good time after having spent four hours getting to destinations two miles from their houses.

In June his hockey stick of justice turned up at Masala Curry restaurant where he detained eleven women (falsely, as it turns out) on charges of prostitution. The Courts ruled that he had followed the rule book and the police action was valid. The women were let off with a warning by the judge and wholesome advice to stay at home, make chapatis and press the husband’s (you’re not married yet? WHAT DO YOU MEAN? SHOW KUNDALI! GET MARRIED!) feet once he returns from office.

Hide yo women, hide yo straggling patrons, show yo permits, cuz ACP Dhoble’s comin for you violators.

The last two or three months have catapulted this humble policeman with modest offices in Mumbai’s Crawford Bazaar to national infamy. ACP Dhoble only answers to four entitities –  god, his superiors, The Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act and the Bombay Shops and Establishments Act (1948 – drafted a year after independence). By his own admission, he doesn’t give a fuck about what people think of him. And people do think a lot about him. When news of the Amar Juice Center overcrowding raid broke, Twitter in India almost collapsed under the weight of the outrage. “High-handed”, “overzealous”, “Taliban-cop” were some of the monikers reserved for Morality Mama. I too, managed to get a couple of disdainful comments in, but lost interest as the story died down.

A few days later I was debating the high-handedness of auto-rickshaw drivers and the subject of archaic laws, regulations and their enforcement came up.  Dhoble figured prominently in the examples. Today, I read about an Anti-Dhoble stir led by a Shehbaaz Khan, who vented his outrage by demanding that the Mumbai Police concentrate on stemming the flow of drugs at the “source” instead of penalizing blameless citizens just looking to puff the magic dragon for a few hours. (As another hilarious aside, a bunch of Youth Congress activists also demanded that Rahul Gandhi deal with Dhoble’s morality policing. *MEGASMIRK* Rahul baba couldn’t hear them over his humming of the Britney Spears classic “Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman”, his song of hope for the last decade or so.)

It was at this point that a weak zero-watt bulb started glowing in my head. Yes, the laws are archaic, yes the man’s moral stance is ridiculous and high-handed, his procedures border on police brutality, but in Dhoble’s own words “I was just doing my job”. Instead of tackling the laws that empower Dhoble to do his job, we’re attacking Dhoble. To be fair, Mr. Shehbaaz Khan’s protest did demand “amendments to archaic laws”, but the larger objective was to go after the messenger. Hey, Dhoble does deserve a bit of stick, preferably his own, for the way he has behaved in some of these raids. But then he was just doing his job.

Let’s concentrate on that for a moment. He was just doing his job.

Now rewind to another ridiculous circus played out a year ago, when a physically frail but ideologically superhuman entity called Anna Hazare was taken for a glorious ride, replete with fasts, Arindam Chaudhuri’s histrionics and a national movement that threatened to engulf Parliament. The misguided zealots wanted to establish an extra-constitutional body called the Lokpal which would magically eradicate corruption by making wrong-doers taste justice at the hands of
vigilantes. Sorry, what was that? They weren’t vigilantes? Wha…oh MEMBERS OF CIVIL SOCIETY you say. My bad. Correction people, the judgments would be handed down by morally upright, distinguished folk – Magsaysay Award winners, Nobel Prize winners (the 2009 Peace Prize winner operates drones, FYI), etc.

WE WANT CHANGE! cried the thirsty masses. We should do something. This is something. So we should do it.

I understood the irritation – systems aren’t working because they aren’t being enforced. Or, you need to grease palms to get the ball rolling. It’s fucking frustrating. That said, the Constitution is a darn good system and I’m sure many Anna supporters would agree it is.

What India needs (my apologies for such a sweeping statement but what else is there to say?), are more people who just do their fucking job and do it well.  Like ACP Dhoble. Laws need to be changed and they can be changed. There are provisions to do so. Haranguing the messenger is pointless (there are many articles that concentrate solely on Dhoble’s past misdemeanors; playing the man, not the ball). Burn that fucking Establishments Act (1948) to cinders and amend the law to explicitly state that seven thousand revelers are allowed to pack a ten square foot space by standing on top of one another because they’re fucking happy and you should just fucking understand. OK, GRANDPA?!

If that happened, I’m pretty sure Dhoble would stop by, consult the amended rulebook, count carefully to six thousand nine hundred ninety nine, ensure he is off duty and join in with a glass of sugarcane juice (he’s a teetotaler).

And hey, just to prove to you guys he’s not all guts and bloodied carbon fiber composites, he apparently arranged a mass wedding of six bar girls he rescued and paid 50,000 Rs from his own pocket. Awwww!

Here’s to better Dhobles enforcing better systems.

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20 responses to “On vigils, vigilance and vigilantes”

  1. Sahil says :

    Archaic laws are one thing, people willing to implement (hopefully) amended laws are another thing & citizens willing to follow the (hopefully amended) laws are totally another thing.

  2. sumeet says :

    Haha, personal values trump code of online debate. Thank you too.

  3. sumeet says :

    Absolutely. If your personal values tell you that torturing a suspect is wrong but your supervisor ordered you to do it, quit or shirk. Shirking is a damn good excuse if your job duty involves injustice.

    Anyway, my view (impossible to prove) is that Dhoble is a case (a) where there simply is no moral dilemma as far as he is concerned. To me that’s a basket case. Culpable.

    Re: Nazis, I am not implicating the “nation”. I am implicating Nazi party members, police, SS officers etc. each of which, had they used a functioning moral compass, should have shirked instead of dutifully carrying out orders (including suppressing dissent). “My service oath obliged me to hurt or kill innocents” is an unacceptable excuse. Nuremberg did not find monsters in human form. Nuremberg found dutiful employees and bureaucrats.

    • daddysan says :

      Didn’t mean to imply the nation was culpable, I quoted it as consequence. You’re right, Nuremberg found dutiful employees but there was a point at which personal morality should’ve intervened and they should’ve shirked.

      Point taken on Dhoble but then our judgment of him as a basket case is based on our own personal assessment that the law he was upholding is insane (it is). My contention is that he doesn’t care one way or another. Amend the law to legalize prostitution and he’ll be okay with it.

  4. sumeet says :

    I have not yet fully thought this through and there may be some holes in this. Plus there are many more thoughts in my head which need to be put down. But here is a start:

    Why does Dhoble and his violent enforcement of the written law deserve our scorn?
    Also, I have often heard people say “keep morality out of it” or “a law enforcement officer cannot make value judgments”. Here is an answer.

    Let us assume two possible premises:

    a) He believes that he is doing the right thing and that the people he arrests/threatens are engaging in a morally impermissible act. Plus that is his job. OR

    b) He does not believe they are doing anything wrong and that in fact the written law he is about to enforce is unjust, but he is fulfilling his duty to be true to his job.

    If (a), then he deserves all our scorn because he is wrong about the impermissibility of the actions of his victims.

    (b) is based on the premise that he has been entrusted with a responsibility to enforce the written law independent of his personal ethical values. He has taken an oath to that effect when he joined service. However, even the oath presupposes an a priori moral obligation to uphold that oath, i.e. even a written contract presupposes an a priori moral obligation – a promise to keep a promise.

    Hence, he is merely making a judgment whereby he values his moral obligation to his job higher than his moral obligation to be just (remember, he considers the law itself to be unjust). Either way, it is not possible to argue around the fact that he is making an ethical value judgment. It is absurd to “keep morality” out of it.

    Hence, in case (b) as well, he deserves our scorn because he values his moral obligation to his oath of office higher than his moral duty towards justice (which itself may or may not in fact be part of his oath of office, further weakening his case).

    Either way, he deserves our scorn.

    • daddysan says :

      Two thoughts.

      1. In part (a) when you add the “plus, he’s doing his job”, that supersedes his personal moral stance

      2. In part (b), he values his moral obligation to his job more, which exists to for a higher cause (we can debate whether the tenets it upholds are worth upholding) – namely protecting society. Thus, his moral choice to obey an oath which positively (?) impacts society gets precedence over his own personal morality about the law.

      In the second case he’s making the better of the two moral choices. (As you rightly point out, we all eventually end up making moral choices.)

      Thus, he doesn’t deserve scorn for his choice. If at all, he deserves scorn for his behavior which I feel isn’t the consequence of his morals but his personality. Think of Anna Hazare and his belt-whipping ways. He’s a Gandhian, moral, upright and many other positives. But culture, upbringing and personality also play a big role.

      Does this make sense?

      • sumeet says :

        My assumption is that we are discussing a law that is unjust.

        Hence, in (a) the fact that his personal values coincide with his job duties
        of enforcing the unjust law mean he is culpable no matter what. End of story.

        In (b), he gives moral precedence to his job over justice. Hence culpable.

        Therefore, based on my assumption of the unjust law, he is culpable no matter what.

        Now you could argue that the law was just or at least that a woman drinking alcohol is a subjective value. Then my question is, what is the level of unambiguous injustice at which you would find it permissible to stop giving moral precedence to job duties?

        Suppose the law made it a punishable offence to have red coloured hair. Would that be unjust enough for him to subordinate his job duties to justice? Suppose the law made it punishable to be gay? At what level of injustice does the order of moral precedence change in your view?

        I know the Nazi example lacks proportion. But ad absurdum is a good way of seeing the logical conclusions of one’s reasoning. Hence the Nazi example and hence the question asking what level of injustice is enough to switch moral precedence.

      • daddysan says :

        True, but in case 2, every cop is then guilty of enforcing a law they have no ability to change themselves. Should we still hold them culpable?

        Indeed, the question is at what point should personal morality trump existing obligations to uphold unjust laws. The Nazi example is fine as a hypothetical argument, not as a “it has happened before”. That was mass delusion where a country was kept in the dark, brainwashed and dissent, which is usually the path to changing unjust practices, wasn’t tolerated.

  5. Rahul says :

    A cop is bound by the writ of the law and he has to enforce it, and when he “enforces” it, perhaps a bit of high-handedness (hockey sticks?) will always creep in.

    The problem is not Dhoble, as you’ve rightly pointed out in the post, but the laws that many find are ‘ass’.

    So if a law is ass, what should a cop do?

    Do we want the police officer to ignore the law? A senior journalist, and many others perhaps, would prefer that to happen – https://twitter.com/BDUTT/status/216788118806872065 – a solution that could be dangerous.

    It’s not a cop’s duty to interpret the law and decide if it’s ass.

    Remember a big outrage on TV when a cop in Uttar Pradesh was alleged to have supported ‘honor killing’? That cop applied his own mind and thought that the laws that enable girls to choose life-partners was an ass. (Most cops do find anti-dowry laws ass and have not been enforcing it for ages, especially in the Hindi states. Won’t we love a Dhoble taking a hockey stick to grooms’ families there?)

    In fact, if we ask cops to bring in value judgments before enforcing a law, we’d be asking for another kind of moral policing.

    Perhaps Dhoble can be accused of ‘police activism’ as many people accuse courts of going overboard with ‘judicial activism’ when courts starts taking suo-moto actions.

    However, a cop has to take suo-moto actions. If he sees a street-fight happening, we can’t really expect him to act only after someone files an FIR. (And I guess most of the offenses have been made cognizable by our laws, which empowers police to act without any FIR or warrant; maybe a person with legal knowledge can better explain the problem here)

    Perhaps we should accept that Dhoble has done us a favor by letting us know that we need to remove the ass-ness from some laws. And in that sense, yes, we need more Dhobles!

    • daddysan says :

      Thanks Rahul. The subject of when a person’s personal morals should overrule his oath to uphold the law is a difficult one. I’ve discussed this in detail with Sumeet below and it’s increasingly apparent (and you’ve pointed this out too) that no matter what your seniority, personal judgments can never be kept out of the picture.

      Apropos of my conversation with Sumeet, assuming the law is a “bad” law, whether the cop upholds the rule of law or uses his own morality, in both cases his choice will be based on his personal morals. Such is the pitfall of attaching morals to contracts.

  6. bajit says :

    On a lighter note, I’m not sure if you’ve seen this Simpsons episode:
    http://www.cucirca.com/2010/01/11/the-simpsons-season-8-episode-18-homer-vs-the-eighteenth-amendment/
    Very relevant w.r.t to this topic.
    Ajit.

  7. bajit says :

    Hi Daddy_san, your style of writing is pretty cool. So nice post from that pt. of view :)

    I think you’ve tried to compare the dhoble incident to the anna hazare ‘aandolan’ last year. However, I don’t think that comparison is valid.

    Anna’s method was inherently peaceful and it gained public support on its own, i.e. no common man was ‘forced’ to join the movement. But I think the key factor here is that whether ppl supported anna or not, they supported the cause, i.e. eradication of corruption. The disagreement was w.r.t the method of accomplishing it. Do correct me if I’m mistaken. With Dhoble, ppl are neither supporting the cause (be it an archaic law or its enforcement) nor the method of enforcement.

    Sure, Dhoble was enacting an archaic law, but does he always enact/enforce laws, a.k.a ‘do his job’ CONSISTENTLY? It’s this ‘selective’ application of laws as per convenience by officials in positions of great responsibility and power that is as disconcerting as some of the archaic laws themselves. What happens to those who are raped, molested and even died under his custody? Males and females alike. I believe some of the detainees in this case (women) had ample documentation to suggest that they were regular folks not engaging in prostitution. But again, the government doesn’t provide a card with a seal reading “not a whore” no? Something one could produce anytime when a police officer raids and questions one’s character.

    Of course, I’m using Dhoble as an example to make a point about law enforcement officers. I can tell from my personal experience after being chased by a couple of goons on a two-wheeler how pathetic some of these police officers are. They had the goons on a platter and they let them go…scot free. It was a pretty gut wrenching moment. But well, what are you gonna do?

    It is tough for our Constitution to spell out every single detail on the law as well as how exactly it should be enforced. I mean it can’t say ‘you can’t bend your arms to lift the lathi beyond 15 degrees or your action is illegal’ so it is left to the individual officer to enforce the law with some common sense. And that’s where a ton of subjectivity creeps in. And IMO that is precisely why people are outraging over Dhoble’s actions.

    So no, I don’t want Dhobles. I want ppl who are consistent in terms of law enforcement. Maybe ppl with a bit of Dhoble in them (i.e. guts), but not completely Dhobles.

    Ajit (ajit_bhaskar).

    • daddysan says :

      Great perspective Ajit, thanks. A clarification – I’m not comparing Anna’s campaign with Dhoble’s in terms of its execution. I’m saying that Dhoble’s work ethic negates the need for Anna’s agitation which is at best, a knee jerk reaction to long-standing and frustrating corruption. The point I was trying to make is, if everyone decided to look at their own responsibilities, stopped shirking them, carried them out to a “T” and most importantly, stopped telling the other person how to do his, we have a well-oiled machine which does not need corruption to power it. Instead of inculcating a better ethic, Anna’s team chose to add an extra layer of perhaps, equally useless and corrupt people as vigilantes. That is wrong.

      The other question is – in which direction would this well-oiled machine move? Folks have repeatedly been quoting the Nazis as an example of misguided work ethic. Personally, I’m surprised at the lack of proportion in their arguments. I agree there are laws worth changing. If laws of alcohol prohibition were followed to the letter, we’d be sitting at home every evening sipping orange juice.

      The Nazis galvanized a downtrodden nation with powerful rhetoric and focused their efforts towards the wrong objectives. They preached racial superiority and extermination of jews. I don’t see any such extremities anywhere in the Indian Constitution. There are bad laws and there are those that cause genocide. Let me know if India has ever drafted one of those and I’ll accede the Nazi point.

      • bajit says :

        I think the analogy between man and machine (particularly b/c a machine is the best possible tool to execute things down to the T) can only go so far, because in your own words, ‘work ethic’ comes into picture. That itself brings in a lot of subjectivity and individual interpretation. This is not the case with any machine. (Artificial intelligence etc could be brought into discussion but I’ll refrain from doing so for the sake of simplicity).

        But the issue with ‘carrying out instructions to the T’ is who will stand up and ask: “isn’t this regressive?” THAT is where a man and machine differ.

        I don’t want to bring Nazi-ism into the picture although it is safe to say that it is a more ‘autocratic’ machinery rather than ‘democratic’. Also, with India, I think some of the religious customs are more relevant w.r.t our cultural milieu. For instance, dowry, Sati and tons of other regressive customs were (and maybe ARE) taking place until it reached a point when the government decided to declare them illegal.

        The two examples I’ve cited have cause a lot of deaths and a lot of pain to our country. In terms of a ‘law’ i think there is one about property inheritance to just the male children in case one dies w/o a will or something (not a 100% but i think it is pretty male-oriented). Once again a fairly regressive way to go.

        You’re spot on about the need for everyone to look after their own responsibilities. IF that happened, India would be a much better place. But the thing is, isn’t the government, the law enforcement officers/bodies supposed to set a shining example? That is clearly not the case with us.

        Simple example: I get caught speeding. In the US – cop gives a ticket, no questions asked, I pay the money online, case closed unless i wish to appeal it and there is a well established procedure for that which works like a charm. In India – bribe. Things are improving but let’s not deny that bribing still exists. WHY? Where is that shining example that our government is supposed to set? By doing what Dhoble and his superiors did, what kind of example are they setting? Also, does the law forbid Dhoble from asking questions? Is it illegal for him to ask his boss “dude, isn’t this archaic law retarded?” This is where one’s inner (stereotypical) conservative self shows up. I believe that’s what happened with Dhoble. I may not be able to prove this with stats and facts but that’s my argument.

        And when a poor example is set, awful things ensue. Tax evasion by the filthy rich (in the name of ‘loopholes’), cheating in tenders for govt. contracts are just the tip of the iceberg. When the govt officials are venal, why wouldn’t a wealthy man exploit them for personal gains? Had the government set an example where (by and large) one couldn’t get away with such things, we’d be doing a lot better.

        So with humans, it is not possible to expect a well oiled machinery where things are done to the T because ‘morals’ and ‘values’ do not lie on the two dimensional plane of sheer logic and rationality. There is a third dimension called ’emotion’ and that brings in a lot of subjectivity and personal bias.

        What Dhoble did wasn’t wrong in terms of following instructions, but I think we expect our officers to have the nous to question things PRIOR to carrying out instructions to the T. And Dhoble is not some random hawaldar, he’s the ACP so yes, that’s why I’m upset with him. He is the one supposed to be setting a shining example.

        Also, is he allowed to enact laws as per his will? (Genuine question. Is he not supposed to ask his superior “hey dude, i found this law in this old book and i feel like enforcing it. May I?”).

        Sorry for the rather long comment but I guess the subject is such ;)

  8. Dhaval Rawal says :

    1. Balance coalition; stay in power
    2. Improve economy
    3. Reform Judiciary/Police/Public Services.

    In decreasing order of focus I don’t see the existing or future government getting to #3 anytime soon. Would we want to enforce a senseless rules till then?

    I don’t have solution per se.. Once late night a patrolling cop made the the most apt remark, “Itna bada city hai, kanoon se kaise chalega, police ko aur public ko adjustment karna padega na”.

    • daddysan says :

      That cop got it right. There are ridiculous laws that can shackle our freedom and progress if cops start getting anal about them.

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