In recent years, Mumbai’s reputation as a city that is kind to revellers has taken a hit as it has become increasingly prone to giving in to its illiberal impulses. The hockey-stick-wielding cop Vasant Dhoble’s rampage through the city’s bars and nightclubs last year in an ostensible attempt to rid it of all hints of moral degeneracy, and the state’s love-hate relationship with dance bars, are but two examples of Mumbai’s much-vaunted cosmopolitanism coming up against its apparently widening puritanical streak and losing. In a modest attempt to reclaim some urban spaces, the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation, along with the home department, has hired a consulting firm to study the state’s archaic hospitality laws and suggest a legal framework more befitting a modern city.
It was some of Maharashtra’s outdated laws that lent a patina of legitimacy to Dhoble’s crusade. For instance, Dhoble invoked an old rule that stated only 10 couples were allowed on a dance floor at one time to raid establishments. Another obscure rule exhumed by Dhoble permits only 78 people in a 500-sq-ft establishment and 166 in a 1,000-sq-ft enclosure. So Dhoble’s efforts to preserve the moral integrity of Mumbai were technically well within his remit.
Mumbai, of course, creates an enabling environment for such archaic laws to be dug up and used in a context that has far outpaced them, but such absurd pieces of legislation exist on the statute books elsewhere, in the country too. But although India has had several reports by law commissions recommending the repeal of outdated laws passed before 1947, these have gone unimplemented, leaving many forgotten, and repressive, laws on the books for a Dhoble to uncover, much to our consternation. Last year, the UK struck off some 800 laws, some dating to the 14th century, including one covering the Indian Railways. What absurdities might we uncover if we were to undertake a similar exercise?