Even goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it, Mumbai’s hapless lovers might have pleaded à la Cole Porter. The police had been picking them up in droves recently, and fining them for obscenity and indecent exposure. Nearly 30 couples taking the air at Bandstand, Carter Road and Marine Lines have been booked under the Bombay Police Act. Far from being cowed by such puritan discipline, most of these young people are furious. Men and women have both spoken out sharply and fearlessly against such a humiliating violation of their adult liberties. There is something prurient and unsavoury about over-zealous law-keepers watching over and then actually swooping down on young people who might be sitting out, and perhaps even canoodling a bit, in parks and beaches. It is also exhilarating to see these harassed people taking a firm stand against the police and eventually having their way, at least to some extent.
But the entire situation has now taken a rather hilarious turn with the Mumbai police deciding to draw up strict codes of conduct for these places. “Hugging and kissing” will be allowed, but should not lead to unrestrained passion or anything that might embarrass passers-by. Sign-boards with instructions in “clear, well-defined language” are going to be put up everywhere for the benefit of the young in one another’s arms. It ought to be difficult for all healthily sexed and socialized adults to take such things seriously, particularly when marauders like the Shiv Sena take up cudgels for them. Intrusions into personal liberty by the state seriously undermines the spirit of a mature democracy. Yet, “moral policing” is not simply a matter of the control of public spaces by the law and order machinery. It is inseparable from the bounds to privacy, dignity and freedom experienced by an individual at home, within the family. In a city like Mumbai, where living spaces are shrinking steadily, and in a society where most young adults live with their family, being able to get away from the public gaze takes on an urgency that could easily be made to look sordid.