The arrest of more than 40 couples from hotels in Mumbai on charges of “indecent behaviour in public” got me thinking about an experience I had six years ago that I have long tried to forget, and what exactly constitutes public indecency.
In 2009, on a perfectly normal sunny day, I left my home in Mumbai to go to college. While I was fighting the usual battle of finding an auto-rickshaw, a man riding a motorcycle stopped near me. I looked at him, confused, and he signalled for me to look down. And there it was – his penis.
Scared to death, I screamed: “Kya kar rahe ho (What are you doing)?!” Before I could react further, he smiled and drove off. I had barely came to terms with what had happened when he came back, shoved his motorcycle in my face, made me look again and rode away.
I started crying hysterically, and people from shops around came to ask me what had happened. I couldn’t talk, I was speechless and traumatised.
The news of the arrest on Saturday of the
, who were consenting adults wanting some privacy, made me realise that while the police went throwing their moral weight around, the idea of decent behaviour in public is violated every single day.
India has always debated subjective terms like obscenity, vulgarity and decency and the couples arrested from hotels at Aksa Beach and Madh Island were insulted, harassed, fined and detained for five hours because someone thought wanting some privacy in this setting amounted to public indecency.
My experience with the “indecent” man took place barely twenty steps from a police station.
Hey, Mumbai Police, which of the two is more publicly indecent?
Let’s also look at the general picture before delving into legal details. If two people can produce proof of identity, there is no law under which they cannot be given a room in a hotel. Keeping that aside, what about official trips? If a woman and a man share a hotel room on an official trip, need they be kicked out too?
Police arrested the couples under Section 110 of the Bombay Police Act that covers indecent behaviour in public. But how does booking a hotel room come under public indecency?
Adnan Shaikh, a Mumbai-based advocate, said under Section 110, it is for the police to decide what is indecent.
"However, if you take it to a court of law with respect to this incident, where the hotel room was considered a public place, it is difficult for the people arrested to be convicted in court. So it will not be difficult for the couples to prove that this was a private enclosure and they paid for it," he said.
SB Amin, another lawyer, said if the hotels have a lodging license, there is no reason to raid them. “Hotels need to have a license for lodging. If they have the required documents, their lodges are not an illegal business. So that leaves no room for raids to be conducted.”
Shreyas Amin, a law graduate, said the fine the couples paid too can be challenged in court and a case filed. “A person who has been arrested without violation of the law can file a writ petition for illegal detention. Even if they were let off after a couple of hours, it is illegal detention. In this case, people can file a writ petition in the high court as a group.”
He added: “The cops acted beyond their jurisdiction.”
So where was this patrolling for indecency when a 22-year-old photojournalist was raped by five men on her first assignment in Mumbai? Where was this kind of vigilance when I had the run-in with the flasher while I was just looking for an auto-rickshaw?
It is disappointing that our priorities are so messed up when it comes to distinguishing between crime and consent. Prioritising what the police should watch over is a desperate need today, because indecency may be a subjective term but sexual harassment is not.
(The views expressed by the writer are personal. She tweets as @BeingFeline)