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The Rediff Special/Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Mumbai
April 26, 2005
For Mumbai's lovebirds, the men in khaki -- no friendly figure to begin with -- have taken on a more sinister air following last week's rape of a 16-year-old girl by a policeman.
On April 21, constable Sunil Atmaram More summoned the girl and her friend, who were strolling on ritzy Marine Drive in south Mumbai, to his chowky, intimidated the boys into leaving and raped her.
The incident has shocked Mumbai residents out of their customary chalta hai attitude. For couples, especially, it has injected extra fear, for very often they are at the receiving end of the policeman's zeal to enforce the law that bans 'indecent' behaviour in public places.
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"I regularly visit parks and cozy corners with my girlfriend. I fear the police can pick us up for no reason and harass us as they have been doing with others. The policemen have too much power and they can do anything to ordinary citizens," says Amit Shah.
Section 110 of the Mumbai Police Act says 'any 'indecent' behaviour in public places, including kissing, putting arms around the neck or reclining on your companion's lap, is punishable.' The fine for being let off on bail is Rs 1,250.
If the 'offenders' don't pay up, they are taken into custody for a day. The next day, they are produced before a magistrate, who decides on the punishment which could go up to seven days' imprisonment.
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For young at heart Mumbaikars, there is a unusual problem that forces them into the open: the city's legendary squeeze on space. With crowded homes, the letup often is public places like the park, beach etc.
Says Shah, "I had absolutely no idea that such laws exist. If two married people do not have a place in the city they might want to spend time in the park. Now, if I put my hand around my wife's shoulders I don't think anybody should have an objection to that. I think this law must be amended."
Salim Shaikh, another regular at Mumbai's green spots, says. "I agree that kissing in public places should be banned, but there should be warnings about it. How are couples expected to follow the law when there are no notice boards put up in public places?"
"Eunuchs bother people at public places in Mumbai," he adds, "and now we have to fear policemen too. When a policeman tells us to accompany him for questioning we have no other option but to go along. The fear of our parents forces us to follow the policeman quietly."
In 2002, in a highly publicised affair, the police arrested 30 couples for obscenity at Mumbai's 'love spot', Bandra Bandstand, and fined them Rs 1,250 each, and let them go after taking down their address and checking out their relationship. Though most of the couples were either married or engaged, the police defended the action by stating that the entire exercise was to protect the couples from robbers. The police also said local residents had complained about obscenity in the area.
Shrikant Khalap, who frequently visits parks with his girlfriend, remembers that incident all too well.
"On one hand we talk of India as a nation of youngsters. And here we have a law that says a 21-year-old boy can't put his arms around his 18-year-old girlfriend in public places. If I do that, I will be arrested. What kind of law is this? We have been declared as adults by the Constitution. I think it is high time we change such laws and don't give the police too much of power."