Mumbai's police have sought to put an end to bar girls dancing before paying patrons. They would like us to believe that this action is somehow an effort to maintain high standards of public morality.
Evidently, the powers-that-be have decided that gyrating hips aren't the only activity customers are paying for, and the bars are really dens of prostitution masquerading as innocuous entertainment. No one disputes this, which is why the criticism has been so ready, fast and furious. The news media's social commentators have been quick to slam this ill-advised move; their views have varied between stern advice to the authorities to end this fruitless exercise, and lampooning the moralising ministers as throwbacks to an ancient era. Certainly, the critics are right to point out that human sexual conduct must not be subject to the prudence of every come-lately minister.
But what can we say of public morality itself? Or of policing it?
The interesting characters in this debate are not the bar girls, or the government ministers who thought up this distraction - such as it surely is from the various other shortcomings of the administration. The central characters are instead the onlookers - citizens like us. We are being asked to ignore weighty questions: what is public morality, should it be regulated, by whom, and how? Instead, our endorsement or opposition to the ongoing events is sought in a very narrowly defined space - the personal sexual conduct of a particular section of the population. Our morality lens is not being trained over our larger society itself, even though there are issues of much greater importance there.
Most of us would recognise that plenty of indecent conditions persist in our society. These are also not very different from the bar-girls issue. If our antagonism to sexual conduct at the dancing bars rests upon a sense of moral outrage at the goings-on, then it is fair to ask where such outrage is when other publicly-endorsed standards for decency are flouted. The fact that the puffery is limited to convenient targets - in this case bar girls doubling up as hookers - suggests that the issue isn't morality at all. Instead, it is simply a case of administrators and legislators milking our egos to boost their political fortunes, suggesting that 'good folks like us' cannot really be mute witnesses to the debauchery around us.
Why are our publicly held/debated notions of morality limited to a few things such as the world of those castigated as sexual outliers? Is that the full extent of our understanding of decency? What happened to truth-telling, fairness, respect for nature, and countless other exhortations that we, the same 'good folks' present our children as they grow up? Why are these not talked of and tackled with the same energy? The cynics will say, "that's how it is", but partly, the fault lies in our public discourse - a discourse that has turned conversations about morality itself into rare events. There are reasons for this.
One, the original understanding of personal and public good can often be traced back to religion; in every culture the gods themselves expected the faithful to adhere to high standards of virtue. But many religious leaders now are more concerned with placing limits upon others, rather than hold themselves to serving their gods. A long list of deviant behaviour by self-professed sadhus, mullahs, priests and others has also worn the religious facade thin. Eventually, some citizens have simply tired of this, so much so that any opportunity for religious figureheads to set the standards for public virtues isn't seen seriously.
Two, on the other side of the political spectrum, many have decided that all morality is relative and personal, and are uncomfortable with public advocacy of morality - especially given its connections to religion - as the premise of the good society. The Left which has made significant contributions India's discourse on human development, uses all the right words - justice, fairness, equity, tolerance, etc. - but usually does not refer to these in terms of their obvious foundations in morality and decency. This may be a fallout of looking too much to the West. Western liberals have always been reluctant to talk about their values in terms of morality. Still, in the West's case, an independent duality of liberal vs. conservative moralities has become established over time and is publicly talked about within the citizenship itself. Liberals and conservatives with well known support bases in their societies regularly oppose each other with their values in much of western political discourse.
But there is no evidence that this deeper duality is either central or organic to the Indian situation. Despite this, since 1947, we have merely layered our emphasis on pluralism and inclusiveness over our otherwise complex society; our secularism has not contributed to broadening and deepening the moral values debate, an unfortunate loss in an otherwise laudable journey of progress in civil rights for all. In our homes, we seem to teach both conservative morality (i.e. unquestioned obedience to authority, even 'caste' if you will) as much as select liberal virtues (i.e. don't cut trees) to our children. Growing up into taxpayers, these do not add up very well. In fact, little about the average Indian family's morality preferences is systematically understood (the way it is in the West) and this lacuna does not help.
This explains why it is easy for the moral police to step in when they like. With large sections of the population withdrawing - or forced out - of the debates, the only ones remaining to offer any moral 'guidance' are the opportunists. To them, the bar girls are simply fodder in a battle for power; they are quite happy to limit their advocacy of probity to this limited arena, and confident that nearly everyone else will remain on the sidelines, not sure how to engage in broader conversations about morality. The same police who would close down the entertainment dens think nothing of wrecking the shacks and huts that pass for homes for tens of thousands of others; the divergence between their professed - and ultimately pointless - righteousness in tackling the bars and apparent callousness in uprooting the poor is striking, and certainly not moral.
There can be no expectation of justice or fairness (even in policing wrongdoing) if there is no equal expectation of moral conduct placed on individuals or society. For better or worse, there is such a thing as 'better' or 'worse'; the debate over what these are may be inconclusive, but that is not to say that the answers do not exist. For the time being at least, we remain a society where citizens have not found a substantive moral, even if debated, common ground that can guide our public officials and policies. This will change only when conversations about public morality happen more often, not less. Selective protests or acquiescence in the face of particular police action is not only ineffectual in addressing the problems we recognise, it is also an admission that our moral outrage is shallow.
Really, there is only one good way to talk about the dancing bars. We've got to talk about everything else that makes up our ideas of morality, and ask what we expect of ourselves in those other things too.