IT, BT and Bangalore's Moral Economy

Not long after Bangalore's new police commissioner came into power, the city's usually reticent middle classes came out onto the streets. Designers, fashion photographers, artists and, strikingly, a girl in a big top hat beating a pair of bongo drums, gathered at the meeting of two of Bangalore's arterial roads. Playing various musical instruments, they launched a brief but heart-felt campaign called "Bengaluru Bleeding."

They were protesting what many of them called the "Talibanisation" of Bangalore. The new police commissioner, appointed by a recently-formed right-wing BJP government, had zealously begun implementing a High Court order to properly enforce the state's Police Act and an over 40-year-old Excise Act. According to these, without the proper licenses there could be no live music, dancing or live DJ'ing in places that served alcohol. There would also have to be a strict adherence to an 11:30 p.m. closure deadline for pubs and bars. For the protesters, these curbs meant pretty much the end of the exercise of civil liberties as they knew them.

None of these rules are new, and in enforcing them, Police Commissioner Shankar Bidari says he "merely imposed the law of the land" impartially. But in his impartiality, he included the city's upmarket bars and pubs in the same sweep of policing efforts imposed upon the live bands, cabarets and floor shows that are entertainment for the other, not-so-upmarket public. This coupling deepened an already marked wedge between the city's affluent professionals and its others.

To get a sense of the spectrum of Bangalore's entertainment options: At one of the private upmarket bars, frequented by Bangalore's expatriate population and designer, student or corporate crowd, a martini could cost you Rs. 300 (approximately $6). As you sip it, you might nod to electronica, lounge, rock, or 80s disco, often depending on what night of the week it is. On the other hand, at a live band bar the music might be Bollywood or Kollywood. Your neighbours would be largely working class and the waiter might be taking orders for local whiskies, costing half the price as the martini elsewhere, if not less. The enforcement of these regulations affects owners of both kinds of entertainment establishments; yet, during the public protest there was no possibility of a united front of citizens rallying against the rules.

These rules came into force long before Commissioner Bidari assumed power. It was a predecessor who believed that live bands increased anti-social behaviour and the rate of crime (although no figures were provided). It was the same predecessor who then issued notifications to the Police Act, singling out live band bars as the justification to impose a restrictive order and initiate a regime of vigilant policing. Live bands were produced as the villains of a plot peppered with suggestions of dark crime and the sleazy underbelly to the city. Many months later, when the rules created for the live bands are now being applied across the entertainment spectrum, it is unsurprising that up-market club-owners and the city's affluent are categorical in their detachment from the perceived criminality of the live bands which many of them associate with bar dancer girls and prostitutes and consequently raucous brawls and petty crime.

The resentment exudes from the "enemy" camp as well. The Live Band Owners' Association claims that the police impose rules selectively, conveniently bypassing the posh discotheques that have the big money needed to grease police palms and flout rules. The upmarket clubs are "hand-in-glove with the Excise and the Police," who use the "rich and famous" as a "milking cow," says the president of the Live Band Owners' Association, Sanjay Kochhar. He claims that the closure of live band bars has led to 10,000 people rendered unemployed.

The M.G. Road protests centered around the request for freedoms of expression, especially artistic, and involved many of Bangalore's best-known personalities, ensuring wide English media coverage, but they were framed in ways that marked a clear perception of "legal" and "illegal" citizen. On his blog that started to discuss the "Bangalore bans," the proprietor of a well-known, upmarket bar emphasized this perceived difference and the need for the police to recognize distinctions between various kinds of citizens:

But as is true of any business sector under the sun, there are some who will and do stray into areas of sleaze. It is these transgressors who should be targeted and dealt with appropriately. To tar all the establishments in the industry with the same sleazy brush instead is an admission of lazy incompetent policing. But that's what we have in Bangalore today—definitions so vague that they not only fail to clarify; they further confuse the distinction between a sleazy girlie-bar and a world-class, well-reputed restaurant and lounge-bar (your favourite night-spot).

The Telegraph quoted other attendees of the Sunday protest in much the same vein: Fashion designer Manoviraj Khosla saying, "For god's sake, discos are not cabaret joints, this is where hard-working people let their hair down," and fashion guru Prasad Bidapa saying, "Cabarets are where prostitutes hang out. Discos are where decent people hang out. Can't the police differentiate between the two?"

The middle-class protests summon the image of the ideal "Shanghai-Singapore" city of the future so often cited by the political class, to bolster their demand that a global city needs global entertainment options; as they do so, they infuse into this model clear ideas about who should not belong to this Shanghai-Singapore-Bengaluru. Conceptions of a legal, rights-bearing citizen seem to be conflated with unlikely accompanying markers: those of affluence and "style." The same blog on the bans maintained by the active participant in the Bengaluru Bleeding campaign states:

It's time the authorities of the city woke up and gave a separate classification for these entertainment outlets, and return to the citizens of this city the right they have lost to spend an evening of music and dancing with their parents, their spouses and their friends at stylish, sophisticated, dignified places—as every other modern society does all over the world.

The suggestion of a Shanghai-Singapore framework as a discretionary model that presumably discourages "sleazy girlie bars" while retaining the "stylish," "hip" nightclubs is another step along the pathway that has carved out the growth of Bengaluru along a deepening faultline. Since the liberalisation policies of the 90s at least, Bangalore has grown unevenly along a cleavage situating the Information Technology and Biotechnology (IT and BT) "corporate" boom on the one side, and the slower, older, more staid city on the other. The issues surrounding the imposition of these regulations are poised along this crisp divide, and occurring repeatedly in different ways with varying permutations (of class, dress and occupation) are images of women, stuck in this very verbal and angry tussle between various interest groups.

The upmarket clubs hasten to distance themselves from the "polluting" image of the "prostitutes" that they assume frequent the '"other" places of entertainment and could tarnish the image of the global Shanghai-Singapore dream that they are hinging their demands for a correspondingly "global" nightlife to be pinned on. The polluting immoral woman also occurs in the argument put forth by the president of the Live Bands Owners' Association; this time she is upperclass, differently dressed, pleasure-seeking: "They (upmarket pubs) are worse than us; we are on stage in a decent way... there (the women) come in one long dress and as soon as they land, they go to the toilets, they get into minis and midis, and start jumping and kissing; they are rich and famous (hence spared from police action)."

The "jumping and kissing," the "minis and midis," the general hedonism of the citizens of a city growing rapidly, earns them more than the mere disapproval of Kochhar's gaze; it brings them within the purview of the vulture-eyed conservationists of a hazy notion of Kannada pride, the extreme right-wing chauvinist group, the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike (literally, Karnataka's Preservation Group). At a rave party earlier this year, activists from the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike showed up on a tip-off, busted the party (which was illegal, being a rave) and only then called the police. The Home Minister, V. S. Acharya, an old time RSS man, seemed to consider this routine, saying on a national TV channel that the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike was often used to tip off the police and that informants were even paid for this service. The greater goal of maintaining a certain kind of public decorum is shared then by an easy collaboration and understanding between a right-wing State and its extreme right-wing partners in (preventing) crime.

Moral policing, after all, is not unique to Bangalore. In (big) city after (big) city there are reports of efforts to punish canoodling in parks and hanging out late-night in public spaces. To say nothing of the links to larger missions targeted against sex workers and the gay community. Perhaps Mumbai under the Shiv Sena Culture Minister Pramod Navalkar was the first to zealously pioneer the art of moral policing with Navalkar justifying that his measures to curb obscenity and put "a check on the westernized hungama in theatres" was because it was a "misuse of the freedom of expression granted by the Constitution."

As the holder of a non-partisan post, the police commissioner of Bangalore stoically maintains that the role of the police is the apolitical enforcement of "statutes that have been around for many years." In enforcing the regulations concerning nightlife, he makes no mention of dance bars, crime, or prostitution. Instead, he cites an irrefutable matter of urban planning: noisy bars in residential neighbourhoods have caused complaints from residents, hence the need for a strict policing to ensure that citizens enjoy peace and quiet. But eventually, we get to talking about the protests and the possibility of late curfews and it turns out that the commissioner does have his own views on the divides that have manifested themselves in this furor over regulations. "We are living in Indian conditions, except for a few pockets with IT-BT people who work around the clock," he says. "The laws have been framed according to the norms of our ethos. For a few people we cannot make laws (sic). If they (the "IT-BT" population) want, in their house they can dance 24 hours a day, 365 days a year without causing any inconvenience."

In yet another dimension of this conflict, the calls for global entertainment options by legal rights bearing hard-working consumers and entrepreneurs is countered by irate middle class residents who complain about the "rowdiness," congestion, and parking problems caused by the incursion of these entertainment options into their neighborhoods and the overall deterioration in the quality of livability of their neighborhoods. A bitter struggle is being waged between these camps with the police and city corporation officials playing arbitrators, colluders or partisans, on a case by case basis. When middle class residents get together under the banner of a resident's association or a coalition of "public-spirited" citizens, they get even more attention from the media and, to some extent, from the city administration and the courts.

In one instance, five litigants filed a case in the public interest against a liquor shop that had been operating for more than 20 years and a newly opening restaurant in their area. The basis of their argument was that they apprehended that a license would be granted to the new restaurant and the city commissioner should be summoned before the court to explain the reasons for this. Perhaps the deepest wound for the entrepreneur behind the fashionable newly opening restaurant was the allegation by the petitioners that he was going to start a dance bar in the premises and this would be of huge nuisance-value in the area. The case was dismissed due to the final release of the revised Master Plan for the city, specifying the location as part of the central business district and approved for "bars and restaurants, retail and shopping." What it has done practically, says the entrepreneur, is to make it even more difficult to get an entertainment license. In particular, it has increased the incidence of speed money to lower level city officials for ignoring such complaints and smoothing the process, benefiting those who (can afford to) pay them.

The recently unveiled Master Plan has served to foreground and scale up this confrontation over land use due to its promotion of mixed-use development, relaxation of zonal regulations for commercial development and increase in build-up area. It isn't clear who is benefiting from this new regime: residents in neighborhoods now designated as "commercial," or "mixed-use," often in prime central city locations, are simmering with resentment. Consumers of entertainment in the city say this is the end of night life for them. Entrepreneurs say they operate in a huge grey area where no one knows the rules and anybody can be prosecuted for anything. Moreover, they are being forced to exercise their ingenuity to subvert the ban. Recently, a luxury hotel in the city held a live music event for which they divided the room into two parts, one comprising the bar area and the other the live music section, something smaller establishments are unable to do because of space and cash constraints.

Bengaluru's schisms, apparent even in the momentary hesitation over whether to still call the city "Bangalore" have played out in various ways on the canvas of the issue of nightlife regulations. The middle-class "global citizens" demand a nightlife that is deemed an appropriate complement to their day job at a multinational company, overlooking the possibility that other, more inclusive, imaginations of the city's pleasure options might be possible. Their nationally televised protests and media exposure are resented by the live band owners who consider them alien elites, marginalising the poor, uncaring of the mass unemployment caused by the bans.

The women of one group are alien to the imagination of the city in the other's mind. The "mini-midi" wearing pleasure-seeker woman of the elite bar is a foreign import, unbelonging in the local culture of the live band owner. The presumed "sleaze" of the prostitute is a slur on the global-international-world class vocabulary of the middle class partygoer.

The construction of the "other" sets up a sharp distinction between sophisticated vs. slutty entertainment, insider vs. outsider, legal vs. illegal, divisions that have a clear economic dimension. Bangalore's determined march toward integration with the global economy has made it the site of a bitter contest between those who are in a position to benefit from globalization and those who want a slice of the pie but don't have the requisite economic and human capital. Janaki Nair, a historian who has written extensively on the city, characterizes these two camps by their respective "linguistic markers," the users of Kannada and the users of English. With the acknowledged supremacy of English as the international language of science, technology and business, Kannada nationalists look to assert their identity in other arenas, notably the cultural arena, by seeking to embed Kannada as not only the state's official language but the language of everyday and elite culture. The demands for moral policing (exemplified by the ban) can be seen as one more instance of their growing control over the cultural sphere. Such policing, however, calls for negotiating a delicate middle path between satisfying international investors and business elite who are responsible for bringing considerable wealth into the city as well as sympathizers of the claims of Kannada nationalists. This is aptly illustrated by a spokesperson of the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike claiming that by training rural engineering students in Karnataka in soft skills and English and creating talent in the IT/ES sector, his organization is "pro-globalization." With one important caveat: these youth are all Kannadigas and are part of the KRV's larger mission to increase employment of Kannadigas in IT companies in the state, using whatever means they have at their disposal.

The right-wing government of Karnataka valiantly heaves and pushes through these conflicting pulls and pushes, attempting to rein its renegade citizens back into the purifying and timeless folds of Indian culture. Conveniently, it relies on an extreme right-wing group to slide this sense of order and rigidity on to the deviants of the "Indian culture" code. The tricky task of seducing investors and projecting the city as an international one is delicately balanced with the onerous duty of adhering to the conservative "Indian" value system of the RSS on the other hand. As the competition between different claimants to city spaces and cultures grows more intense, each group attempts to edge out the other, creating a space that is torn with conflicting claims. Finally, what is sacrificed is the possibility of shared participation in the growth and enjoyment of this city.

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