The Matunga Racket

A version of this piece was published today as the eighth installment of my column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last week I had begun my piece on victimless crimes by asking you to imagine a dystopia where sex is banned. Smugly, I had referred to it as a mere thought experiment. I apologize for that: for millions of Indians, it isn’t a thought experiment, it’s reality. They’re gay.

I’m sure you all know about Section 377, the archaic law in the Indian Penal Code that bans “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. While it seems to deal just with anal sex, the way the law has been used effectively makes homosexuality illegal in India. Still, until recently I assumed that this law would be used only occasionally, and that too for non-consensual sex, and that gay people had more reason to worry about social attitudes than the legal system.

Well, I was wrong. I met a couple of friends over the weekend who told me about how Section 377 is used as a tool of extortion. Note, I said “is used”, not “has been used” or “can be used”. There are systematic rackets run throughout the country to extort money from gay people scared of having a case filed against them under Section 377. These rackets are run by the police. One example of this is what activists refer to as The Matunga Racket.

Here’s how The Matunga Racket works. Say you’re a gay man in an internet chat room, trying to connect with other gay men. Someone asks you if you want to exchange some porn. It seems harmless, and even if you’re generally wary of sexual encounters with strangers, you agree. You fix up a rendezvous at Dadar station. You land up and meet this guy, who seems quite nice. He suggests that you walk over to his motorcycle.

While you are doing so, a plainclothes policeman swoops down on you. He accuses you of breaking the law. (You know which law.) Your gay porn is on you, which he says is proof. He bundles you off to a place in King’s Circle, just near the police chowki there. A cop duly comes and slaps you a couple of times, and threatens to file a case against you under section 377. There is a way out, of course. Money.

If you have what they ask for, it’s cool. If not, they simply take your ATM cards and suchlike and empty them out as you wait there. They have picked you, of course, because you seem closeted, and are likely to be terrified of your family finding out that you’re gay. What they are doing is illegal, a criminal act, but you will never file an official complaint. If you show any sign of defiance, or try to call your lawyer, they will let you go. Indeed, if you had seemed to be that type, they would have parted ways with you at Dadar itself. They will never actually file a case of Section 377 against you: it is just an immensely potent threat.

Another organized racket, my friends told me, is run on some railway stations of Mumbai, such as VT and Andheri. A cop will hang around inside the toilet, pretending to masturbate. If he finds someone looking longer than expected, he will ask that person to come and touch his penis. (He will always be well-endowed: “do these policemen compare sizes and make the biggest guy the bait?” the friend who told me this story wondered.) Just as any straight person would be tempted at the chance to feel up a nice pair of breasts, the prey will often go ahead. As soon as he touches it, four or five cops will jump on him, drag him out onto the platform, beating him as they do so, and take him into a room where cops hang out. Then they’ll put him through the grinder: 377 or money? You know how this story ends.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the cops do this. Our policemen are tenured and effectively unaccountable, and while we would like them to focus on crimes such as murder, rape and robbery, there are few disincentives to punish them if they do not do so. Instead, considering that they are generally poorly paid, their incentives are aligned towards seeking alternate revenue streams, if I may call it that. Laws against victimless crimes provide a perfect opportunity.

In Goa, I am told, cops often stake out foreigners staying there, raid them, plant small quantities of drugs if they cannot find any, and then extort money. You’re a foreigner in a strange land in trouble with the cops, of course you’ll pay up. Driving a motorcycle without a yellow license plate is illegal in Goa – a rather ludicrous victimless crime – and all motorcycles there have white license plates. Thus, anyone who rents a motorcycle can be randomly stopped. And so on and on and on and on.

Of course, homosexuality is different from other victimless crimes because it doesn’t involve choice. We can choose not to gamble or to do drugs, but sexual orientation, like the colour of our eyes, is something we’re born with. If you’re straight, imagine one more time the dystopia gay Indians live in, where not just sex but love and companionship are elusive. Isn’t that criminal?

*    *    *

Many thanks to Vikram Doctor and Alok Gupta for spending time with me and sharing their insights in the subject. If you want to read about the history and scope of Section 377, there is no better place to start than Alok’s fine essay, “Section 377 and the Dignity of Indian Homosexuals.” (PDF link.)