Why is India Obsessed With Frisking at Shopping Malls and Cinema Halls?


Why is India Obsessed With Frisking at Shopping Malls and Cinema Halls?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

In an age when children take their first international flight before they are two, I’d never travelled anywhere outside India until I was 32. Little did I know, when I landed in Dulles Airport for my four-week trip across Washington DC, NY, and Denver, that my worldview would soon turn upside down.

As someone who takes the Delhi Metro every day; gets frisked by a pair of bare police hands; stands in long, pointless queues to put his belongings through the scanner, I couldn’t believe that the New York subway stations had no interest whatsoever in my bag and its contents. During a late evening train ride from Manhattan to my Brooklyn Airbnb, I saw people downing tequila from the bottle in public places. It seemed to me like an impossible freedom. Back in India, a policeman did not let me carry a neatly packed chicken dish inside Jama Masjid station.

In a land where lawlessness is a joke (there are 106 rapes that occur every day; murders and kidnapping have seen a spike), we seem to take security very seriously. Or at least it appears so. We’re asked to furnish IDs, open our bags, empty our wallets not just at airports, but also in malls, hotels, subways, and movie halls by policemen, security personnel, and random watchmen, who are so busy gossiping and digesting their lunch that they would never notice an AK-47 in your racquet bag. (In September last year, a man boarded a flight with a knife and was deplaned only after he told cabin crew about it.)

And yet, we continue to submit humbly. I have seen kids being denied entry at a massive shopping mall in Mumbai just because they appeared like they were “up to no good”. In America, these kids could have sued the socks off the mall but in India, we bow down to security personnel, who are on a power trip.  

If you notice, every public place in India has these officious-looking people who seem to be on a mission to keep the common man in check. I can’t take my laptop bag inside certain movie theatres in Delhi (in some I can’t even carry a McDonald’s burger). Surprisingly, in America, the land of mass shootings – twelve people died in 2012 in Aurora as a gunman fired during a show of The Dark Knight Rises and in 2015, another man opened fire on a crowded movie hall in Lafayette killing two people and himself – no one cares a hoot about what’s in your pocket. I couldn’t believe my luck when I carried a can of Coors Light inside a local cinema and wasn’t arrested for it. Especially considering I have been questioned by a thulla for drinking Diet Coke on Marine Drive.

I’m not sure what we’ve set out to achieve with all the over-policing. Do we genuinely face more security threats than the US?

For all the popular culture notions of America being a surveillance state with drones monitoring everyone, it’s India that seems to suffer from a massive military-industrial complex. It’s here that a single guy, unless accompanied by a girl, cannot enter a pub because he’s a “potential threat” to the girls inside. I might be the biggest fan of the Scandinavian EDM genius slicing and dicing inside, but I can’t dance my ass off unless a girl deigns to be with me. What if I don’t want to be with a girl? What if my partner for the night is a boy? After suffering the wrath of multiple bouncers, I have decided to stop going to Indian clubs altogether.  

I asked my girlfriend, an American citizen, why there’s no one to frisk the public at shopping mall entrances. “Despite everything, Americans trust whoever’s in the country,” was her reply.

It was an astounding idea.  

After a shooting at Tacoma Mall in Washington in 2005, industry consultants told the Seattle Times that metal detectors and frisking would “restrict freedom” of the shoppers. They pointed out, an estimated 190 million people pass through 1,200 enclosed malls and 44,000 shopping centres in the United States every month without incident.  

In 2015, New York abandoned the controversial stop-and-frisk policy which empowered police officers to stop, question, and search individuals they suspect have committed crimes or are preparing to do so. The practise, which has been criticised for unfairly targeting minorities, has found one supporter – Donald Trump, of course.  

While most Americans (leave aside its Bigot-in-Chief) vouch for their fellow countrymen (and this is despite the shooting menace), I am made to feel like a rank outsider in my own country. Of course, USA has mega problems of its own, be it indiscriminate gun violence or right-wing lunatics finding their indomitable spirit under the new regime, but its citizens have inalienable rights that can never be snatched. You can basically walk around Times Square all night and the NYPD wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. But try hanging around on Marine Drive or Hauz Khas post midnight. The police will have a danda waiting for you. And forget public places, our police have been known to raid hotels and round up couples who’ve checked in consensually.

I’m not sure what we’ve set out to achieve with all the over-policing. Do we genuinely face more security threats than the US? Or does it all boil down to empirical evidence that we Indians are uncouth, and wouldn’t know how to behave in public unless someone keeps telling us how to?

I don’t want to Make India Great Again, but I want to Make it Free. I don’t want to walk around with a gun like an American, but I’d like to go watch a film without being frisked. I don’t want to down shots of tequila at the railway station, but I want to carry my packed chicken dish with me without being questioned.