In August 2005, the Maharashtra government came down hard on Mumbai’s legendary dance bars and imposed a ban on women dancing for money in them. As a result, around 75,000 women who worked as dancers in hundreds of bars across the city lost their only source of livelihood.
The Deputy Chief Minister then, the late R.R. Patil, had made it his crusade to improve the morality standards of the city. Towards achieving this goal in order to “protect law and order” and “save families from ruin”, his first target was the dance bars.
After a legal battle, in the Bombay High Court and later in the Supreme Court, of over 14 years, the apex court ruled on January 17 that the bars could reopen. The state, it said, could not exercise “social control” with its own “notion of morality”.
“It needs to be borne in mind that there may be certain activities which the society perceives as immoral per se. It is also to be noted that standards of morality in a society change with the passage of time. However, a practice which may not be immoral by societal standards cannot be thrusted upon the society as immoral by the state with its own notion of morality and thereby exercise social control,” said the Supreme Court bench of Justices A.K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan.
The verdict came on a petition filed by the restaurant owners’ association and a bar girls’ union challenging the Maharashtra Prohibition of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Restaurants and Bar Rooms and Protection of Dignity of Women (Working therein) Act, 2016, that set conditions for operation of dance bars. The petition contended that by bringing the law, the Maharashtra government had tried to circumvent a previous Supreme Court order allowing the reopening of dance bars.
Crushing almost every aspect of the ban in its verdict, the Supreme Court said a particular activity, which was treated as immoral a few decades ago, may not be so now as societal norms kept changing with time. “Social change is of two types, continuous or evolutionary and discontinuous or revolutionary. The most common form of change is continuous. This day-to-day incremental change is a subtle, but dynamic, factor in social analysis,” said the bench.
The bench struck down certain provisions of the Act and rewrote the rules framed under it, in a bid to maintain a balance between public interest and the constitutional right to earn a livelihood. It held the installation of CCTV cameras in dance bars to be “totally inappropriate and amounts to invasion of privacy”, and on the serving of alcohol, it said there could be regulations but not total prohibition. It allowed tips to be given to dancers but barred the showering of currency notes on them.
Additionally, the judges explained that dancing was socially acceptable in “dignified forms” but perhaps not in “obscene forms”. Since obscenity is treated as immoral, the state could pass a law prohibiting such dances.
Significantly, the Supreme Court held that dance performance at such places could not be restricted under the garb of the res extra commercium (thing outside commerce) principle and, thus, such prohibition of a commercial activity, which was a fundamental right, would have to meet the test of reasonable restriction.
The court held that the restrictions on dance performances were regulatory to the extent of being unreasonable and unconstitutional. The rules to obtain a licence were so stringent that no licence could be granted since 2014 because it was impossible to fulfill the criteria. Through such actions, the State government, the bench held, tried to impose its own notions of morality indirectly. The rule prohibiting orchestra and dance performances to coexist was considered irrational and was subsequently quashed.
R.R. Patil closed the bars on the premise that dancing was obscene and that these bars were used as “pick-up joints” and meeting places for the underworld. While he targeted the smaller establishments via a legal amendment, he allowed dancing in hotels that were three star or more, gymkhanas and clubs. Somehow, he believed that those “upmarket” establishments were removed from nefarious and immoral activities. Thirteen years later it will be interesting to see the dance bars resurrected, hopefully in a new and improved form.
The court held that the prohibition of dance in bars while upholding the same in other similar establishments where entry was restricted to members only was a clear violation of right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution. There could be no intelligible differentia in segregating dance forms on the basis of the nature of premise which could meet the nexus sought to be achieved by such prohibition.
The court observed that the spirit of Article 19 (freedom of speech) was curbed since dance was a form of expression. Since the action taken by the Police Commissioner (under Section 33A in the Maharashtra Police Act) was to curb vulgarity, prevent indignity of women and keep the prurient interests of the customers at bay, there could be no evidence that the dance allowed in similar other premises does not resort to obscenity. Thus, there could be no doubt that stern regulations were hampering the freedom to carry out the profession of the stakeholders and violating their fundamental rights, the court held.
The court could not be satisfied that providing licences to dance bars encouraged the “prurient interest” of people. The demand to impose further restrictions, along with the one already imposed by the police on regulating and procuring licences, was denied, and the court held that the present rules were sufficient to do so. The problem lay in the lack of implementation and not in the subject matter of the already existing rules, the court observed.
The verdict brought some cheer to the community. For the past 13 years, dance bars, which were a significant attraction in the city and part of its cultural fabric, had become dreary, seedy watering holes. Hundreds of women who were dancers had allegedly resorted to prostitution for survival. Official figures in 2006 say 25 women in the dance bar industry committed suicide owing to the lack of work.
In its heyday, dance bars would be frequented by clientele that ranged from the very wealthy to the ordinary worker. The dignity of the dancers was respected with the no-touch policy.
There are numerous stories of dancers being forced into the trade and lured by the wealthy into paid relationships only to be thrown out later. However, there are also cases of women making a sizeable income through their talent to look after families.
“We lost our good customers when they banned the dancing. I hope our old customers will come back. We hope the girls come back. So much has changed over 13 years. I am not sure as yet how to reintroduce the dancing,” says Ramakant Shetty of the famous Topaz bar in Mumbai. He added: “They had made us segregate the dance and drinking rooms. I have to rework my bar again to start the dance again.”