In step with the law

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

The Bombay High Court gives hope to dance girls who were deprived of a living by the Maharasthra government's moral policing.


"Are our fundamental rights so fickle that a citizen has to dance to the state's tune?"

- Justice F.I. Rebello and Justice R. Dalvi in the Bombay High Court judgment revoking the ban on dance bars.

THE strobe lights went off on midnight of August 15, 2005. The dancing stopped. Since then, there has been darkness.

When we entered Rekha David Chauhan's small apartment recently, the lights were out there too. There is a power cut, but her feisty spirit lights up the room. "Why won't the government allow us to dance in bars?" she asks. "If they find it indecent, then they should start by banning the red light area, alcohol... and Hindi film songs. That's what we dance to."

"I'm not afraid to say I am a bar dancer," Rekha proclaims, flitting about the room, her real-life dance floor. She is now in the media spotlight, giving interviews as one of the leaders of the dance bar girls' union.

"Everyone in my building is aware of what I do, yet they respect me. My boyfriend's parents know it. They treat me as part of their family. His mother sends food for me every day." At this point, Ajay, the dutiful boyfriend, is dismissed summarily, sent off with constant reminders to bring her tiffin. "He's my darling," she smiles, and then the constantly ringing cell phone interrupts.

Rekha Chauhan's pluckiness gets her through the tough times. She has been unemployed for eight months and has not been able to support her family back home in Pathankot. "My sister died in an accident and I had to look after my parents and her two babies. That's why I came to Mumbai when I was 13 and still in a frock. My sister's children are like my own. They call me mummy," she says.

Although out of work and deep in debt, Rekha Chauhan and her friends are feeling slightly more upbeat of late. They can see light at the end of the tunnel. The Bombay High Court has struck down the Maharashtra government's ban on dance bars, stating that it violates the right to livelihood. Now, Mumbai's 75,000 dance girls are waiting anxiously to get back on the dance floor as soon as the bars renew their performance licences. But until then, their nightmare will continue.

Life after the ban has been harrowing. Behind every dancer is a family that depends on her. The lives of those back home also are in jeopardy. Rekha Chauhan's friend Sonia, 21, provides for her parents and daughter in Kolkata. "I've had to borrow from friends and neighbours to pay for my mother's hospital expenses and my daughter's school fees. I don't know whether I will be able to afford her fees next year," she says.

Other women have not been able to manage. Children, brothers and sisters of several dancers have had to drop out of school because they could not pay their fees. Elderly parents cannot afford their medication.

Sonia came to Mumbai four years back when her fairytale marriage ended. Her husband deserted her and their newborn daughter. "It was a love marriage. We eloped. So, when he left me, I had nowhere to go. I had to earn for my only daughter, so my friend brought me to a bar in Mumbai."

Since the ban was enforced, Sonia works as a waitress in the bar. "We earn anything between Rs.20 to Rs.100 a day. The autorickshaw fare to the bar alone is Rs.50, so there's not much left. As dancers, we used to earn Rs.300 to Rs.500 every day. There are fewer customers and many more waitresses, so we're just hanging around," she says.

"Everyone working in the bar is like a family. What's wrong with dancing? What each girl chooses to do outside is her business. At least, we had a choice. Once, I even broke a beer bottle on a customer's head because he pulled my dupatta," she laughs.

"By banning dance bars, the government has pushed women on to the streets and into prostitution. The number of `silent' bars - pick-up joints - has increased since the ban. Many girls who are unemployed have had to go into this business. What else can they do?" Sonia asks.

Some felt so desperate that they killed themselves. As many as 25 bar dancers have committed suicide since the ban was enforced, according to official statistics. Meena T. Raju could not send money home to her village in Andhra Pradesh after the ban. She worked as a waitress, but could not earn enough. She was sinking deep in debt and in depression, drinking heavily to drown her sorrows. In September 2005, she hanged herself with a dupatta. Her death turned into a huge drama as bar owners and dancers gathered outside the police station demanding to see her body, while the police refused permission. Today she is forgotten. When this correspondent visited the tiny room she lived in, her neighbours refused to admit that they even knew her. For some, the light has been permanently snuffed out.

Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil, who made the ban his crusade to "protect law and order" and "save families from ruin", continues his moral tirade despite its obvious fallout on the lives of thousands of poor women and their families. After prohibiting dance, his government has not even tried to provide alternative work to a single bar girl.

Patil justified the closure by saying that the dancing was obscene and that dance bars were pick-up joints and meeting places for criminals. However, the legal amendment he got passed in the Assembly allows dancing in three-star plus hotels, gymkhanas and clubs. So, if it is in a posh place, dancing is not vulgar, and no vice exists in that rarefied atmosphere.

It is this discriminatory tone of the amendment to the Bombay Police Act, unanimously passed by the Maharashtra legislature, which the High Court struck down as "unconstitutional". If women could be waitresses or singers in bars, why could they not be dancers? If other forms of dance such as lavani and tamasha were allowed, why not others? "That some may be exploited is no answer to preventing others from earning their livelihood by a vocation of their choice, maybe sometimes involuntarily," the Judges said.

It is the state's duty to provide protection to those earning an honest living rather than depriving them of their livelihood, they added. But the Maharashtra government is adamant on banning dance bars. It has appealed against the HC judgment in the Supreme Court.

Dance bars have existed for decades, providing revenue to the government and hafta (bribes) to the police and the licensing authorities. What suddenly provoked the Deputy Chief Minister's indignation? Apparently, a legislator from Raigad, a short distance away from Mumbai, brought up the issue in the Assembly claiming that the bars were corrupting society. But Manjit Singh Sethi, president of the Fight for Rights Bar Owners Association, alleged that while bar owners were trying to get the timings extended, demand was made for Rs.12 crores as bribe. The Mumbai Police are still investigating this accusation of corruption.

"The lives of 75,000 dancers, other bar employees and their dependent families are destroyed because of the ego clash between the bar owners and R.R. Patil," said Rekha Chauhan.

The common moral prejudices against bar girls have been dispelled effectively by the High Court. Dismissing the government's claim that the dance bars "disrupt public order", the judgment says there was little evidence that dance bars posed any such threat or that they were pickup joints. Just because some women were involved in commercial sex did not justify the state depriving others of their livelihood, the court ruled.

Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had petitioned the court that dance bars ran a form of sexual trafficking since several women started working in them involuntarily, while still underage. The judgment said that the performance licence issued by the state prohibited minors from dancing in the bars, and so licences could be revoked if they violated the rules. There was no need to amend the law to ban dancing totally. "It is possible to deal with the situation within the framework of the law," the court said.

"The High Court has restored the dignity of bar dancers, which middleclass morality sought to destroy," says Veena Gowda, women's rights lawyer representing the Bar Girls Union. "This judgment reinforces our belief that women have to earn their living, however they choose. The court has recognised women's economic and social realities that offer them no alternative but to get into this profession and that the state has failed to provide them any form of employment."

"If the government can't give us roti, it should not kick us in the stomach. Truth will prevail," asserts Rekha Chauhan. Hopefully, bar girls will no longer have to dance to the state's tune. Rekha Chauhan and her friends are getting ready to hit the dance floor once again. The spotlight will soon be shining on them again.

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