Okay to dance

Print edition : August 09, 2013

In Mumbai, girls who danced in bars for a living celebrate the Supreme Court's ruling lifting the ban on such bars. Photo: PTI

IN 2005, Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister R.R. Patil shut down the so-called dance bars at restaurants because they were “damaging the culture of the State and were fronts for prostitution”. Patil’s move was contested by bar owners', bar workers' and bar dancers' unions as well as women’s associations and the Fight for Rights of Bar Owners Association. After a long and tough battle, the Supreme Court, on July 17, lifted the ban on these establishments and slammed the State government for taking an extreme position.

Patil’s decision led to the shutting down of nearly 400 bars and put close to 75,000 dancers and 40,000 workers out of business. Reports at that time said the State would lose Rs.3,000 crore annually if it pulled the shutters down on dance bars. Patil, however, continued with what seemed to have become a personal crusade and even attempted to shut down bars in general.

Patil said the State would seek legal advice on how to keep the dance bars shut. In 2005, it had amended the Bombay Police Act, 1951, to ban dancing in permit rooms, beer bars and eateries. He said the government had the option of amending the Act again so that the ban continued.

Even if the law is not amended, Patil can make it difficult for hoteliers/bar owners to renew licences, says Arvind Shetty, president of the Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association (AHAR). Nonetheless, he believes it will take not more than a week’s time for many bars to reconvert themselves. “The more important task is to get back the artistes and the clientele,” says Shetty.

When dance bars shut in 2005, several of them became orchestra bars, some just converted to ordinary bars and some shut down. The dancers, several of whom came from poor backgrounds, were promised rehabilitation, but Patil said only Maharashtrian women would be rehabilitated. That left out about 90 per cent of the dancers.

In its judgment, the Supreme Court said that instead of a complete ban on dance girls in pubs and bars, the State government could consider the alternative suggestions made by a State-appointed committee, such as banning dance girls from exposing their bodies or wearing tight and provocative clothes during performances. And, they could have railings built around the dance floor to prevent any untoward incident.

Chief Justice Altamas Kabir also said, “The State has to provide alternative means of support and shelter to persons engaged in such trades or professions, some of whom are trafficked from different parts of the country and have nowhere to go or earn a living after coming out of their unfortunate circumstances.”

The judges said, statistics show that many bar dancers have no other skills through which they can earn a living. Some may do it by choice, but they believe few women will actually want to do it as a profession. They are practically forced into it.

Unfortunately and obviously, dance bars took on a dirty meaning because of the nature of dancing. The bars, however, were not terrible dens of vice, as Patil put it. They strictly operated on the “look but don’t touch” rule. Most owners protected their dancers and did not allow prostitution.

Anupama Katakam