Supreme Court ruling on dance bars addresses class prejudice,not womens rights
It has been eight years since Maharashtras dance bars were forced to close. But on July 16,the Supreme Court finally upheld the Bombay High Courts 2006 ruling that the dance bar ban is unconstitutional. Dancers and bar owners cheered,while politicians issued cautious statements of dismay and disapproval.
It is unlikely,though,that the dance bars will be reliving former glories any time soon. Immediately after the ruling,Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil announced that the state government would convene an expert committee to study the judgment and recommend appropriate countermeasures. Patil made it clear that his administration would do everything in its power to prevent the dance bars from reopening. If and when they do resume business,the state authorities will be in a position to exercise enormous discretion over who gets to do what kind of business.
As the confetti settles,a long hard look at the text of the Supreme Court ruling reveals that it is less an affirmation of the dance bars right to exist than a stinging critique of the clumsiness of the law that closed them down. The court ruled that the 2005 amendment to the Bombay Police Act is unconstitutional for two reasons. First,because the amendment introduces an arbitrary distinction between upscale entertainment venues and supposedly lowbrow establishments like dance bars on the presumption that only the latter generate morally insalubrious effects. Second,because,in pursuit of its stated aim of protecting women from sexual exploitation and the surrounding community from the contagion of immorality,the amendment bans all forms of dance only in the lowbrow category of establishments. In its 2006 ruling in favour of the dance bars,the Bombay High Court had dismissed most of the challenges brought against the Police Act amendment,including claims that it violated the bar dancers freedom of expression,that it amounted to sexual discrimination,and that it threatened the bar dancers right to life. But the high court,and now the Supreme Court,have upheld the charge that the amended Police Act amounts to an unconstitutional infringement of the bar dancers rights to equality before the law and to practice their profession.
The Supreme Courts ruling is ambiguous on the question that is often assumed to be central: womens rights. The state governments attempt to defend the ban is marked by a patriarchal inability to understand the defence of womens wellbeing in any register other than paternalistic protection. The governments case consistently confuses looking out for womens interests with moral policing. For example,the potentially plausible claim that the dance bars produced an atmosphere where physical and emotional violence to women was both profitable and normalised is immediately followed by the moralising assertion that bar dancing is obscene,vulgar,and casts a considerable amount of negative influence on institutions like family,society,youth etc.
The Supreme Courts judgment does,at one point,address this conflation of empowerment and control,when Justice Nijjar remarks that instead of putting curbs on womens freedom,empowerment would be the more tenable and socially wise approach. Overall,however,the ruling records a series of arguments in which all participants continue to fall back on a paternalistic language of protecting the weaker sections of society. Nor does the ruling take issue with the state governments impulse towards moral policing per se. The unease that a more assertive conception of womens rights still produces in these hallowed halls becomes clear when former CJI Altamas Kabir describes the idea that women should be free to make their own choices as not an entirely uncommon or unreasonable approach. It falls to Anand Grover,representing womens and sex workers groups against the dance bar ban,to note that a push for rights that is based on only an ideal of protection will remain both patronising and constraining.
The Supreme Court ruling is at its best and most bracing in its principled refusal to countenance class-based cultural prejudice. Nijjar upbraids the state governments legal team for failing to mobilise any solid evidence in place of the myth and stereotype images that went into the making of a ban that presupposes that high morals and decent behaviour are the exclusive domain of the upper classes,whereas vulgarity and depravity are limited to the lower classes. The point is important because the regulation of entertainment in India has,since colonial times,presumed a substantive moral distinction between elite and popular pleasures. In effect,the moral policing of the lower orders has served to drape patriarchy in an honorable cloak.
Featured in novels and films,Mumbais dance bars gained transnational currency during the early 2000s and became a standard stop on the tourist itinerary. Their distinctive provocation during this period was that they were beginning to blur the long-standing line between upscale and popular entertainments,between the five-star hotels and the city streets. No wonder the ban tried so hard to reassert the old prejudicial boundary. It is to the Supreme Courts enormous credit that it has firmly and uncompromisingly refused this reactionary impulse. Whether or not the dance bars return,the Supreme Courts stand establishes a crucial precedent in the ongoing struggle for a truly public culture.
Mazzarella is professor of anthropology and social sciences at the University of Chicago and the author of Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity