Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil has been long possessed by a bad idea. He believes that social and family harmony is under threat from one quarter above all — dance bars. In 2005, he led a campaign to close these establishments, alleging that they were hubs of prostitution and crime, and that the state of Maharashtra was willing to forgo the excise revenue it got from them, for the sake of public morality. The state declared a ban, first through an ordinance and then by amending the Mumbai Police Act. Raids and arrests followed, closing down the bars, pushing the thousands of women who worked there into even more straitened circumstances, leaving them fewer ways of making a living. The Bombay High Court declared the ban unconstitutional in 2006, for violating the right to equality, given that elite versions of the same entertainment carried on unpoliced in hotels.
The Supreme Court upheld the high court’s judgment in 2013, again underscoring the discrimination between classes of dance bar, but also asking how a citizen’s right to practise any occupation could be curtailed simply because a woman happened to be dancing rather than waiting a table. The Maharashtra government is not so easily discouraged, though. It has moved another amendment to the Mumbai Police Act, now declaring all dance performances illegal, including in clubs or hotels. It has tried to reconcile kinks in the law, instead of seeing the broader directive laid down by the Supreme Court, to regulate these workplaces better. If the state is so concerned about crime and prostitution, it should concentrate its efforts on greater protections for the women, and better crime control.
Home Minister Patil seems to have a keen sense of the limits of policing — he recently declared that women could not be made safe from sexual assault even if the state assigned a policeman to every home. But he seems to think that shutting down bars is enough to guarantee social virtue. The only policing in Maharashtra that he has backed is moral policing, not the professional imperative to ensure a fair order to all citizens. The state specialises in raiding parties with unique weapons like hockey sticks, harassing young lovers, recoiling at sex education and even underclad mannequins. No political formation seems prepared to articulate a liberal vision for the metropolis, after the Sena successfully provincialised Mumbai, and all parties have acceded in these repressive conditions. With this renewed push against dance bars, the Congress-NCP government has revealed its incapacity to respect the individual freedoms of citizens. It has enthusiastically destroyed livelihoods, but has made little effort to ensure access to more “acceptable” jobs.