BECAUSE successive governments in Maharashtra have repeatedly legislated to shut down Mumbai’s dance bars despite previous court orders ruling in favour of their right to do business, bar-owners and associations of women who used to perform in these establishments reacted to Thursday’s apex court verdict cautiously. Since 2005, the state has contended in the courts, without empirical evidence, that the dance bars contribute to rising crime graphs in their vicinities; the bars are euphemisms for pick-up joints and prostitution; the girls belong to depraved backgrounds; are vulnerable to trafficking; and corrupt public morality.
The ban was first imposed first in 2005 and struck down by the Bombay High Court in the subsequent year. However, the bars remained closed pending an appeal by the state in the apex court. In a 2013 verdict, the SC dismissed the appeal, also rejecting the state’s contention that the ban was for the protection of vulnerable women.
That did not stop the Maharashtra government from legislating once again on a subject that has united all four major political parties in the state. In 2015, the SC again struck down some amendments to law introduced in 2014, only to hear the matter again in 2016, when bar-owners approached the court against a fresh set of rules imposed in 2016.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that dance performances by women in bars may indeed be permitted, and that some arbitrary rules put in place by the government in 2016 will have to go. Showering of currency notes on the dancing girls will stay prohibited, but they can be handed a tip. Restrictions such as segregating the restaurant area from the performance area have now been deemed irrational and a restriction against dance-bars located within a kilometre of an educational institution has been ruled to be unreasonable.
Directed by the SC to draft reasonable guidelines regarding the antecedents of performers, location of bars and more, the state will no doubt revert to its own notions that sexuality itself is immoral, no matter how out of sync these appear today. Maharashtra’s finance minister has already declared that the state may bring in an ordinance to ensure that the dance bars remain closed to protect the state’s “cultural fabric”.
Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Bar Girls Union has said that its member strength has shrunk to barely over 100 dancers, down from nearly 5,000. The sweeping majority of them very poor migrants to the city of dreams, they are arguably living in more precarious circumstances than ever. There was neither litigation nor legislation for their rehabilitation.
The apex court’s directives to protect the girls, including through a legal contract of employment with the bar-owners, have been welcomed all around. But neither the bar owners nor the remaining performers are hopeful of business resuming.