Maharashtra green-lights dance bars, but legal problems are far from over

On Monday, the Maharashtra Cabinet approved a bill on dance bars, permitting their reopening, albeit with certain restrictions on their functioning. According to a report by Zee News, the bill is likely to be tabled in the state Assembly on Tuesday.

According to a report by NewsX, some of the restrictions placed by the cabinet are: not allowing these establishments inside residential buildings, maintaining a minimum distance of at least one km from schools and places of worship, prohibiting alcohol in bar rooms and an attempt to put in place a check on vulgarity.

The bill has also put in place guidelines on the clothing of women performing in dance bars. It prohibits sexually suggestive dance moves and obscenity.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

The Maharashtra government issued certain guidelines for dance bar owners to issue identity cards and arrange for pick and drop for the dance bar workers and issued an order for imposing fine of Rs 50,000 and a jail sentence for those in the audience who touched the dance performers.

The state had initially proposed to place CCTVs in dance bars. Defending the rule in the Supreme Court, the government had said that the cameras would help to maintain the dignity of the dancers and provide them with a sense of security, as reported by The Hindu. The government had pointed out that most of the dancers are from the poor strata of society and that most of them entered the profession out of compulsion. However, the judges hearing the case were not convinced by the government's contentions.

This was not the only occasion on which the Supreme Court turned the Maharashtra government's arguments on dance bars. In February 2016, a division bench had described the stipulation restriction the number of dancers to four as ‘absurd’. The state government had asked hotel owners to preserve CCTV footage for 30 days, as reported by The Times of India.

History of dance bars in Maharashtra

Dance bars have a long and convoluted history in Maharashtra, and have been the subject of much controversy in the past decade. Bars that hosted dancing performances first came up in the early 1980s. The first such establishments came up in the town of Khalapur, a town between Mumbai and Pune, according to IANS. With the rise of the underworld in the 1980s and 1990s, dance bars acquired a reputation for being sites which provided tip-offs for the police from informers, as pointed in an article in Caravan.

According to an earlier report by Firstpost, in 2005, the then Maharashtra home minister RR Patil first imposed a ban on dance bars, saying that they ‘corrupt the younger generation and threaten the cultural fabric of the country.

However, the three-star and five-star establishments were exempted from the restriction.

This discrepancy, which created a separate class of three-star and five-star establishments, did not pass the judicial test. The Bombay High Court had observed, “The object of the legislation was prohibition of dances which were obscene or vulgar… That being the object, can the restriction be said to be in the interest of the general public? Women can still dance in the exempted establishments, women can still participate in tamashas and laavnis. Women can still work as waiters or any other allied jobs in the prohibited establishments.”

On 12 April 2006, the Bombay HC went on to quash the ban, declaring the provision as unconstitutional saying that it is against Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution (which deals with the freedom to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business). However, the Maharashtra government obtained a stay on the order, which meant that the dance bars still remained shut.

The next judicial verdict on the issue came on 16 July, 2013, when the Supreme Court upheld the Bombay High Court's judgment.

The government failed to convince the Supreme Court that its restriction on dance bars was legally valid (see The Indian Express report here.) and it seemed that dance bars would become a part of the city's night life again. However, there were more difficulties in the way, as dance bar owners found it difficult to get back permission to run their establishments. As reported by The Times of India, as many as 40 licences needed to open a dance bar in Mumbai. With such steep requirements, it was no wonder that the Supreme Court's order did not exactly open the floodgates for dance bar permissions.

Meanwhile, the court's verdict did not deter the Maharashtra government. Subsequent to the apex court's order, the Maharashtra government passed an amendment to the Maharashtra Police Act on 13 June 2014. This law addressed the discrepancy between the rules for three-star hotels and five-star hotels, and put the same restrictions for both categories. However, the restriction did not extend to family parties in pubs and discotheques, or to orchestras, according to a report in The Times of India.

However, the government had to face yet another roadblock. The Supreme Court stepped in and stayed the amendment to the Maharashtra Police Act related to dance bars.

The Morality debate

The dance bar issue has various moral and immoral repercussions for the community. Explaining the difference between ‘sex work’ and ‘trafficking for sex’, The Wire argued that people engaged in work that involves performing sexual acts does not always mean that they have been exploited.

The government has been pursuing the issue under the fear that women are being exploited. In fact, according to the report in The Wire, it is working on a legislation to ban dance bars in a way that it is not rendered unconstitutional. But a blanket rule to impose a ban could do more harm than good, because according to a recent research, women are in the business of dance bars, either because of their economic conditions, or because they like the profession over manual labour.

According to a report by The Hindu, the ban had left nearly 75,000 women unemployed, who then flooded into other sectors like domestic work, rag picking, factory work, shops, etc.

Given the long-drawn legal battle on this issue that has ensued between the judiciary and the Maharashtra government, it would appear that the final word has not been spoken yet.

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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2016 07:43:48 IST

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