So Much for the Ban

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Maharashtra is unable to justify its 2005 closure of dance bars before the Supreme Court

Eight years ago, Maharashtra Home Minister RR Patil, in an extremely public stunt accompanied by much noise, banned dance bars in the state. The Congress-NCP led state government also amended the Bombay Police Act to force those bars to close. However, there was a loophole: the state allowed the same performances to go on in three- and five-star hotels. It is this discrimination that has prompted the Supreme Court to lift the ban and endorse the rights of an estimated 75,000 bar dancers to pursue their profession.

The ban was a big achievement for Patil, who has since been the state’s unofficial moral police chief. In truth, the ban barring girls from dancing in bars was more a gimmick. Though amendments were made of the required Act, the state failed to pursue the case in its true spirit with the apex court. On 16 July, the state’s legal team failed to justify before the SC bench that a dance permitted in a high-end bar or hotel was not ‘derogatory, exploitative or corrupting the public morality,’ in comparison with a dance in a low-end bar or hotel, which, presumably, was.

The Supreme Court verdict is a setback for Patil, who pursued the ban as a personal mission. Post ban, the government lost an estimated Rs 3,000 crore annually. Prior to the ban, bar dancers earned as much as Rs 25,000 per month, an income they could not match once they had to stop dancing. According to sources, a majority of these women became commercial sex workers—a profession arguably more exploitative than bar dancing. Though Patil had initially received overwhelming support from the middle-class, particularly women, the embarrassment of the state’s loss of face in the Supreme Court will be difficult to explain.

Interestingly, many bar owners, such as Manjit Singh, president of the State Bar Owners Association, do not want to return to the business. Singh reopened his once infamous bar to the public as a ‘family restaurant’ and the acceptability of this ‘new’ business has completely bowled him over. There will, however, be new players in the bar business, and underworld baddies will be back big time. A corrupt police force will aid the business as in earlier years, and there may be little the home minister can do about it.

It was middle-class support for the ban on dance bars which encouraged Patil to venture into avenues that did not need his intervention, such as Navratri celebrations, New Year’s Eve dances and even IPL cheerleading.

Many say Patil has not been good for the entertainment business in the state. His opposition to IPL cheerleaders resulted in policemen sitting in on matches, keeping a hawk’s eye on them to check for nudity. So when matches were played in Maharashtra, cheerleaders were ‘suitably’ covered—no arms, legs or midriffs bared. Patil’s war with IPL cheerleaders was perhaps the most laughable aspect of his moral policing.

The 10 pm deadline for the use of loudspeakers and playing of loud music at public celebrations saw the death of the city’s famed Navratri celebrations, which moved out of the state—Ahmedabad in Gujarat is now the hotspot for dandiya raas. Many appeals were made from various quarters to extend the 10 pm deadline, but Patil was adamant. Now, Mumbaikars travel to Ahmedabad or other cities in Gujarat to participate in the festival there.

The Maharashtra Government has been put on the mat by a thundering opposition in the ongoing monsoon session of the state legislature, with parties demanding that the government appeal the verdict and get ‘the evil’ (read: dance bars) out of the state—though it is an open secret that many politicians have invested in these bars and also patronised them, giving a fillip to the business before the ban. The problem with the state government is that the relevant departments do not do their homework. Ministers make announcements, then demand that bureaucrats bend the rules to make their declarations stick. With public awareness increasing, the courts are seeing an increase in lawsuits against the state’s decisions. Courts have not been kind to the Maharashtra government. In many cases, Mantralaya has failed to justify its decisions, with many having been turned over by the Judiciary.

No lessons appear to have been learnt. With elections slated for early next year, the state will have it tough trying to defend its moral posture. The legal department may have to be jolted out of its slumber and made to work for a change. But even so, the best legal minds will be hard-pressed to justify what the state proposes.

The legal department is considered a lousy posting. This tunnel vision may explain the failure of the government to defend its decisions in courtrooms, but in this specific case, all the work by the law department will not be enough to justify a badly thought out idea.