On Dance Bars, Supreme Court has Imposed High Class Restrictions

Supreme court has violated its last year’s progressive judgement striking down the dance bar ban.

4 min read
Women perform at a dance bar in Mumbai (Photo: Reuters)
  • The SC negates its own ruling by suspending the ban on one hand while directing prosecution for “obscenity” on the other
  • The court has violated its last year’s progressive judgement striking down the dance bar ban
  • Maharashtra government’s ban is loaded with gender, class and caste biases
  • The ban has led to untold misery and exploitation of the affected dancers
  • The “vice” is of the government, not of the women dancers it accuses of spreading moral pollution

“When correctly viewed, everything is lewd”, Tom Lehrer sang in “Smut”, a 1965 satirical song in which he took a sharp dig at the guardians of morality and virtue who raved and ranted against what society and the establishment abhorred as pornography.

One could perhaps be forgiven for assuming that the Supreme Court’s October 15 Order was a retort to Lehrer. While putting an interim stay on the government’s prohibition on dance bars, the court granted the government and its agencies, especially the police, the court threw in a rider:

“…no performance of dance shall remotely be expressive of any kind of obscenity in any manner. We may hasten to clarify that in the earlier Judgment, it has been clearly stated that sufficient power is vested with the Licensing Authority to safeguard any violation of the dignity of women through obscene dances. Regard being had to the same, the Licensing Authority can take steps so that the individual dignity of a woman is not affected and there remains no room for any kind of obscenity.”

Thus, the court, while ostensibly batting for the women’s freedom to draw a livelihood from dancing, was also laying down strident restrictions against those women it considers as engaging in “lascivious” conduct in course of their performances. By giving the “licensing authority” a free hand to keep such “licentious” conduct in check, and thereby rescue society from falling into the grip of vice, it, ironically, was vindicating and lending support to the very justifications the government had given for imposing the ban.

More significantly, and again, ironically, by giving the government and police untrammelled power to act against what it considers bawdy and obscene, the court is going against its own ruling in 2013.

75,000 bar dancers lost their livelihoods as a result of the ban on dance bars in Maharashtra (Photo: Reuters)
75,000 bar dancers lost their livelihoods as a result of the ban on dance bars in Maharashtra (Photo: Reuters)

A Prism of Triple Subjugation

In its 2013 judgement, the court issued a severe indictment against the government for its selective (and thereby hypocritical) stance of allowing cabarets and other forms of “risqué” dances in three-star hotels and other establishments but clamping down on dance bars. The government had no answer to the court’s question- did those dances not carry the risk of corrupting minds and morals?

The judges were sagacious enough to take note of the triple subjugation the ban imposed upon women- of gender, caste and class. In the government’s book, “obscene” dancing did not include the utterly disgraceful and often violent, “dancing” by inebriated men. And, that the government’s hyper-emphasis on “morality” was restricted only to women.

The government was also at a loss to state, let alone explain, its solicitous concern for the men, mostly hailing from the working classes, who made up the major share of the bars’ patrons. While amending the law and imposing the ban, the government had made the sweeping submission that men were indulging in untold debauchery which hurtled their families in penury and destitution. As the submission made by Lawyers Collective, a legal advocacy and rights organisation shows, the government’s claim, that the Mumbai would be liberated from a large number of crimes if the ban was imposed and ruthlessly enforced, was entirely without merit. Moreover, they were premised on a very rigid upper-class mentality- that it’s only the poor who run out of control under the influence of alcohol and go on a crime-committing rampage.

Flavia Agnes, feminist lawyer and women’s rights activist, who has been ceaselessly campaigning against the ban, wrote in 2005 how the ban’s enforcement stripped the women dancers, whom the government ostensibly wanted to protect, stripped them of every iota of dignity. The police, in its zeal, indulged in rampant excesses.

Bar girls participate in a protest in Bombay May 3, 2005 after Indian authorities decided to close down some 600 dance bars. (Photo: Reuters)
Bar girls participate in a protest in Bombay May 3, 2005 after Indian authorities decided to close down some 600 dance bars. (Photo: Reuters)

Caste Governance

The Indian Express’s Dipti Nagpaul-D’Souza evocatively describes how the dance bars were a source of livelihood, and emancipation, for hundreds of women from the Scheduled Tribes and depressed castes. She quotes from legal academic Sameena Dalwai’s PhD thesis (to be published as a book in 2016) which shows how the motivation for the ban betrayed extreme caste bias.

Dalwai states that the government’s abolitionist stance proved its extreme disapproval of lower-caste women transcending the boundaries imposed upon them by upper-caste men. Its moral panic at lower-caste women earning a livelihood and confidently expressing their sexuality stemmed from an extreme contempt for these women who didn’t want to remain at the paternalistic mercy of their social superiors. The affidavit filed by the present government, which the present Supreme Court bench will be deciding upon, and CM Devendra Fadnavis’s resolute statement – that his government will go all out for a total ban bears this same caste-bias. To quote from Dalwai’s 2013 article in The Economic and Political Weekly, this is nothing but “caste governance” in the name of “good governance”.

Agnes told this writer over email that since the legal definition of “obscenity” lies in a tangled web, and has often been used for moral policing (something which Maharashtra Police has now fine-tuned into an art) the court’s Order breeds dismay.

November 5 is the next date of hearing, and in that interval, the government will surely muster more reasons to defend its stance. Will the judges use this same interval to give considerable thought and devote judicial wisdom to undertake a course-correction?

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