Dance, Like Everyone's Watching
The end of an 11 year ban on dance bars ought to bring relief and elation to the dancers and bar owners of Maharashtra. But the Supreme Court’s rejection of the 2005 Maharashtra ban has left the industry with a fresh law that seems designed to assuage the requirements of the Supreme Court while severely curtailing dance bar owner’s ability to get their businesses back up and running.
“This is nothing but political compulsion,” says Shashikant Shetty, head of the Indian Hotel and Restaurants Association of India. We’re seated at his restaurant located in Chembur on a balmy Saturday afternoon. Owner of this Chinese joint by day and ‘orchestra bar’ by night, Shetty is one of the many vehemently opposing the contentious new law that the Maharashtra government has slapped on the bars. Referring to the face saving attempt by the Fadnavis led government, Shetty adds, “They are lifting the ban passed by the opposition government led by RR Patil at the time.” He pauses, “And with this new law, there is clearly no real intention to reopen the bars.”
In fact in 2015, when the Supreme Court asked the government to start issuing licences to dance bars, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis made it clear that his government will explore all legal options, including legislative intervention to enforce a total ban on dance bars across Maharashtra. “It’s no secret,” says Varsha Kale, honorary president of the bar girls’ union, “This government does not want dance bars up and running under any circumstances.”
“They seized the livelihood of so many girls for so many years and now they want to take away our freedom,” says 42 year old dancer turned singer Shabnam, panting into the phone. Armed with two young children and a penchant for singing and dancing, Shabnam came to Mumbai 18 years ago to make a living after her husband’s death. After the ban was imposed, she moved to singing in these orchestra bars, but not all girls were as fortunate as her.
“Not everyone can sing, so bar owners had to let them go. Some committed suicide, some moved to Dubai, some sent their children back to the village and some were forced into the flesh trade, exactly what this government claims it’s trying to stop, but does nothing towards that,” she says.
It all started in 2005, where RR Patil, Home Minister and Deputy Chief Minister announced a ban across the state, with the exception of Mumbai, because it was supposedly ‘corrupting the state’s youth’. A few months later, the state government announced a Mumbai ban as well.
In 2006, the Bombay High Court struck down the ban, claiming that prohibiting dancing violated the right to carry on one’s profession under Article 19 of the Constitution. The High Court also held that banning dance in some establishments while permitting them in others like hotels was contrary to the rule of equality, after which the State decided to appeal in the Supreme Court.
In 2013, the Supreme Court only upheld the Bombay High Court order and ruled the ban discriminatory.
A defiant Maharashtra government then filed another appeal against the Supreme Court order, only to have it struck down by the apex court in 2015, the bench pulling up the state saying the new provision is similar to the older one. . The Supreme Court bench of Justices Dipak Misra and PC Pant noted that the state government re-enacted a similar legislation, with a mere enhancement of fine, especially after the apex court already struck down the prohibitory provision in 2013. However, the Supreme Court said, “No performance of dance shall remotely be expressive of any kind of obscenity in any manner” and that “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.”
In order to get past the SC order, the state went ahead and introduced the strict legislation to regulate dance bars in the state which has 26 new conditions that must be met in order to acquire a dance bar license.
Alok Prasanna, Senior Resident Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy says, “Going by the history of litigation, it appears that the Government is trying everything to kill the industry. Maharashtra is attempting to do indirectly what the law and courts won’t allow them to do directly, which is shut down these dance bars.” The Maharashtra Prevention of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Bar Rooms and Protection of the Dignity of Women Act, 2016 is consistent with the government’s stand that dancing in an ‘indecent manner’ in beer bars and restaurants is likely to ‘corrupt’ public morality.
“What is obscene dancing?” says Shetty. This has been defined as “moves designed to arouse the prurient interest of the audience ; one which consists of a sexual act ; lascivious movements ; gestures for the purpose of sexual propositioning or indicating the availability of sexual access to the dancer.” This ambiguous definition of obscenity – one man’s lasciviousness may be another man’s hello – leaves dance bars in legal limbo.
“There is no ban on dancing, which means we can go back to it, but how does one define what obscenity is. There are already laws that exist for dignity and obscenity, but because it is so ambiguous, they cannot stick. You can pull us up for obscenity if the dancers are topless or if we are playing uncensored songs, but we aren’t guilty of either,” says Varsha Kale.
The law also limits when dancing is allowed, banning bar dancing except for between 6:oo pm and 11:30 pm.
“The curfew for lavani performances is 1:30 am, why are dance bars being forced to shut down at 11:30 pm?” says Kale. The government has even said there needs to be mandatory installation of CCTVs inside the bars, despite the Supreme Court holding that this is an invasion of privacy.
“The courts have said this is an infringement on our freedom, but the government still won’t comply. Please tell me, if I have a camera and the police constantly hanging around a dance bar waiting to conduct a raid, will I ever have any customers? People will stop coming to bars out of fear,” says Shabnam.
Even in court, representative of dance bar owners Jayant Bhushan said CCTVs would have a ‘chilling effect’ on patrons, asking the court to imagine a hotel room with cameras. But was shot down by Maharashtra counsel Shekhar Naphade, who claimed a room was a private domain, but a dance bar like lobbies, staircases and hotel lounges is a public space
The greatest compliance challenge for bar owners, however, might be restrictions on where bar dancing will be allowed. Under the new law, a dance bar cannot be located within a one-kilometer radius of any educational or religious institution. Bar owners wonder whether such a condition is possible to satisfy in a city as dense as Mumbai and highlight its seemingly arbitrary nature: “The rule for wine shops is only 55 meters. So if you can serve and drink alcohol, 55 meters away from a school or religious institution, why the 1 km radius for dance bars?”, says Kale.
What’s more, customers are neither allowed to consume alcohol inside the dance bar nor to can shower money on the dancers or tip them. “We are more than agreeable with the ban on showering money, but why ban tips? You can tip a waiter, then why not a dancer? How are these women supposed to earn money?” says Kale.
Customers who shower money on a dancer or behave indecently with them can be sentenced to up to six months in prison and/or slapped with a fine of up to Rs 50,000.
The Supreme Court too, came down on the state government in September, saying the law was ‘absurd’ and ‘absolutely arbitrary’ and indicative of the State’s mentality which is ‘absolutely regressive by centuries’
But the state counsel refused to back down claiming that serving and drinking liquor is not a fundamental right and it cannot be taken away, unless through judgement.
There must also be a 3 feet high railing separating the dance floor from the seating area, with a distance of at least 5 feet between the railing and the customers. Only four performers will be allowed to dance at a time.
Several bar owners, fearing police raids, are skeptical about reopening the bars. “The girls are willing to start dancing again, but because the conditions are so stringent and the enforcement even worse, bar owners are playing wait and watch,” says Kale.
A bar owner caught allowing ‘obscene’ dancing faces three years in jail and a fine up to a whopping 25 lakh rupees. For Yeshwant Shetty, whose orchestra bar is a stone’s throw from a mosque in Byculla in Mumbai, switching back to performances is too great a risk. “The rules are so strict, which make them unable to follow and the fine even greater. I am fervently opposed to the switch, even if it means less money.”
Kale, who once vehemently opposed the law, now maintains a lukewarm approach to it. “The law has a lot of benefits, it allows for dancing, it allows for provident fund schemes, it can work, but only with modifications.”
“That may be,“ Shabnam says, but she sees only moral policing and unwanted “protectors” who never bother to consult the dancers on how best to keep them safe. “It wouldn’t hurt if the government considered us, even for a brief moment.”