July 2013: Celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision to squash the ban on Mumbai’s dance bars, and what it represents…
After 10 years away, I returned to my beloved Mumbai in December 2005, shortly after the state government’s ban on dance bars came in to effect. They were very much a talking point then, and continued to remain in public consciousness through their eight-year ban, recently lifted by the Supreme Court.
It observed that the Maharashtra government’s decision violated bar dancers’ right to livelihood and was ill-considered, leaving many jobless women with no option but to turn to prostitution. Besides, allowing women entertainers in establishments with ratings of three stars and above is classist and breeds inequality. In the end, it is the triumph of the right to earn over moral policing, of practicality over autocratic bureaucracy… but, inherently, it stands for so much more.
With this ruling, the Apex Court has delivered a body blow to the cultural imperialism and misogyny that has been the bane of this once liberal, cosmopolitan city, and the Bombay Police (Amendment) Act of 2005. We have bred the draconian Dhobles wielding their hockey sticks with impunity, seen a dip in women’s safety, and observed the growing chasm between the haves and have nots, all this against the backdrop of increasingly risqué cultural fare dished out via aspiration-inspiring Bollywood. We are a confused bunch, led by thoroughly confused politicians, trying to negotiate changing sociocultural paradigms, the old and the new.
Moral policing is NOT the way to do so. For one, who determines what is moral or immoral? Who draws the hypocritical line that allows heaving bosoms in film songs, at stage shows, award functions and upmarket venues, and disallows it in dance bars? More importantly, does moral policing extend only to sexuality, and that too, female sexuality—and not to those who allow illegal, substandard buildings to come up and collapse, those who rob our coffers, those who poison poor children’s mid-day meals. Clearly, morality is subjective, but I believe that, in the grander scheme of things, there are far more important ‘immoral’ issues to tackle than female modesty. Really.
Aside from the moral policing issue, I think the ban on dance bars has robbed Mumbai of two of its best characteristics—a semblance of women’s lib and socioeconomic parity. Simply put, an expensive city needs double income homes, and women here have needed to work—virtuous, gharelu ideals for daughters, sisters and wives be damned. A society with working women tends to foster education, liberation, equality, empowerment, and safety and respect. Disallowing thousands of adult women from practicing their trade, immoral though it may seem to some, has taken us back a few steps. If the government believes that bar dancing is “derogatory to the dignity of women”, well, so is treating these dancers like dependents without rights on their own bodies and choices.
And it’s not as though this ban eradicated bar dancing altogether. A ‘lucky’ few continued to dance in sleazy underground ‘orchestra’ bars, more vulnerable than ever before for plying their illegal trade. Others were compelled into prostitution, while a few have managed to make successful career changes, like the famous Sweety of Grant Road’s Topaz bar who is now a make-up artist.
What I have always loved about this city is its lack of classism and respect for the individual beyond the family, history and wealth they come from. Though Bollywood is turning dynastical with this new crop of star children, strugglers throng to the ‘city of dreams’ like they always have, and any one of them could be the next Shah Rukh or Dhirubhai. No dreams, big or small, seem unachievable—but, seemingly, watching women dance has been reserved for wealthy men, and performing live has been reserved for those few women who can land gigs at three-star venues.
The ban was clearly politically motivated, and it seems to have backfired in more ways than one. Eight years on, it is deemed unconstitutional and imprudent, without a thought for the repercussions. Not only have the dancers and bar owners suffered, but it is estimated that cash-strapped Maharashtra has lost out on Rs 24,000 crores of excise revenue and licence fees. And yet, at the time of going to press, Home Minister RR Patil is reviewing legal options, and blusters that the ban will continue despite the Supreme Court’s directive.
Instead of fighting what is sure to be a losing battle against the country’s laws, I wish he, and others in public administration, would read up on American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s significant 1943 theory on the hierarchy of needs, and apply it to governance and social construction in India—and the third world in general. Maslow classified humans’ emotional needs as Physiological, Safety, Belongingness and Love, Esteem, Self-Actualisation and Self-Transcendence—from the most basic, to the most advanced. In India and other developing countries, many are still deprived of the absolute basics—food and water. Safety and security—of body, employment, resources, morality, family, health and property—are a long way off for most, particularly women. Instead of seeking to control evolved concerns like culture and morality, the government should focus its limited resources on securing the basics for its citizens. In this case, its ban on ‘immoral’ dance bars has actually deprived thousands of food, and the safety of their bodies, employment, resources, family and health. Okay, forget Maslow: I wish they’d just follow our Constitution, which is rather progressive for the most part.
I welcome the relegalising of bar dancing. Like my opinion on pornography and prostitution, if the police does its primary job henceforth, one hopes that these women will be better protected than they have been in the past. If the Maharashtra government believes that dance bars fuel prostitution, it should work on better policing, not banning them altogether.
Patil has accused those who support dance bars of having “double standards”—we wouldn’t want them in our buildings or bar dancers in our families, he says. He may be right—many years ago, when a friend was dating the owner of a dance bar (during the ban, mind you), I remember teasing her about the origin of the sweat-soaked money he lavished on her. Nonetheless, an evolving society and a government with more important things to achieve must allow adults choice, and safeguard them, whatever their choices may be.
An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in July 2013. It won the Laadli Award for Best Feature (2013-4).