A needless encore

The instinctive resort to moral or cultural policing can make any administration blind to its own folly. The ill-advised move of the Maharashtra government to re-introduce legislation to ban dance bars in Mumbai even after an earlier provision was struck down by the judiciary, has now been stayed by the Supreme Court. Hanging on to the legacy of former Home Minister R.R. Patil, who took it upon himself to preserve the dignity of women dancing in hotels and restaurants in Mumbai to make a living by banning the activity, the Devendra Fadnavis government also now plans to fight for continuing the ban. The court has rightly advised the government to regulate the dance bars, a source of livelihood for tens of thousands of families, to guard against obscenity and exploitation — instead of prohibiting them. It has been a decade since dance performances in restaurants, bars and hotels below the three-star category were banned by an amendment to the Mumbai Police Act. Even though the Bombay High Court invalidated the provision in 2006, and the Supreme Court confirmed that verdict in 2013, these dance bars were not reopened. It is believed that the ban affected 75,000 families, and that thousands of women lost their source of livelihood and took up sex work as an alternative. No fresh licences were issued even after the Supreme Court ruled that the ban was illegal as it discriminated against lower sections of society under the impression that such performances in star hotels were acceptable entertainment or amusement but led to depravity and corruption when they took place in other establishments.

While enacting a fresh provision to get around the court verdict, the State government failed to see that such a measure can be valid only when it removes the basis for the judgment, and not when it seeks to bring back the same clause. The amendment was largely similar to the invalidated section. The amendment, now stayed, may not survive judicial scrutiny as it suffers from the same illegality the Supreme Court had earlier pointed out: that it violated the right of the women to engage in a profession of their choice, and that it was not a reasonable restriction introduced in the interest of the public. Not many will agree with the government’s view that prohibiting dance bars is necessary to prevent the exploitation of the women; or that allowing them to function will encourage prostitution and lead to other crimes. There are other forms of exploitation of women and socio-economic reasons for crime and sex work to thrive. Merely closing down dance bars, thereby robbing vulnerable sections of society of their means of livelihood, is not the answer.

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