OPINION

Unhealthy defiance

It is not unusual to see State governments showing reluctance to abide by court orders that rulers deem politically inexpedient or ideologically unpalatable. Maharashtra is perilously close to being seen as wilfully disobedient as it drags its feet on issuing licences to hoteliers to host dance performances more than a month after the Supreme Court stayed its legislation to ban dance bars in Mumbai. The court has now peremptorily told the State government to process within two weeks all the applications it has received. State Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis appears reluctant to accept the court’s point that the dance bars are a source of livelihood — or at least they used to be until the Mumbai Police Act was amended in 2005 to ban them — to a large number of women and that it is better to regulate them instead of prohibiting them. While mentioning in a tweet that he respected the Supreme Court order, he made it clear that he was in principle opposed to the idea of opening the dance bars and that he still was thinking of legislative intervention. However, so far such legislation has not found favour with the judiciary. In 2006, the Bombay High Court invalidated the amendment, and the Supreme Court confirmed the judgment in 2013. But the government did not allow the bars to be opened. Instead, the State amended the law again in 2014, assuming that would help it get around the judgment. While staying the amendment last month, the court noted that it was merely a re-enactment of the very provision that had been held invalid earlier.

Mr. Fadnavis would do well to realise that further legislation will not be valid if it is aimed at prohibiting what the court has now come to recognise as a vocation that everyone has a right to carry on under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution. The present amendment that his regime is trying to defend is unlikely to survive judicial scrutiny, as a similar provision has already been held to violate the right of individuals to engage in a profession of his or her choice. It was also not a reasonable restriction introduced in the public interest. Instead, he should drop his ideological objection to the opening of the dance bars, as this objection is based only on a conservative moral and cultural view of social life, and not necessarily in law or an understanding of social realities. There are reports that more than 75,000 families have been affected by the ban and that hundreds of women took up sex work. The plight of these vulnerable sections ought to pose greater concern to the government than the possibility that society will lapse into depravity by the mere presence of dance bars. The court has already showed the way forward. It has advised the government to bring in regulations, if it so wished, to prevent any obscenity creeping into the performances or any form of exploitation of women employed in these establishments. Governments have many reasonable ways to address their social concerns. Wholesale bans and unhealthy defiance of judicial authority should not be among them.