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Supreme Court upholds decision to strike down 2005 law shuttering dance bars in Mumbai

Dance bars spread across Mumbai in the early part of the last decade after starting in the early 1990s, evolving from Mujra parlours of yesteryears.

ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jul 17, 2013, 04.00 AM IST
Dance bars spread across Mumbai in the early part of the last decade after starting in the early 1990s, evolving from Mujra parlours of yesteryears.
Dance bars spread across Mumbai in the early part of the last decade after starting in the early 1990s, evolving from Mujra parlours of yesteryears.
NEW DELHI/MUMBAI: Dance bars, a decidedly Mumbai social invention that has served as inspiration for Bollywood filmmakers and authors besides serving as relaxation spaces for the city’s plebeians and the posh, could soon reopen for business.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday paved the way for these bars to reopen after an eight-year ban, upholding a Bombay High Court decision of 2006 that had struck down a law disallowing the business. In the process, the top court may have put its imprimatur on a business that has for long evoked strong reactions across the political and social aisles, bestowing it legitimacy and potentially facilitating its export as an economic idea to other cities.

“We uphold the High Court decision,” a bench comprising outgoing Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and SS Nijjar said, referring to the Bombay High Court’s decision to strike down a 2005 law brought into force by the Maharashtra government that effectively shuttered the business. “We have, however, not gone into the aspects of Article 19 (right to freedom) and Article 21 (right to life),” Justice Nijjar said.

Dance bars spread across Mumbai in the early part of the last decade after starting in the early 1990s, evolving from the Mujra parlours of yesteryears and drawing into them gentry as varied as criminals, government officials, traders and even investment bankers. Immortalised in public consciousness by names such as Topaz, Deepa, Natraj, Stallion, Night Lovers and Carnival, the dance bar business became the subject of films (Chandni Bar, a Hindi film directed by Madhur Bhandarkar) and was featured in best-selling books on Mumbai (Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City), the two creative industries investing it with romance amid a lot of social revulsion.

Essentially watering holes featuring women gyrating to Bollywood numbers with men seated around the dance floor spraying wads of cash on them, they became the lightning rod for criticism by social activists who complained they were corrupting the youth besides breeding crime and immorality in society.

As the criticism mounted, the Maharashtra government passed a resolution backed by all political parties to stop such bars in the state Assembly in 2005. A special Act was later passed to ban dance performances in bars in Mumbai and Maharashtra.

The 2005 law permitted only hotels classified as threestar and above to operate such bars. But critics of the law argued that the state had no right to take away the livelihood of women employed in these bars without offering them an alternative. Neither could the state differentiate between hotels based on the class to which they were catering, they said.

While those supporting the law cited the vulgar nature of the performances and the underlying exploitation and violence to back the ban, the Bombay High Court shot down the law in 2006, prompting the miffed state to appeal to the top court.
Reacting to Tuesday’s ruling, one of the key architect of the 2005 law, Maharashtra’s Home Minister RR Patil indicated that the state was not happy with the Supreme Court judgement. “We will take legal opinion on this and check the possibility of filing a review petition. We have again received requests today from social organisations to stop dance bars from reopening,” he said, as the state government came under fire from the opposition BJP and Shiv Sena for failing to convince the court about the necessity of the ban.

BJP state president and MLA Devendra Phadanvis said these bars were places where youngsters squandered money, while Shiv Sena MLC Neelam Gorhe labelled them “a menace to society” for having “ruined so many families”.

Manushi editor Madhu Kishwar, also a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said that those who criticised the ruling risked the risk of being accused of moral policing, which destroyed the possibility of having a sensible discourse on the subject.

“After all, it is a demeaning job. Look at the way men treat you, drool over you. The women have to dance before drunken louts. They double up as sex workers. It is not my idea of a dignified job for a woman. It’s the road to hell for far too many women,” he said.

“ They get trapped in sex rackets, criminal activities. These are seedy joints, where there is a lot of pimping, sex slavery. Most of these women come from very poor families. They don’t have the choice of saying ‘no’. Unfortunately, Bollywood movies have made them respectable. There was a point when feminists used to object to objectification of women as sex objects. Now they call it women’s choice, freedom. Anybody who doesn’t agree is dubbed obscurantist, right-wing and a woman-hater,” he added.

But Tuesday’s court verdict was hailed by industry associations, especially the Bar Dance Owners Association that lost the most when the Rs 300 crore a year business was shuttered.

“We are very happy to hear about the decision. We fought against the ban for over seven years. There is nothing illegal in running a dance bar. We had taken all required licences from the government to run this activity,” said Manjeetsingh Sethi, president of Dance Bar Owners’ Association.

“The government suddenly decided to ban these bars and take away the livelihood of thousands of bar workers, including bar girls. Finally, we have got justice; we hope we can reopen the bars soon. The government should use these bars as a tourist attraction for foreign visitors.”

Added Varsha Kale, a social activist working for the Association: “We don’t mind if the government puts some restrictions on operations of the bars in the interest of security of the girls who perform there but there should not be a ban on the bars.”

Police officials said most of Mumbai’s dance bars had become pick-up joints, frequented by underworld, cricket bookies, small-time actors and cricketers. Abul Karim Telgi, the main accused in the stamp paper scam was said to have spent crores on bar girls in the 1990s, while a prominent bowler from the Sri Lanka team was known to be a patron of one of the bars.

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