Dance bars of Maharashtra received reprieve from Supreme Court

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Last Thursday, January 17, 2019, Supreme Court lifted a 13-year ban on the operation of dance bars in Maharashtra. A 2016 Maharashtra State Act had imposed tough sanctions on hotel owners operating dance bars virtually preventing them from obtaining licenses by incorporating several provisions in the Maharashtra Prohibition of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Restaurant and Bar Rooms and Protection of Dignity of Women (working therein) Act, 2016.

Facts of the case

The Supreme Court observed severe fallacies in the Maharashtra State Act of 2016 and in Thursday’s ruling diluted several provisions to allow hotel owners operating dance bars to obtain licenses. The Apex Court held that the state cannot impose its “notions of morality” nor try to intervene in the staging of dance performances by exercising “social control.” Today’s judgment was on the basis of a petition filed by the Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association (IHRA) amongst several others.

IHRA had contended that since 2005 licenses were not granted to hotel owners who wished to operate dance bars on the grounds of morality. The Maharashtra State Act of 2016 had further made it difficult to obtain licenses and operate hotels with its severe stance on this issue. The petitioners further brought to Court’s notice the moral policing of the State government and its rigid approach to permit the operations of dance bars.

The State government in its affidavit alleged, “it was observed that such dances were derogatory to the dignity of women and were likely to deprave, corrupt or injure public morality. It was also brought to the notice of the state government that the places where such dances were staged were used as places for immoral activities and also as a place for solicitation for the purpose of prostitution.”

Court ruling

The top court in its critical review of the government’s decision stated, “from 2005 to date, not a single person has been given license (for dance bars). It cannot be done. There can be regulations but it cannot amount to a total prohibition.” The Court also held several provisions as regressive and “unconstitutional.” Chastising the State government the Apex Court held, “it is also to be noted that standards of morality in a social change with the passage of time.”

The two-judge Bench of Justices A K Sikri and Ashok Bhushan ruled in favor of the petitioners stating, “a practice which may not be immoral by societal standards cannot be thrust upon the society as immoral by the state with its own notion of morality and thereby exercise social control.” The Court further observed the ridiculous provisions that dance bars cannot operate within 1 km of any religious institutions. The Apex Court found that this provision is a perverse attempt by the State government to prevent dance bar operations and held, “this condition is also held to be arbitrary and unreasonable and is quashed.” The Court also scrapped the provision of constructing a barrier between the bar-rooms and dance floor. The mandatory installation of CCTVs in dance bars and that “licenses to be given only to the people of good character” was also ruled as “vague.”

But the Court also upheld some critical provisions of the law like dance bars could operate only between 6 pm to 11:30 pm. The Maharashtra government has been given the final rights to decide if immoral and obscene dance routines are practiced in such bars; in which event, the government can shut down the place and cancel the license of the hotel owner. The Court also clarified, “tips to performers are allowed but showering them with money is not.”

Impact of the judgment

Ranjeet Patil, Maharashtra home minister aptly put his views when he stated his thoughts on the judgment as “a mixed verdict which does not reflect the public sentiment in Maharashtra which was against dance bars.” On the other hand, Dance Bar Girls Association president Varsha Kale held it as “a good judgment that would hopefully bring about the much-needed regulation in the industry. We have always fought against exploitation of dancers but banning the activity was never the solution. We now hope this ruling will help bar owners get licenses and the dancers would get employment in a much-regulated environment.”

Uday Shetty from Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association was pleased with the judgment and commented, “even after the ban was lifted in 2014, the Act introduced by the government made the process to obtain licenses very difficult. Between 2016 when the Act was passed and now, only 3 to 4 bars could operate. We welcome the conditions upheld by the SC and we would abide by those.” But opposition leader in Maharashtra State Legislative Council, Dhananjay Munde feared, “the government has once again fallen short in presenting its side on dance bar ban before the court. Concerned about effects of the decision in the future.” He argued, “the government should immediately take legal steps to see dance bars do not start operating again.”

Our understanding of dance bars was cemented from cinematic experiences such as Chandni Bar, directed by Madhur Bhandarkar where we witnessed the protagonist’s daily struggles and how the dance bars helped in sustaining her family. A sentiment that is also echoed by the Bharatiya Bargirls Union in their petition where they claimed, the 2016 State Act is “violative of their right to earn a livelihood.” Needless to say, they found the verdict uplifting and welcomed it wholeheartedly.

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