India’s Morality Police Get Into Action Again

In Mumbai, shapely women dance away to blaring Bollywood numbers under colorful lights in a hazy air-conditioned atmosphere as clients, mainly youth, wealthy businessmen or tourists, shower them with currency notes.

Or at least they did.

The interactive sessions with the dancers came to a sudden stop last week throughout the southern state of Maharashtra, where the bluenoses managed to push through a controversial law banning performances of dancers in all of the state’s hotels, bars and restaurants. That has civil rights activists and women’s organizations up in arms.

The state’s vice cops have long been after the dancers and have been known to raid parties with bizarre weapons like hockey sticks, said Neeru, a bar dancer, harassing young lovers and even whaling away at underclad mannequins. “Banning our performances in the name of ensuring `safety of women’ and labeling it as `obscenity’ is pure hogwash,” Neera said.

So now the existing licenses of hundreds of dance bars that dot one of India’s commercially most successful states now stand cancelled. Any breach means harsh punitive measures – a minimum of three months to a maximum of five years of jail and a minimum US$1,000 to US10,000 maximum fine besides cancellation of the hotel permit.

Not that India’s Maximum City, as Mumbai is often referred to, is new to such moral policing. A similar ban was slapped on dance bars in Maharashtra in 2005 although that one applied only to hotels, bars and restaurants below three star category until the courts voided the law. The current one precludes even the starred hotels — right up to five star — from hosting performances by bar dancers.

Though no official figures are available, it is believed that currently over 700 dance bars (standalone and those inside hotels) are strewn across Mumbai alone, employing over 65,000 women and a wait staff of 40,000. According to unofficial estimates, half a million such bars speckle the entire state since the first one was established in the 1970s.

Millions of rupees are literally blown up in these dance bars. Some of the top-end dancers arrive to 'work' in snazzy chauffeur-driven vehicles, with their own private armed security and assistants to collect their earnings – currency notes showered on them by patrons.

At times, depending on how regular the patrons were, they were even permitted to shake a leg under the strict watch of bouncers. After earning a bundle ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand rupees, many of the dancers return by transport provided by the bar/hotel early morning the next day and reach home before sunrise. Others stay back with patron-customers.

The dance bars are also a source of hefty profits for the state exchequer. According to government estimates, after the 2005 ban the state lost annual revenue to the tune of Rs1-1.2 million in revenue from each of the state's licensed dance bars. These can be categorized as liquor/restaurant license fees, entertainment tax, performance license fees, stage license fees and excise fees, besides income tax and sales tax.

However, despite the tidy profits that accrue to the state, as well as the employment opportunities these hubs of entertainment generate, the current Home Minister R.R. Patil has long crusaded against them. In 2005, Patil led a campaign to close the establishments, alleging that they were “hubs of prostitution” and crime, and that his state was willing to forgo the excise revenue it got from them for the sake of “public morality.”

The last ban unleashed social mayhem. Some of the bar dancers killed themselves, and 40 percent were pushed into prostitution, says Anil Gaikwad, legal adviser for Indian Hotel and Restaurant Owners' Association, citing a government study. Bars converted into restaurants or orchestra bars, or shut down.

However, civil society activists fought a long and hard battle and in 2006 the Bombay High Court declared the ban unconstitutional. The court said the ban violated the right to equality as it prohibited women from practicing a profession of their choice.

The Supreme Court also upheld the high court’s judgment in 2013 asking how a citizen’s right to practice any occupation could be curtailed simply because a woman happened to be dancing rather than waiting a table. However, instead of respecting the broader directive laid down by the Supreme Court to regulate these workplaces better, the Maharashtra government has decided once again to ban these bars.

“The government has clearly not learnt its lesson,” says Gaekwad. “For eight years in a row, the state lost millions of rupees it had earned from dance bars. Besides, their closure results in job loss to thousands of youth.”

According to Praveen Agarwal, general secretary, Bar Owners' Association, "Nobody can deny that the state stands to gain and so does the industry as the footfall in a dance bar converts into increased consumption and sale of liquor. Dozens of ancillary industries depend on dance bars for survival creating an ecosystem for employment and revenue generation."

According to excise department figures, about US$2 billion was collected from dance bars in the state in 2012. Besides excise from liquor sales, each dance bar paid an excise fee of about $6,000 for a 12-month term and $3,000 a year for a performance license, which allowed it to feature women dancers and stay open till midnight.

The dancers earn US$ 400-500 each month from the bars, plus additional tips. Many of them wear designer clothes, have cars and real estate investments. That now has been shut off.

Activists and lawyers are agitated about the ban too. “If the state is so concerned about crime and prostitution, it should concentrate its efforts on greater protection for women and better crime control,” said Deeksha Khanna, a Mumbai-based lawyer who has been spearheading local agitation against banning dance bars.

“With this renewed push against dance bars, the state government has revealed its incapacity to respect the individual freedom of citizens,” says Mehrunissa, 28, a bar dancer who is now unemployed and was earlier supporting her widowed mother and four younger siblings. “Is this how the world’s largest democracy is supposed to function?” she asks.

Even during the last ban, dancers say, while they were affected directly, 21,000 waitresses and 4,000 singers also lost their jobs.

“In fact, most of the suicides after the ban were by waitresses who were replaced by dancers. While prostitution became an option for many of us, some girls also went overseas on dance contracts to Singapore and the Gulf countries,” said a dancer on the condition of anonymity.

With the ban in full force, the fate of thousands of hapless Indian bar dancers hangs in balance.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist. Follow her on twitter: neeta lal@neeta_com