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Dance bar ban off with ‘pro-rich’ rap SC heat over double standard

New Delhi, July 16: The Supreme Court today lifted the ban on dance bars in Maharashtra, slamming the state government for moral policing that discriminated between the rich and the poor.

It upheld a Bombay High Court ruling of 2006 that had quashed a government order banning dances by women professionals at bars catering to the middle and working classes while allowing them in restaurants with three or more stars, pubs and discos.

“If a certain kind of dance is sensuous… and… causes sexual arousal in men, it cannot be said to (happen) more in the prohibited establishments and less in the exempted establishments,” the bench of Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and Justice S.S. Nijjar said.

“Nor can it be presumed that sexual arousal would generate (a) different character of behaviour depending on the social strata of the audience.”

It added: “Our judicial conscience would not permit us to presume that the class to which an individual or audience belongs brings with (it)… a particular kind of morality or decency. History is replete with examples of crimes of lust committed in the highest echelons of society as well as in the lowest levels of society.”

Nationalist Congress Party leader and state home minister R.R. Patil, the force behind the ban, hinted that the state might appeal today’s verdict or get a stricter law passed in the Assembly to re-impose the ban.

The state had clamped the ban in August 2005, a month after amending Section 33 of the Bombay Police Act to make such a move possible. The ostensible idea was to curb alleged prostitution, trafficking and exploitation of women, and “antisocial activities” at some purportedly seedy joints.

After the high court in 2006 quashed the amended section as unconstitutional, the apex court had stayed the high court order on an appeal from the state.

The ban that had left 75,000 bar dancers jobless and affected 2,500 establishments, therefore, had stayed in place till today’s verdict. Some bar dancers and social activists said that unemployment had led many of these women to prostitution or suicide.

“We are unable to accept the presumption which runs through Sections 33A and 33B that the enjoyment of (the) same kind of entertainment by the upper classes leads only to mere enjoyment and in the case of poor classes it would lead to immorality, decadence and depravity. Morality and depravity cannot be pigeonholed by degrees depending upon the classes of the audience,” the apex court judgment said.

It said a distinction based on the “classes of the establishments and classes/kind of persons who frequent the establishment” ran counter to the constitutional mandate against discrimination on the basis of caste, colour, creed, religion or gender.

The high court ruling had come on a petition moved by the Indian Hotels and Restaurants Association, bar dancers and social activists.

Today’s judgment made several points:

“The aforesaid presumption is also perplexing on the ground that in the banned establishments, even a non-obscene dance would be treated as vulgar. On the other hand, it would be presumed that in the exempted establishments, any dance is non-obscene.”

“It is evident that the same dancer can perform the same dance in the high-class hotels, clubs, and gymkhanas but is prohibited (from) doing so in the establishments covered under Section 33A. We see no rationale which would justify the conclusion that a dance that leads to depravity in one place would get converted (into) an acceptable performance by a mere change of venue.”

“Incongruously, the state does not find it indecent, immoral or derogatory to the dignity of women if they take up other positions in the same establishments such as receptionist, waitress or bar tender. (The state seems to believe that) the women that serve liquor and beer… do not arouse lust in customers but women dancing would arouse lust….”

Politicians unite

State home minister Patil said the government would form a panel of lawyers, senior legislators and legal experts to decide its options, “including approaching the full bench, filing a review petition or changing (tightening) the existing laws”.

Patil said the decision to ban dance bars was taken after due process and a unanimous decision in both Houses of the state legislature. He said the bars were being used as pick-up joints for prostitution, minors were being forced to work as bar dancers, and there had been a sharp rise in illegal activities in the bars.

The political class was united in favour of the ban today. The BJP’s Vinod Tawade, leader of the Opposition in the legislative council, said members of both Houses should come together to pass a new law that would stand up to Supreme Court scrutiny.

State Congress chief Manikrao Thakre backed the suggestion.

Shiv Sena MLC and women’s wing leader Neelam Gorhe said: “Nobody is saying there should not be work for the bar dancers, but we cannot ignore serious questions like an increase in alcohol addiction, the exploitation of women, and bars being human trafficking hubs.”