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'Moral' victories

By Flavia Agnes

The debates in the Maharashtra assembly, which banned bar dancing in August 2005, were revealing: "We need to do even more of this moral policing," said members. Can the state impose arbitrary and varying standards of vulgarity, indecency and obscenity on society?

  A bar dancer being escorted to court.
On August 14, 2005, at the midnight hour, as the music blared in bars packed to capacity in and around the city of Mumbai, the disco lights were turned off, the dancers took their final bow, and faded into oblivion.

Some left the city in search of options, others fell by the wayside. Some became homeless. Some let their ailing parents die. Some pulled their children out of school. Some were battered and bruised by drunken husbands, as they could not bring in the money to make ends meet. Some put their pre-teen daughters out for sale in the flesh market. And some committed suicide… just names in police diaries… Meena Raju… Bilquis Shahu… Kajol… A few stuck on and begged for work as waitresses in the same bars.  

Who were these women? Where did they come from? And what did they do wrong?  Well, most of them came from ‘outside’ in search of greener pastures. (There is nothing unique or extraordinary about this. Most Mumbaikars are migrants who have come to the city for better prospects.) Some were from traditional dancing communities where women are the primary breadwinners. When the zamindari system was abolished they lost traditional patronage and were reduced to penury. They were bypassed by the government’s development schemes and welfare policies. From their poverty-stricken villages many moved to cities, towns and along national highways in search of a livelihood. The dance bars provided them an opportunity to modernise their skills, to suit the demands of a capitalist economy and to earn a livelihood with dignity. 

Then there were others -- daughters of mill workers and sex workers. When a factory unit or a mill closed down, and the sole earning member lost a job, young girls entered the job market to support their families, using their supple bodies and the sex appeal of their youth. These were women who had worked in exploitative conditions in low-paying jobs -- domestic maids, piece-rate workers, door-to-door salesgirls as well as women workers who had been retrenched from factories and industrial units. For the children of sex workers, dancing in bars provided an opportunity to escape from the exploitative conditions of brothel prostitution in which their mothers had been trapped. 

The majority of bar dancers were single women, sole breadwinners of their families. While most of them were illiterate, there were a few who came from affluent backgrounds. These were young, vivacious women who enjoyed the thrill of dressing up, dancing and entertaining men. (That’s not to say that women from the lower classes did not enjoy this thrill.) On the whole, they were a group of confident women who could negotiate their sexuality and sex appeal to their advantage, in the globalised economy of the mega city.

The demand for the ban on dance bars was based on two contradictory premises. The first -- that bar dancers are evil and immoral, they corrupt the youth and wreck middle class homes; they hanker after easy money and amass a fortune each night by goading innocent and gullible young men into sex and sleaze. The second -- that bars are, in fact, brothels and bar owners traffickers who sexually exploit the girls for commercial gain. This premise refused to grant an agency to the women dancers.

Rather unfortunately, both these populist premises appealed to the parochial, middle class Maharashtrian sense of morality. What was worse, the demand for a ban was framed within the language of ‘women’s liberation’, and the economic disempowerment of this vulnerable class of women came to be projected as a plank which would liberate them from sexual bondage. 

Since the demand for the ban was shrouded in the mantle of sexual morality, it was passed unanimously in the state legislature. No legislator could risk sticking his neck out to defend a lowly bar dancer and tarnish his own image. But what was shocking was the frivolous manner in which a serious move that would render thousands of women destitute was discussed. Not just the bar dancers, even those who spoke out in their defence became the butt of ridicule during the assembly discussions.

One of the comments was aimed at us: “These women who are opposing the ban, we will make their mothers dance…” (The comments have to be translated into Marathi to properly gauge their impact.) During the campaign we had been asked, “Will you send your daughter to dance in a bar?” On the floor of the house, the situation had regressed from our daughters to our mothers! Isha Koppikar… she is an atom bomb, attttom bomb… laughter and cheering… the dancers wear only 20% clothes… more laughter and cheering… these women who dance naked (nanga nach), they don’t deserve any sympathy… round of applause.

An esteemed member narrated an incident about his friend’s daughter who had committed suicide because she did not get a job. He said it was more dignified to commit suicide than to dance in a bar. And the house applauded! Yet another congratulated Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister R R Patil for taking this bold and revolutionary (krantikari) step, but this was not enough. Hotels with three stars… five stars… disco dancing… belly dancing… all that is vulgar… everything should be banned, he urged. 

Another esteemed member (Devendra Phadnavis, BJP) was anecdotal. He had gone to dinner with a friend to a posh restaurant in south Mumbai that has a live orchestra. Not a dance bar, he clarified. But the women there were dressed in an even more obscene manner than the bar dancers. (Comments: Why had you gone there?… laughter… was it part of a study tour?…more laughter…) When licences were given to bars, the understanding was that it would promote the arts -- the performing arts. But what actually happens is vulgar dancing. A total destruction of our culture. Belly dancing in starred hotels is also vulgar. Clubs are also allowed to hold performances. That should be stopped too. This Bill deals with the dignity of women. So all dancing except bharatanatyam and kathak should be banned. Schools and colleges are full of vulgarity. The Bill needs to be made more effective so that it can deal with issues like MMS and pornography. 

Then there were comments about films  -- western, English, Tamil, all are obscene they argued.  But not a word about Hindi and Marathi films. That’s  ‘Amchi Mumbai, amchi Marathi’ (‘Our Mumbai, our Marathi’), I guess!  

Then another esteemed member commented: “We are not Taliban but somewhere we have to put a stop. The moral policing we do, it is a good thing, but it is not enough… we need to do even more of this moral policing…” Suddenly the term ‘moral policing’ had been turned into a hallowed phrase!  

These comments were not from the ruling party members who had tabled the Bill. They were from the opposition whose traditional role is to criticise the Bill, to puncture holes in it, to counter the argument, to present a counter viewpoint. But on that day, the house was united across party lines and all were playing to the gallery with their moral one-upmanship. No one wanted to be left out. Not even the Marxists. In fact, the speech by CPI (M) member Narsayya Adam was more scathing than the rest. He went to the extent of casting aspersions on the governor for returning the Bill.  To return a Bill passed by the cabinet is an insult to the state of Maharashtra, he declared.

The ‘morality’ issue had won. The ‘livelihood’ issue had lost. It was indeed shocking that in this era of liberalisation and globalisation dominated by market forces, morality had superseded all other concerns, even of revenue for the cash-strapped state. It was a moral victory for Deputy Chief Minister (DCM) R R Patil.

In his first announcement in March 2005, the DCM had said that only bars outside Mumbai would be banned. A week later came the next announcement. The state shall not discriminate! All bars, including ones in Mumbai, would be banned. One does not know what transpired in the intervening period. But what was deemed moral, legal and legitimate suddenly, a week later, came to be regarded as immoral, vulgar and obscene.

At that time, the idea of a ban did not go down well even with NCP MLAs, let alone others. It took more than two months to get the ordinance drafted and approved by the cabinet. Finally, when it was sent to the governor, he returned it on technical grounds. By then it was mid-June. But even thereafter, the Congress Party chief in Maharashtra stated that the party had not discussed the ban. In fact, the media hinted that this indicated a rift within the ruling alliance over the dance bar issue. 

Gradually, however, everything got ironed out. Not only was the ruling alliance cemented but the opposition too had been won over. Rarely does a Bill get passed without even a whimper of protest. This one was showered with accolades. Even the Shiv Sena, whose party high command is linked to a couple of dance bars in the city, supported the ban. All had done their bit in this endeavour to ‘protect the dignity of women’.

But one question remains unanswered -- can the state impose arbitrary and varying standards of vulgarity, indecency and obscenity on different sections of society or class of people? If an ‘item number’ in a Hindi film can be screened in public theatres, then an imitation of the same cannot be termed ‘vulgar’. Bar dancers imitate what they see in Hindi films, television serials, fashion shows and advertisements. All these industries have used women’s bodies for commercial gain. There is sexual exploitation of women in these and many other industries. But no one has ever suggested that you close down an entire industry because women are being sexually exploited!

The ban is being challenged in court by different affected sections -- bar owners, bar dancers, health activists from AIDS prevention groups. But even in the courts, the polarised arguments have revolved more around sexual morality and issues of trafficking than the constitutional principles of equality and right to life and livelihood.

While the state, courts and activists are locked in this debate, for the dancers it has been a Hobson’s choice -- to enrol with the employment guarantee scheme promised by the state, which is ridden with corruption and sexual exploitation, or to resort to streetwalking and brothel prostitution to make ends meet. That is, unless they can make it up to the three star hotels, mujra houses or performances at private parties. But all this does not matter. After all, the bar dancers are not a constituency, they are not a vote-bank. At least our beloved state and its youth are redeemed from moral depravity. Three cheers for the pro-ban lobby!

(Flavia Agnes is a human rights lawyer who has been representing the bar dancers union in court proceedings. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

InfoChange News & Features February 2006