Six years after they were forcibly criminalsed, two years after Faleiro wrote a book about them, a day after I republished my review of it for Violence Against Women awareness month, and on the ninth day of the fortnight of the goddess, the bar dancers of Bombay (Mumbai) have finally found a champion in the nation’s apex court.
Of course, the goddess allusion is silly sentimentality and my review is not even a blip on the radar, but I like to think Faleiro’s book and similar pieces of public activism may have played a part in the proceedings that led to the Supreme Court’s sudden and keen interest in the ban. Although, to be fair, the state High Court has contested the ban first. Indeed, that was Step 1 to the Supreme Court’s involvement. What I like best about this interaction is the narrow-eyed, sneering contempt employed by the superior institution when speaking to the inferior — and I use those adjectives advisedly.
As those not familiar with Bombay, bar-dancers, or the fascinating case of Court Against Government may not have realised, Maharashtra had not imposed a blanket ban on dancing in clubs. It had merely outlawed dance-bars — populated by poor and abused women, and patronised chiefly by the middle and working classes, plus members of the underworld. Pubs, discos and ‘starred’ hotels with in-house nightclubs were allowed to flourish and grow. Recalling this particular discrimination, Justices Altamas Kabir and S. S. Nijjar of the Supreme Court of India asked Maharashtra State Council Gopal Subramanium
Are there moral assumptions in the state’s constitutional choices? Is there a tacit moral assumption that [dancing is] fine if done by the rich and not fine if it’s done by the poor?
Subramanium, whose personal convictions on the matter are not publicly available, defended his employer’s decision to impose the ban by plunging head-first into hot water, insisting it was the paternalistic (and masculine) institutions’ duty to protect poor women from the dangers of their own inclinations and choices. Free will, he implied, should not be trusted to such mentally fragile creatures, untutored in the ways of the Greater Good.
[The ban was meant] to ensure that women are not disempowered on the ground that they consent to such activities… The plea of consent or individual volition is not a safe test when larger empowerment of women is the issue.
Besides, says Subramanium, the ban is really meant to empower women. By allowing economic subcultures where currency notes are thrown at women, the state was allowing women to be commodified. Yes, the women were making a living in a relatively safe, legal way, but livelihoods are nothing when Dignity of Womanhood is at a risk. After all, it is a constitutional value in a democratic country, and therefore above the actual and evolving legal needs of the people. Besides, there is that whole human trafficking angle:
[The Supreme Court’s argument about money and legal livelihoods] is a very good empirical argument, but has no relevance to any discourse on constitutional values, such as protecting the dignity of women. [The women] become objects of commerce. Can this sort of behaviour be subject to regulation is the question one ought to be asking. The argument of ‘commercial behaviour of my own volition’ is not a safe test in this case. [And anyway,] international covenants against human trafficking have junked the plea of consent.
In other words, just let us make known activities illegal, and watch how our law-and-order performance in prevention of human trafficking rises. Every women our lads have ever coereced a free blowjob from will be working on her back inside a jail cell. Every pimp and bar-owner who can’t immediately pay us off will be the cheering audience.
Without descending into such gratuituous — but far too accurate — jibes, the Supreme Court insisted that above and beyond their need for ‘dignity’, the bar dancers have ‘the right to live’. If the state takes away their means of earning a living, then it also takes upon itself the responsibility of providing them with one. And finally, it asked Maharashtra what rational, enquiring minds want to know: If the state was worried about women being coerced into dancing at bars — and no doubt many are — why aren’t they tightening regulation and inspection, cancelling licences when requirements are not met?
I dare say Subhramnium will have much to say in reply — ‘corruption’ is likely to feature heavily — but what he will really be saying is this: Functioning as a government should is hard. And boring. Can’t we just criminalise poor immigrant whores no one will miss, and racket up shiny performances in human development? Everybody does it! Why can’t we?