With Law On Their Side: Supreme Court Champions Bar-Dancers

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?

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10 comments

  1. If it takes the highest court in the land for us to understand the essentiality of rehabilitation plan before uprooting people from livelihood then it is right to immigrate to the first world even just to work in a coffeeshop. The repeated Naga blockades chocking off Manipur is also a monument to callous handling.

    • The Naga blockades, and many other things besides, are testament to callous handling. Let’s not forget the bloody battles for land acquisition in Bengal during the last five years. The war was almost at our doorsteps.

      The Supreme Court has, in recent years, made me rather proud. Have you read their verdict on Salwa Judum? A remarkable piece on social justice and administrative responsibilities.

  2. As much as I support the Supreme Court’s challenge to a naive blanket ban, I remain worried about the state of these dance-bars, and the condition of women who have to perform there. Undoubtedly, it is important not to have a legal framework that could even potentially criminalise them, but can we deny that they have to face more messy situations than dancers in starred hotels, discos or pubs? It isn’t actually about one being sleazy and the other cool at all, it’s about one’s safety and free will being on the tightrope forever, as opposed to the other’s more glamorous and self-indulgent status. Making dance bars illegal isn’t going to help these women, but retaining their legal status isn’t alleviation either. It’s maintaining the status quo. One where these women continue to be looked on as trash by many members of society, including those of their own class.

    And the problem is, these situations turn into a bashing versus exonerating session, rather than lead to concrete steps for improvement. It’s also true that the paternalistic statements contain a grain of truth- not the dignity bullshit but the bit regarding the uncontested trend of commodifying women. It isn’t enough to say ‘these women aren’t trash’. Somewhere a frustrated desire for collapsing the whole pimping system kicks in, and it turns into sentimental declarations on the honour of women (a lot of them genuine, only unconsciously patriarchal), which brings on more scathing criticism from rational quarters, and then nothing ever seems to happen. Of course, if you could throw more light on this I’ll be glad. I don’t know anything about efforts made to bring some order in these bars, and I dunno if I’ll be reading any published work on this soon.

    • “And the problem is, these situations turn into a bashing versus exonerating session” — precisely the crux. I won’t repeat the conservative point of view, because it is direct, simplistic and painfully rehashed. However, the shallow ‘liberal’ agenda, which idiotically labels bar-dancing as an act of sexual liberation of women, is almost criminal in its glib and privileged ignorance.

      However, I must take issue with you comparing dancers in dance-bars and those in nightclubs. They’re not comparable groups at all, and that, in fact, was what the Supreme Court was trying to underline with its stern sarcasm. Mostly, the latter dance as an expensive act of leisure. The former dance for a living. And since the abuse they tolerate at work is both less acute and with greater compensations than those they were forced endure earlier, most women seem to want to negotiate this life of relative independence than to leave it. The question of desisting for safety, therefore, must be evaluated completely differently for the two groups.

      Having made that point, however, I cannot provide you — or indeed myself — with any guarantees of better inspection and monitoring of the bars any time soon. As I said, ‘corruption’ as an excuse is bound to feature prominently in any argument about why these bars cannot be better regulated, and while I do recognise the structural constraints on a poor sub-inspector or even inspector given the job of keeping an eye on these bars, I’m inclined to believe the government when they say regulating these bars will need an overhaul of how power functions in Bombay. Certainly, they could change things with effort, but, as I also pointed out, the ‘victims’ of this set-up are not the kinds that inspire sympathy in the morality of the larger public. No popular politician, therefore, will risk his or her neck for such a low-return, potentially disastrous ‘issue’, and these women will continue to suffer.

  3. Oh yes, I absolutely agree that the 2 aren’t comparable. When I said self-indulgent, that was an understatement for the difference you specified in far more real terms. I was thinking that the SC’s sarcasm seemed slightly gratuitous considering how far apart those 2 are in the 1st place and that one probably wasn’t named as a benchmark for the other to begin with. I understand the sentiment driving it though- that a certain physical movement, dancing, could be arbitrarily termed sleazy in one regard and cool in another. Nevertheless, these parodic comparisons sometimes generate pointless debate. Which is definitely not the sphere we’re aiming to move within 🙂

    Also- just read your note on the little gender-sensitive incident. Damn. And we’re expecting politicians to risk their necks 😐

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