The Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to examine the validity of a new law the Maharashtra government has brought in to regulate dance bars, but stuck to its stand on disallowing customers from throwing money at dancers.
“It’s difficult to treat this (ban on throwing money) as unconstitutional. Prima facie we do not find any illegality in this provision, which shows respect towards the dancer,” a bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra told the counsel for the dance bar owners who moved the apex court.
“This (dance bar) is not a silver screen. It (permitting monetizing) affects someone’s dignity, culture and decency,” the two judges told senior advocate Jayant Bhushan, who said the rule—effected by the state government four months ago—was discriminatory because it did not stop anyone from tipping a singer or a bar tender.
Justice Misra and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh issued a notice to the government on the bar owners’ petition against the law that prescribes five years of jail if dance performances turn “obscene”, but does not clearly define the term. The law defines “obscene dance” as a one “designed only to arouse the prurient interest of the audience”.
The apex court rejected the Maharashtra government’s request to relegate the fresh petition to the state’s high court. Doing that will test the validity of the rules in the view of SC’s 2013 verdict that declared the government’s move to ban dance bars as “unconstitutional”, it said.
“It is this court that held dancers have a right to choose their profession. How can the basis of a judgement be taken away by a statutory framework,” Justice Misra asked state counsel Shekhar Naphade, who said, “Flexibility must be permitted to the State in policy matters.”
The bench agreed with the petitioner’s request to stay two of the contentious rules, and asked the state to respond by September 21. The court, however, indicated that it will not let the government implement rules that made it mandatory for the bar owners to install CCTVs and stopped them from serving liquor in the dance area. “These two are directly in contravention to our earlier order,” the court said.
The Dance Bar Regulation Bill was passed by the Maharashtra assembly on April 13 and notified on April 20. It includes 26 conditions that bar owners must comply with to get licences.
The Maharashtra government banned dance bars in the state in 2005, leaving jobless an estimated 1.5 lakh people, half of them dancers. A year later, the Bombay high court struck down the government order. The state challenged the order in the Supreme Court, which allowed a stay on grant of licence. In 2013, the top court upheld the high court ruling and eventually lifted the ban in October last year.
In its petition to the SC, the Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association said the new law was another attempt by the state to override the SC verdict lifting the ban on dance bars. Despite the court’s orders, the government was yet to renew or issue licences, it added.
The association said the law violated the right to life/livelihood and the right to take up a profession of one’s choice.
The top court had, during a hearing in May, disallowed a provision of the law that made it mandatory for bars to record dance performances and provide the live feed to the police. “Have a regulatory mechanism in place, do surprise checks, send your police team. But no recording,” it had told the state.
On another provision that said dance bars cannot operate within a kilometre of an educational institution, the court had pointed out that there was no such condition for granting liquor licences.