Varsha Kale’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since Thursday afternoon – the day the Supreme Court asked the Maharashtra government to throw open within two weeks 60 dance bars with pending permit applications.
Varsha Kale, the honorary president of the Bharatiya Bar Girls Union, has been a patient receiver of anxious queries from women who once earned a livelihood from the dance bars in Mumbai and adjoining regions.
Should we start getting our gowns stitched already, one phone call goes. Another voice booming from the other end asks her if tickets to Mumbai must be booked.
“They’ve gone to different cities to perform but have heard about the order and are desperate to know if they will be able to perform on New Year’s Eve, the most important day for the industry,” Kale explains, adding for good effect, that she and the girls are “anxious but also wary.”
When the Maharashtra government imposed the ban in 2005, there were an estimated 2,500 bars across the state, of which Mumbai alone had over 1,200, employing nearly 75,000 women dancers.
Many of them are now out of jobs while others are employed as waitresses or ‘standers’-women who only stand around the performing area.
But their euphoria has been punctured somewhat by the harsh noises coming from the state government that has been backed into a corner.
“We will explore all options to continue the ban. Principally, we are against opening of dance bars,” chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said hours after the Supreme Court verdict, but added the state government respected the court that recently slammed his administration for its medieval mindset.
Devendra Fadnavis’ noises have received acrimonious responses, especially on social media.
“But, what about the principles laid out by the Constitution?” one user asked Fadnavis on Twitter, “How can your personal principles overrule the constitution’s principles? What a thing to say on the day we celebrate Constitution Day,” tweeted Vinita Singh, trustee, We The People, a citizens network working on spreading awareness about the country’s sacrosanct founding document.
The chief minister’s views have been followed with equally strident stand by the bureaucracy that is drawing up plans to ensure these bars find it difficult to survive. Some options include disallowing dance performances to go beyond 10pm or not allowing patrons to consume alcohol in the dancing hall.
Some reports have even said the state wants bar dancers to make the dance “more Indian”.
But the state’s attempts to stall the court order aren’t surprising. After late home minister RR Patil declared an impromptu, unplanned ban, the government has stumbled on from one unconvincing theory to the next.
An often-repeated statement by the state was that these bars had become dens of prostitution. But the five years before the ban saw only 34 cases under the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act.
Of these, only 15 victims were involved, taking the wind out of the argument.
The government also recently admitted there was no data to back its claims of these bars being the source of societal evils, since it was social stigma and couldn’t be proved.
Hence, the enthusiasm around the order is subdued. According to Veena Gowda, one of the lawyers fighting for the union, the verdict may be a precursor to the harassment the state is likely to mete out.
A rider inserted by the apex court last month related to checking obscenity in dance bars could empower the government, Gowda feels.
“Obscenity is subjective and based on individual choices. How can you allow the state to define obscenity?” she says.
Kale is more pessimistic. “The government will do everything it can to shut the bars down. It’s not going to be easy,” she says.