Indian court ruling on dance bars ignites morality debate

INDIA - A court order to reopen hundreds of bars with dancing girls in a western Indian state is rekindling a long-running morality debate over whether these watering holes are entertainment joints or vice dens.

Dance bars were banned by the government of Maharashtra in 2005 on the grounds that they were a breeding ground for prostitution and crime.

But the Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned the ban, supporting bar owners' contention that the move violated the right of dancing girls to earn a livelihood.

The verdict is pitching supporters of dance bars against an array of political parties which have come together to try to keep the ban.

On the one hand, many women's activists said the ban had probably done more harm to unemployed dancing girls than the dangers they had faced while working in a bar. For instance, they said, some bar dancers killed themselves as they could find no other work, while many more were forced into prostitution.

"A woman earning a livelihood by dancing is not illegal. So why should she be deprived of it?" argued Ms Varsh Kale, head of the Indian Bar Girls Union.

The Indian media has also largely supported the court verdict, saying moral policing could not be the answer to fighting crimes.

But politicians in Maharashtra appeared to be playing to public sentiment, that dance bars are morally corrupting - a standpoint reinforced in many Bollywood movies that show these watering holes as the stomping ground of criminals. Signalling that the fight over dance bars is not over, the Maharashtra government said it was exploring legal options to keep the ban.

Even opposition politicians have voiced support for the government, saying the ban was needed because dance bars were a front for the underworld, drug addicts and prostitution.

"Ordinary citizens of the state do not want dance bars," Mr R.R. Patil, Maharashtra's Home Minister who spearheaded the anti-dance bar campaign, told reporters on Wednesday. "Our children's future is not built in dance bars," he said. "We will see how we can keep dance bars shut."

Over the past few years, Mumbai police have enforced early closing hours for nightclubs, cracked down on private partying, raided spas and salons and raised the minimum age for consuming alcohol from 18 to 21, leaving many fuming at what they called "moral policing".

But such outrage has been limited to the higher echelons of society, signalling that large sections of the lower- and middle-class population support the government crackdown.

Mumbai has long been a magnet for migrants from across India. For many, the down-at-heel dance bars have not only been a cheap watering hole but also a place where a bit of money bought a few moments of attention from young, willing women.

These dimly lit, smoke-filled bars, where heavily made-up, midriff-baring women gyrated to loud Bollywood music, has long defined Mumbai's night life.

In a dance bar, tipping bought attention, so the sight of men sitting with wads of low-denomination cash, which they handed out to their favoured girls, was common. The more boisterous customers showered the girls with cash.

Dance bars are largely unique to Maharashtra, particularly Mumbai. In 2005, more than 1,000 dance bars were shuttered in Mumbai and about 650 of them in the rest of the state, throwing some 75,000 bar girls out of jobs.

Mr Patil said his government had offered to rehabilitate bar girls, but did not receive a single application.

That's because, said Ms Kale, "no one even knows what the government was offering by way of rehabilitation".

The Maharashtra government has set up a panel to study the Supreme Court order and recommend the next course of action.

"Our government's stand remains what it was. We are and we will be against dance bars," Mr Patil said.