Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  The ugly prurience of RR Patil

The home minister of Maharashtra, R.R. Patil, isn’t very good at his job. Worse, he has twice now successfully prevented thousands of people from doing theirs. On 12 June Patil convinced the Maharashtra state legislature to amend an existing law, so that dance performances would be banned in every class of bar and restaurant in the state. With this, he plugged a loophole that the Supreme Court quoted in its decision to strike down the ban on dance bars last July—for discriminating against classes of venues.

Patil’s decision is as incomprehensible today as it was in the summer of 2005, when he rammed through legislation to shut down the bars in two quick months. The hot, dry fields of Azad Maidan echoed with the thump of bar dancers’ feet and the roars of their protests, but they were powerless because they were poor women that Patil had also successfully stigmatized as prostitutes so that even those who might otherwise have helped them hastily retreated.

I knew several bar dancers through my work as a journalist, and I was struck by how the younger women, especially, were convinced that the threat of a ban would never come to pass.

Leela, about whom I later wrote a book, Beautiful Thing, was only 13 when she ran away from her home in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, to escape sexual abuse. She built a life for herself in Mumbai by dancing in bars, and when we met she was 19 and supporting herself, her mother, her two brothers, and their families. She had learnt how to read and write in a government school, and despite the fact that the government had otherwise never helped her—by rescuing her from the abuse, for example—she believed in government as an agency of good.

It was good governance, she felt, that had made India a modern place where even the daughter of a low-caste odd-jobs man and a cleaning lady from Meerut could make something of herself. It was the reason she could live alone in Mumbai, earn good money, rent a flat, and wear fashionable jeans—all of which would have sounded like unthinkable independence and glamour to her acquaintances back home.

Leela trusted in the government to uphold the fundamental rights that living in a city like Mumbai had shown were her due. “They can’t throw so many people out of their jobs," she told me confidently. “They can’t just push us all out on the road."

In fact, Patil did just that, forcing Leela and about 75,000 women out of 1,500 dance bars. He won tremendous support for claiming that the dance bars were “criminal dens" and suggesting that by forcing them out of business he would make Mumbai a safe city.

He didn’t.

In 2005, the Mumbai police registered 31,432 cases under the Indian Penal Code, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), placing the city among the top three most dangerous mega cities in India. In 2006, the year after the ban was implemented, this number went down by a grand total of 362 reported cases. In 2013, eight years after Patil had supposedly wiped out the city’s criminal dens, 34,442 crimes were registered in Mumbai, up from 30,036 the previous year.

The number of extortion cases from alleged members of the underworld—the people Patil had specifically claimed were in business only because they could work out of the dark privacy of dance bars—had increased steadily since 2005. In 2013, 338 cases were registered, up by 29% from the previous year.

Patil’s statements about the link between dance bars and crime have been proved false. Yet, he continues to repeat the lies, as though willing them to be true just so he can avoid taking responsibility for failing in his job to keep people safe.

In 2013, Mumbai was second only to Delhi in the number of reported rapes, with 338 cases registered. Earlier this month, under media questioning, Patil again passed the buck. “Many crimes against women happen within the confines of homes," he retorted. “Is it possible to have a policeman in every household?"

In the absence of dance bars Patil most recently blamed TV advertisements for crime in Mumbai.

The Supreme Court didn’t just strike down Patil’s pet peeve over the issue of venue. It pointed out that “even bar dancers have a right to work". This new amendment doesn’t address the loophole, but it continues to raise questions over Patil’s obsession. The fantasies in his head, suggesting what goes on in dance bars, appear to hold more sway over him, and the state legislature, than independent research, NCRB statistics, and even the Supreme Court decision. How amusing he would seem if he were just some crazy man on the road ranting about dance bars being a social evil. Unfortunately he’s a very powerful man, and his obsession has had very real, very painful consequences for powerless women.

What is clear is that Patil has made a distinction between what he believes are “good" women and “bad" women, and he has used his power to deny the latter group their fundamental right to work. He refused to offer bar dancers training or job opportunities, even though he had earlier promised to do so, and he claimed that it was because of them that (good) “families were getting destroyed" when he was, in fact, the one who was knowingly pulling the rug from under the feet of families of women like Leela, and thousands of others.

Patil’s greatest crime wasn’t that he insinuated that bar dancers were prostitutes, but that through his actions, he forced many of them, including teenagers like Leela, to become just that.

In political circles Patil is famously known as “Mr Clean". But there is a hint of ugly prurience to his obsession with dance bars. There is ugliness in the very deliberate manner in which he has not once, but twice, gone out of his way to ban dance bars on mere whim. There is ugliness in his determination to privilege one group of women over the other. His colleagues may insist on the sobriquet, but when it comes to women who he stubbornly decided should not enjoy their fundamental rights just because he says so, his hands are very dirty indeed.

Sonia Faleiro is the author of Beautiful Thing: Inside The Secret World Of Bombay’s Dance Bars and a co-founder of the publishing collective, Deca.

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