On 2 March, when the Supreme Court asked the Maharashtra government to issue licences to hotels and restaurants to enable them to start dance performances by women, the dance bar case completed a nearly 11-year-long legal journey.

It all started in July 2005, when the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) coalition government in Maharashtra banned dance performances in all hotels and restaurants other than hotels rated three-star and above. The late R.R. Patil, NCP leader and then home minister, personally drove this ban, which then affected around 600 dance bars in the state, including 375 in Mumbai, and 75,000 women bar dancers, including 40,000 in Mumbai.

The then government imposed the ban mainly on two grounds. One, a large number of youth were being lured by bar dance performances, falling prey to the addictions of alcohol and drugs, and spending money on dancers. Two, the dance bars were also operating as pick-up points for prostitution, thus encouraging human trafficking.

The Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association and the Bar Girls’ Association challenged the ban in the Bombay high court the same year. In April 2006, the Bombay high court struck down the ban, citing the bar dancers’ fundamental right to work under Article 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution. The state government appealed to the Supreme Court.

In July 2013, the Supreme Court upheld the high court order and dance bars were allowed to reopen after eight years. In June 2014, however, the Congress-NCP government issued an ordinance banning dance bars. The hotels’ and bar girls’ associations challenged it in the Supreme Court. The court struck it down in October, allowing dance bars to resume work. In November, the court, hearing pleas by some hotel owners, asked the state government to issue licences to hotels that were eligible.

However, the state government, now headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena alliance, introduced stringent eligibility criteria for licences; effectively, this translated into a near-total ban on dance bars, though the state had received about 100 applications. The hotel owners again brought this to the notice of the Supreme Court. Last month, the apex court sought to know from the state why it was not issuing licences. The state government proposed a set of conditions to be followed by dance bars, including the setting up of CCTV cameras in hotels.

The Supreme Court, in a 2 March ruling, rejected the CCTV condition but accepted the state government’s argument that the police authorities should be allowed to regulate the functioning of dance bars to prevent the sexual exploitation of bar dancers, trafficking, and obscenity. The court did, however, ask the state government to issue licences to eligible applicants by 15 March.

Immediately after the ruling, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who holds the home portfolio, said the government respected the Supreme Court but could not allow obscenity in the state. The government, he said, would explore all options, including bringing in a new law to ban dance bars. The BJP-Shiv Sena government now plans to introduce a Bill during the current budget session of the Maharashtra legislature—and the opposition Congress-NCP has given assurances of support.

Reena, 30, came to Mumbai eight years ago from Nadia district, West Bengal, and works at a barely operational dance bar in Borivali. She says she used to like getting invited to dance at weddings. Now, she has to reach her place of work in a clandestine manner to avoid harassment by the police. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Reena, 30, came to Mumbai eight years ago from Nadia district, West Bengal, and works at a barely operational dance bar in Borivali. She says she used to like getting invited to dance at weddings. Now, she has to reach her place of work in a clandestine manner to avoid harassment by the police. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Swati, 19, dances at transgender shows. When she is not dancing, she begs on the streets to support her mother and sister. She says her family has been ostracized by their relatives because she is a transgender and a bar dancer.
Swati, 19, dances at transgender shows. When she is not dancing, she begs on the streets to support her mother and sister. She says her family has been ostracized by their relatives because she is a transgender and a bar dancer.
Protima, 39, came to Mumbai seven years ago from West Bengal. With her income as a bar dancer, she is able to send her two daughters to a school and pay for the medical treatment of her parents. She feels particularly angry that while the government wants to shut down the bars, no one ever sticks to their promise of rehabilitating the dancers.
Protima, 39, came to Mumbai seven years ago from West Bengal. With her income as a bar dancer, she is able to send her two daughters to a school and pay for the medical treatment of her parents. She feels particularly angry that while the government wants to shut down the bars, no one ever sticks to their promise of rehabilitating the dancers.
Munmun was 18 when she moved from Rajasthan to Mumbai and has lived there for the last 12 years. She supports her son and her sister’s daughters with her income, which has diminished quite a bit in the last few years. She says theirs was a somewhat respected profession earlier, but they now have become pariahs.
Munmun was 18 when she moved from Rajasthan to Mumbai and has lived there for the last 12 years. She supports her son and her sister’s daughters with her income, which has diminished quite a bit in the last few years. She says theirs was a somewhat respected profession earlier, but they now have become pariahs.
Soni, a 28-year-old transgender, has worked at many dance bars in Dombivli and is happy about the Supreme Court order. Her work enables her to support her father and mother.
Soni, a 28-year-old transgender, has worked at many dance bars in Dombivli and is happy about the Supreme Court order. Her work enables her to support her father and mother.
Mamta, 29, used to work at a dance bar in Thane before it shut down. She now begs for a living.
Mamta, 29, used to work at a dance bar in Thane before it shut down. She now begs for a living.
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