The moral police is on the prowl, working its confounding ways on dance bars yet again. While grudgingly giving up on the ban of dance bars, legislators in Maharashtra have succeeded in creating yet another legislation—and how! The labels of “obscene” and “immoral” being applied to the performances of bar dancers again impose on the dancer the moral onus of not performing acts that “arouse” or are viewed as “sexual.” This was to be expected in the current atmosphere of conservatism endorsed by the ruling power.

The Supreme Court in October 2015 had ruled that the ban on dance bars cannot be upheld in law. On 2 March, the Court rapped the state government, ordering it to grant licences to dance bars by 15 March. It is more than a decade since the ban on dance bars was first put in place in 2005. The Maharashtra legislature has since, and only at the behest of the judiciary, progressed to lifting the ban, and has now put in place the Maharashtra Prohibition of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Restaurants and Bar Rooms and Protection of Dignity of Women (Working Therein) Act, 2016. The act was passed by both houses of the Maharashtra legislature on consecutive days, 11 and 12 April, unanimously and without any debate whatsoever.

As reported by the news media, the Association of Hotels and Restaurants (AHAR) is planning to challenge the “impractical conditions” of the act at the Supreme Court hearing scheduled on 18 April, claiming that the government did not consult them, the stakeholders, before tabling the bill, which, having been passed unexamined, is now an act. The rules and regulations—mandatory installation of CCTV cameras in the performing area, clearance of performances to be obtained from the censor board, the dance floor to be 5 ft from the audience with the dancers enclosed by a 3 ft tall fence, liquor not allowed to be served in the performing areas, dance bars not allowed within 1 km of educational and residential establishments, restricted operational timings—have the stakeholders in a bind over their impracticality. Keeping in mind the experience of law enforcement in India, there is, after all, no guarantee that they will not be harassed by the state machinery any less than they are now.

What is lost in more than a decade of back and forth between the legislature and the judiciary is the very rationale behind the ban and this grudging attempt by the legislature to comply with judicial orders: the pandering to and satisfaction of the moral appetite of the nation’s “collective conscience.” The very terminology used in the naming of the act—“prohibition,” “obscene,” “protection,” “dignity”—evokes the obscurantist 19th century colonial idea of morality, which was appropriated by the upper castes/classes, the sole members of the aforementioned “collective.”

There are interesting insights that can be drawn from the early 20th century’s anti-nautch movement and formulation of laws regarding the devadasi tradition. Though the early devadasi laws—the Bombay (Protection) and Madras (Prevention of Dedication) Acts—deemed the tradition unlawful stating prostitution as the reason, they did not moralise. The language of the later Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka (Prohibition of Dedication) Acts was, however, morality-laden. If its religious linkages could not help the well-established and accepted devadasi dance tradition survive the colonial, and later the Indian upper caste/class morality, bar dancing would surely rank way below it on the morality scale.

The present act takes it up a notch with its Section 2.8, which, apart from including the vaguely worded obscenity clauses of Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code, defines “obscene dance” as a dance “(i) which is designed only to arouse the prurient interest of the audience; and (ii) which consists of a sexual act, lascivious movements, gestures for the purpose of sexual propositioning or indicating the availability of sexual access to the dancer, or in the course of which, the dancer exposes his or her genitals or, if a female, is topless.”

It is then the linking of prostitution, on the one hand, and the linking of the idea that women’s sexual autonomy, agency, desires and sexual expression manifested by way of dancing (or any other way, for that matter) is inherently “immoral,” on the other hand, which is at the root of both, the anti-nautch movement that culminated in the elimination of much more than a dance tradition, and the hankering for doing away with “vulgar” and “obscene” dance by banning dance bars. In fact, the term “immoral purpose” has been mentioned in Section 8.2 of the act. “Immoral” is a category that is open to interpretation, whereas “illegal” is a definite category. Why was “illegal purpose” not used here instead?

Instead of regularising the working conditions of bar dancers for which just the enforcement of the extant labour laws and regulations would suffice, why does the legislature insist on passing yet another act? Especially when the act is one that—instead of legislating about the “Protection of Dignity of Women” who work as bar dancers, as it claims to—ends up conflating morality with legality, as is the usual practice. If the state were truly concerned about the welfare of bar dancers, how is it that licences to operate were given to these bars in the first place, without ensuring that they adhere to labour laws and regulations? Are dance bars not places of employment, and the dancers employees?

What some of our legislators consider “Indian tradition” and “nationalism” is archaic and anachronistic, to say the least. The chosen representatives of our “collective conscience” have become a morally intoxicated lot passing bills as if they were salt shakers being passed across the table.

  • See more at: http://www.epw.in/journal/2016/16/editorials/colonial-hangover-moral-police.html#sthash.TgKNdQNK.dpuf