Saying that there cannot be a complete prohibition on dance bars in Maharashtra, the Supreme Court on Thursday relaxed stringent rules prescribed by the state government that led to a virtual
shutdown of these centres.
Modifying some provisions of the Maharashtra Prohibition of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Restaurants and Bar Rooms and Protection of Dignity of Women (Working therein) Act, 2016, that imposed restrictions on licensing and functioning of dance bars in the state, a bench led by Justice AK Sikri said: “The legislation is given a cloak of bringing regulatory regime to regulate the places where there are dance performances.”
“…even when the impugned Act appears to be regulatory in nature, the real consequences and effect is to prohibit such dance bars. The state, thereby, is aiming to achieve something indirectly which it could not do directly. Such a situation is beyond comprehension and cannot be countenanced… We hope that applications for grant of licence shall now be considered more objectively and with open mind so that there is no complete ban on staging dance performances at designated places prescribed in the Act,” the top court said.
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It also noted that no licence has been granted by the state government since 2005.
It diluted the 2016 law by doing away with restrictions like the requirement of a partition between the dancing area and the bar/restaurant area, ban on serving alcohol in the dance stage area. The rule requiring that a licence be granted to those possessing a ‘good character’ and ‘antecedents’ without any history of criminal record was also struck down, saying that the term “good character” is too vague.
The apex court upheld the condition of allowing dance bars to operate between 6 pm to 11.30 pm and not allowing installation of CCTV cameras inside dance bars, as it violates privacy. Giving tips to dancers was also allowed with restriction placed on showering of money on the performers.
On the government fixing salaries of performers at bars, the bench said, “A dance bar can have a written contract with a dancer, but the government cannot fix monthly salary for a dancer. This is a matter entirely between employee and employers.”
Doing away with a condition by which dance bars could not be within the radius of 1 km from an educational institution or a religious place, it said “this amounts to fulfilling an impossible condition and the effect thereof is that, at no place, in Mumbai, licence would be granted. Therefore, this condition is also held to be arbitrary and unreasonable and is quashed, with liberty to the Maharashtra government to prescribe the distance from educational and religious institutions, which is reasonable and workable.”
According to the judgment, dance and liquor can coexist and there is no need to segregate the area where liquor is served to patrons from the dancing area, it said.
The 2016 law was passed by the state Assembly to circumvent a Supreme Court judgment of 2015 that lifted the ban on dance bars and classified dance as a profession. The 2015 SC order had come as a relief for women who had lost their jobs and slipped into prostitution and penury due to the clampdown after the state Assembly, in July 2014, circumvented a 2013 SC decision that had also upheld that “dancing is a fundamental right”.
Thursday’s ruling came on a batch of petitions by restaurant and hotel owners, including the Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association (IHRA) and women working in Maharashtra’s bars, challenging the state government’s law prohibiting dances in hotels, restaurants and bars and imposing fresh restrictions on licensing and functioning of dance bars.
IHRA had claimed that the law was constitutionally flawed as it violated fundamental rights of the bars to conduct their business. It further alleged that the 2016 law circumvented several orders of the Supreme Court, which ruled that bars could host dances, as long as they weren’t obscene. The Bharatiya Bargirls’ Union had argued that the 2016 law stigmatises their profession and unreasonably interfered with their free choice of expression through dramatic performances.
However, the Maharashtra government told the apex court that the new law was to regulate licensing and functioning of dance bars and prevent obscenity in public places which is a part of public policy in India. It also added that “such dances were derogatory to the dignity of women and were likely to deprave, corrupt or injure public morality”.