The tone of Rashmi’s voice on the other side of the phone was one of happiness. She sounded really excited and engaged me in an animated conversation for a few minutes. “I have gotten a new life and hope I will be able to reclaim what I lost eight years ago,” she told me.
Thirty-one-year-old Rashmi has reason to be happy: the Supreme Court lifted the ban on dance bars in the western Indian state of Maharashtra after eight long years. The ban rendered her and thousands of dancers like her jobless. For Rashmi, an illiterate migrant and mother of an 11-year-old boy from the neighboring state of Karnataka who is separated from her husband, dancing was one of the only ways she could earn a living.
When I first met her in Mumbai in 2008 while shooting a television report about the city’s dance bars, Rashmi was a small time sex worker, a profession she claimed she was forced into in the absence of alternatives after the closure of dance bars.
This is the story of not only of Rashmi, but of the majority of the 75,000 dance girls spread across the state who have secretly become sex workers in a desperate effort to support their families. In 2005 when the state government imposed the ban on dance bars it promised to rehabilitate the dancers and give them vocational training so that they could earn a living by legitimate means. But the promise was never honored, forcing a number of them to take extreme measures.
According to the petition filed by the government, the main reason for banning the bar girls was it’s the trade’s so-called corrupting influence in society. It also portrays dance bars as dens of illegal activity.
The Wall Street Journal writes: “The Indian Hotel and Restaurants Association, the Association of Dance Bar Owners and the Bharatiya Bargirls Union were among those who challenged the state government’s ban in 2005. There were 2,500 dance bars in 2005 employing 75,000 women. The state government, however, said there were 307 licensed dance bars in Mumbai with around 4,300 women employed as dancers, waitresses and singers. The petitioners said the state government’s ban was discriminatory because dance performances were allowed in other places like higher-end hotels and theaters.”
By lifting the ban the Supreme Court has upheld the 2006 verdict of the Bombay High Court that called the ban discriminatory.
The Telegraph reports the Apex Court verdict as stating, “We are unable to accept the presumption which runs through Sections 33A and 33B that the enjoyment of (the) same kind of entertainment by the upper classes leads only to mere enjoyment and in the case of poor classes it would lead to immorality, decadence and depravity. Morality and depravity cannot be pigeonholed by degrees depending upon the classes of the audience.”
The verdict, however, raises bigger questions. Is it really a victory for dance girls? Further, does it resolve the question of morality that led to the ban? Finally, does it address the larger issue of women’s limited choices regarding their lifestyles?
Economic and Political Weekly dubs the Supreme Court verdict a “pyrrhic victory”. It says the judgment has come too late, rendering many women unfit for the job. It adds that the judgment does not address the issue of working conditions for these women and does not fix concerns surrounding the minimum wages for the hapless dancers who mostly depend on tips and other favors from clients rather than a clearly defined salary. As such, the judicial victory does not free them from exploitation.
But the political class in the state of Maharashtra seems to be united in their pursuit for moral policing, denting the image of liberal Mumbai, regarded as a bastion of movie making and a microcosm of modern India where people from all faiths and religions come together to create dreams on screens. The home minister of the Congress led-government in the state, R.R. Patil, said that he remains firm in his decision to ban dance bars, notwithstanding the court ruling.
The Congress party and its ruling alliance Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) call themselves liberal and secular, even as they compete with hardcore Hindutva organizations like Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to perpetuate a culture of intolerance and social conservatism at odds with the liberal ethos of the state.
The Indian Express writes, “The ruling Congress-NCP coalition will play its part in the state's competitive politics to sharpen social anxieties,” adding that “politics is conducted as a defence against assimilation and modernity.” The paper continues by saying that all parties are ultimately guilty of this moral policing, which only varies “in the degrees to which they will go to evade questions of governance by focusing their political energies on stirring anxiety about migration and the spectre of licentiousness.”
It is this attitude of intolerance that drove famous painter M.F. Hussain into permanent exile. It has also led to the banning of books and even mannequins.
Moreover, the whole stance of the state’s political class and its middle class towards dance bars demonstrates the pervading attitude towards women’s freedom to live according to their own choices.
The Hindu points out that the state’s Home Minister Patil “is not outraged by the fact that hundreds of garishly made up women, many of them trafficked minors, stand on the streets everyday waiting for customers. His government will not dream of passing a law that criminalises the men who frequent these places, as some countries have done.”
On one hand the male-dominated political class talks about ending the exploitation of women. On the other, the same officials nurture a political culture that pushes struggling women further towards the social precipice and more deeply into a state of exploitation.
Given her options, Rashmi hopes to return to the “more respectable profession of dancer soon, after suffering ignominy for eight years as a sex worker.”
Will her political representatives allow that freedom of choice?