Maharashtra's dance bars may soon spring back to life with the Supreme Court on Thursday staying the operation of a state law banning it on the condition that performances will not be obscene even as the government said it will press for continuance of the ban.
"We think it appropriate to stay the provisions section 33 (A)(1) of the Maharashtra Police (second amendment) Act," a division bench of the court comprising Justices Dipak Misra and Prafulla Chandra Pant said in an order that would come as a big relief to thousands of bar dancers and restaurateurs.
The order, however, came with a rider that performances should not be even "remotely expressive of any kind of obscenity" and gave the licencing authority the power to regulate those.
"However, we have a rider that no performance of dance will be remotely expressive of any kind of obscenity... the licensing authority can regulate such dance performances so that individual dignity of woman performer is not harmed," the bench said.
The apex court has now fixed the petition filed by Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association for final hearing on November 5 and said that the matter pertaining to the similar issue had already been decided by this court in 2013.
Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for Maharashtra said at the outset that interim relief may be granted to the Association.
Reacting to the order, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said the state government will press its demand in the apex court for continuing the ban on dance performances in bars and other places.
"Although the Supreme Court's interim order mandates regulation instead of ban on dance bars, the (state) government still favours a ban," Fadnavis said in Mumbai.
"We will examine and press our demand in the Supreme Court," he said.
The Maharashtra government had in 2005 brought an amendment to the Bombay Police Act to ban dance performances in bars on the grounds of obscenity and that it was promoting prostitution which was challenged in high court by an association representing restaurants and bars.
The state police had cracked down on dance performances in bars for the first time in 2005. Elite establishments, including five star hotels, were, however, exempted. Thereafter, the state brought in a law banning dance performances in all establishments.
The Bombay high court had on April 12, 2006 quashed the government's decision and declared the provision as unconstitutional, holding it was against Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution which allows citizens to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business.
The state government had moved the Apex court against the high court's order the same year.
On July 16, 2013, the Supreme Court upheld the Bombay high court verdict quashing the state government's order and had said the ban violated the constitutional right to earn a living.
Following the SC decision, the state assembly, on June 13, 2014, passed the Maharashtra Police (second amendment) Bill which also barred grant of licenses for dance performances in three star and five star hotels. The bill, passed without a debate, also covered drama theatres, cinema halls, auditoriums, sports clubs and gymkhanas, where entry is restricted only to members.
Restaurant owners said the law would force bar dancers into prostitution if the state refused to allow performances.
The 2014 amendment to the Maharashtra law was challenged by the Indian Hotels and Restaurant Association and others before the apex court.
Reacting to the SC order, Manjit Singh Sethi a senior member of Association, said, "I don't think the government will allow dance bars to function and reasons are best known to them. This will be contempt of court. They promised that they would rehabilitate the girls but that never happened."
Welcoming the move, filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar said, "It is wrong to put a blanket ban on all dance bars. There will be rules and regulations to check on indecency."
"Welcome move by the Hon. Supreme Court to put the ban on hold for Dance Bars in Maharashtra," he tweeted.
Meanwhile, the Fadnavis government has come under attack from the opposition for not properly pursuing the government's case for continuance of the ban on dance bars.
"This is not only a legal and administrative failure of the state government but a moral defeat too," Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Council Dhananjay Munde of NCP said.
"This situation has arisen as the government did not put forth its views in the court effectively," Munde said.
NCP spokesperson Nawab Malik alleged that the lifting of the stay on dance bars was a result of "collusion between ruling BJP-Shiv Sena leaders and dance bar owners."
"People from the Dance Bars Association met Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and also Yuva Sena leader Aaditya Thackeray to put forth their demand," Malik alleged.
Congress spokesperson Anant Gadgil said, "The state government failed to fight the case in the Supreme Court in the right manner."
"The manner in which the case should have been represented in SC, wasn't done. This may have been done deliberately," he said.
The association of dance bar girls reacted in a guarded way to the Supreme Court order.
"We have not forgotten that when a blanket ban on dance bars was imposed by violating all our rights, the BJP, which was in opposition those days, had supported the ban," Bar Girls' Association general secretary Varsha Kale said.
"We have pinned our hopes on the final verdict as the current verdict is only an interim one which has put some riders while lifting the ban," she said.
Photograph: Bar girls perform at a dance bar in Mumbai in this photograph taken on May 5, 2005.Photograph: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters