To bar or not to bar

Dance bars, it was said, were the soul of Bombay but it did not make much of a difference to the common people when they were shut down in 2005. It might, though, make a huge difference to the lives of several dance girls if they do reopen after the Supreme Court lifted that ban this week – though I am sure the government will fight hard to keep the ban in place.

However, I notice this is one of those rare instances where the issue cannot be seen in terms of black and white – both arguments are true and valid, yet both situations lead to their own share of evil. The government’s justification for the ban is that these dance bars were a hot bed of illegal activity, including organised crime and prostitution, apart from ruining whole homes from where young men were lured and rendered bankrupt by their fascination for bar dancers. With ministers comprising mostly Maratha men, they were also worried that young men from the rural areas were attracted more to city dancers and were turning a blind eye to the allurements of tamasha artistes – who are the traditional and classical versions of bar dancers – as a result of which this ancient tradition of Maharashtra was in danger of extinction.

However, though the bar dancers were just 75000 in numbers, the government could not come up with an adequate plan for their rehabilitation and it is true that many of them were forced into involuntary prostitution to eke out a living when they could easily have used the eight years they were out of business to shore up their resources and seek a decent living in different sectors as Shagufta Rafique, a successful script writer from Bollywood did after a rather sleazy start in life when she had no better option – by her own admission dancing in bars saved her from a worse fate but not everybody is or could be as lucky. The flip side of the argument is that bar dancers are slack and lazy and were not interested in government schemes to set them up as seamstresses or in other forms of cottage industry. They chose the easier option of becoming sex workers instead of putting in long hours at sewing machines or embroidery frames.

Who would want to see young girls forced into prostitution but my argument against the government is that it is not their business to moralise or compel anyone to take to professions they may not be skilled at or have no interest in pursuing. Yet, it is also true that the dance bars often become hideouts for gangsters and rogue cops – a lot of conspiracies are hatched under the cover of song and dance at these bars while a majority of the girls may still end up as sex workers after work hours under threat of losing their jobs at the bars if they did not co-operate with their employers or their clients. Men have been known to spend generously at these bars – it is said that Abdul Karim Telgi, the notorious cheat in the stamp paper scam, had been so fascinated by one particular bar dancer that he Rs 90 lakh in one night showering her with currency notes.

That should have helped the girl get out of the profession and shore herself up with enough assets to live a decent existence the rest of her years. But that did not happen because not all the money she earns in a night of dancing belongs to the bar dancer – her employer takes a major share and, given that the girl draws men into the bar, employers are reluctant to let such golden geese quit and return to their homes in faraway villages.

And while Maharashtra’s Home Minister R R Patil is right in saying that the existence of dance bars added to corruption in the police ranks for several cops were benami owners of such bars, it is also true that since these were hangouts for criminal gangs, the cops also succeeded in gathering much information about crime, possible terrorism and other activities for the bars also served undercover cops well in meeting their khabris without arousing any suspicion among the conspirers. In this case, too. Crime neither ended in Bombay nor did it increase manifold when the dance bars were shut down. So it is impossible to support any particular argument in complete favour of their existence or upholding the ban.

To my mind the only fundamental truth is that every citizen has a right to existence and if there are millions of girls in this country who can only earn a living through dance, then it would be impossible to argue for denying them a right to a living, decent or otherwise. For who is to decide what is moral a or not – in the days before the bars were shut down I knew many politicians – now still at the forefront of calling for continuation of the ban – who were frequent visitors to these dance bars. I and a female colleague, too, had gone bar hopping one night under the protection of a particularly well known politician at the time – and when we entered those bars while bouncers at the doors were terrified at the sight of two determined women (they thought we were cops) approaching the doors, they seemed to know and recognize and very familiar with the politician in tow.

The girls who put up special performances for us (or was it just him) said, “that’s it?” when we left after a number or two. I do not know if they were disappointed with the short time we were there or with a thinner bundle of cash than usual (for our benefit) that he put down on the table as we exited.

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