State of Maharashtra & Anr. v Indian Hotel and Restaurants Association & Ors., Civil Appeal No. 2705
A Special Leave Petition (which can be filed against a judgment of any High Court in India) was submitted before the Supreme Court regarding the constitutional validity of a state government ban against dance performances in bars across Maharashtra. This decision, in particular, elevates the constitutional rights to carry on any profession or occupation, and to equality. It also addresses the issue of women’s empowerment.
This case came before the Supreme Court of India, on appeal, against a Bombay High Court verdict striking down the Maharashtra government’s statewide ban on dance performances in bars. The ban dates back to August 2005, and prohibited ‘any type of dancing' in an "eating house, permit room or beer bar", but made an exception for dance performances in three stars hotels and above, and other elite establishments. The State justified the ban by asserting that bar dancing corrupts morals, fuels trafficking and prostitution, and causes exploitation of women bar dancers. Due to the ban, 75,000 women workers became unemployed. Many did not have other marketable skills. Statistics show that 68 per cent of bar dancers were sole bread earners of their family. While a rehabilitation program was in place, it was not enforced. Unemployment and financial hardship forced several erstwhile women bar dancers to leave the state or resort to prostitution, while many committed suicide.
On July 16th, 2013, the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, upheld the rights of bar dancers. The judgment affirmed the Bombay High Court decision which found that the prohibition on dancing violated the right to carry on one’s profession/occupation under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution, and that banning dances in some establishments while allowing them in others infringed upon the right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution.
The Supreme Court noted that “The restrictions in the nature of prohibition cannot be said to be reasonable, inasmuch as there could be several lesser alternatives available which would have been adequate to ensure safety of women than to completely prohibit dance…” The decision excoriates the ban stating that the “cure is worse than the disease” given that contrary to its purpose, the ban resulted in many women being forced into prostitution. The Court urged that it would be more appropriate to bring about measures which ensure the safety and improve the working conditions of bar dancers. Instead of putting curbs on women’s freedom, empowerment would be more tenable and socially wise approach.
Enforcement has been particularly difficult in this case due to political opposition. Even though the Supreme Court had struck down the ban, the police did not process the licenses necessary for the bars to reopen, and for the dancers to resume their work, as they had not received an order to do so from the state government. In wake of the judgment, the state government had immediately begun to consider various options to counter the verdict. The Supreme Court, in May 2014, upon being petitioned, issued a contempt notice for non-compliance to the Maharashtra government, but to no avail. In fact, just a year after the Supreme Court judgment, the Maharashtra government in June 2014 passed a law to continue the ban on dance performances in bars across the state. This law now extended to all establishments, including elite ones.
On 24th July 2015, the Supreme Court heard a petition filed by Indian Hotel and Restaurant Association challenging this second ban on dance bars. The petition noted that the State Government had blatantly disregarded the Supreme Court judgment in 2013. The Supreme Court has twice before directed the state to reply to this current petition without success. Now the Supreme Court has again given the state government three weeks as a final opportunity to file its reply, and has adjourned the matter for hearing after seven weeks. As the legal battle continues a full decade after the first ban, the fate of over 75,000 women continues to be on hold.
The Lawyers Collective and the Indian Hotel and Restaurants Owners Association (AHAR) were involved in the case. Also involved were several social justice-oriented NGOs, including the Bharatiya Bar Girls Union (representing the dancers), Aawaaz-e-Niswan (representing the interests of Muslim women), Akshara and the Women’s Research and Action Group (women’s rights groups), the India Centre for Human Rights and Law, as well as HIV/AIDS-STD activists.
The judgment potentially impacts hundreds of institutions and thousands of women working as dancers. However, much depends on the outcome of the current legal proceedings relating to the renewed ban. Notwithstanding the political and legal issues that have arisen in the aftermath of the decision, this case is very significant for its strong support for women’s rights. The Supreme Court upheld the fundamental rights of women workers, and stood for women’s empowerment in face of the government’s paternalism and ‘moral policing’. Moreover, this case is important because the Supreme Court, which often takes on a very active role in protecting and enforcing economic and social rights in India, continues to be actively involved with the plight of bar dancers, by first issuing a contempt notice to the Maharashtra government, and thereafter by agreeing to hear a challenge to the renewed ban.
(Updated August 2015)