The Supreme Court of India today rejected the Maharashtra Government’s decision to forbid dancing in beer bars, calling the ban unconstitutional.
The ban dates back to August 2005, when the Maharashtra State Legislature enacted the Bombay Police (Amendment) Act of 2005, amidst strong political support. The ban was selective in nature; while section 33A prohibited ‘any type of dancing’ in an “eating house, permit room or beer bar”, section 33B allowed dance performances in three star and above hotels and other ‘elite’ establishments. The ban was immediately contested by bar owners and dancers’ unions. On 12 April 2006, the Bombay High Court struck down the law on the grounds that the prohibition on dancing violated the right to carry on one’s profession/occupation under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution. The High Court also held that disallowing dances in some establishments while permitting them in others was arbitrary and infringed the right to equality under Article 14.
The Maharashtra Government appealed, and in May 2006, obtained a stay against the High Court’s judgment. As a result, dancing in beer bars did not resume even after law was struck down.
In its arguments before the Supreme Court, the Maharashtra Government justified the ban by alleging that bar dancing is vulgar and corrupts morals. It also raised the alarm of human trafficking, as most dancers hail from places outside Maharashtra. The Government claimed that dancing was a ‘gateway’ to prostitution and the bars served as ‘pick up’ joints. The Government expressed its inability to regulate these establishments and claimed that outlawing dancing was the only way to suppress the ‘evil’.
In response, bar dancers’ argued that it was not bar dancing but the ban that compromised dancers’ safety and pushed them into exploitative situations. Dancing is a legitimate activity and the dancers perform ‘bollywood style’ dances. The dancers’ questioned why such dancing is allowed on-screen, but forbidden in bars and restaurants. Feminist groups’ lent support and challenged the ban as an invasion on women’s autonomy. They stressed that dancing was both a medium of expression and livelihood and could not be barred under the Constitution.
Pronouncing its decision in State of Maharashtra v Indian Hotel and Restaurants Association and Anr, Civil Appeal No. 2705 of 2006, the Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and Justice Surinder Singh Nijjar agreed with the Bombay High Court that the ban was constitutionally impermissible. With this verdict, the Maharashtra Government will have to go back to the licensing system, under which beer bars and other similar establishments operated in the State.
The Lawyers Collective represented dancers’ and women’s’ organisations in the case, before the Bombay High Court as well as the Supreme Court.