If the government of Maharashtra has its way, there would be bars in the state where the clientele won't be served alcohol. Or at least parts of the pubs will be designated booze-free. Try that for an oxymoron.
Last year, the government framed the Maharashtra Prohibition of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Restaurants and Bar Rooms and Protection of Dignity of Women Act 2016. The law, as its name makes it abundantly clear, demanded the abolition of alcohol anywhere near the dancers at dance bars as well as the installation of CCTV cameras on the premises. The proprietors of these businesses were enraged by the state's injunction. Even the highest court of the land called these strictures "absurd" and "arbitrary" and "absolutely regressive by centuries".
Now, in a fresh affidavit to the Supreme Court, the state has argued that bar dancing is "vulgar" and "not an art form that needs to be protected and promoted". It has alleged that such activities are often a cover for carrying out sex rackets and perpetuating the exploitation of women. The girls who perform the dances, the state added, were not "trained artistes", their dancing has very little "entertainment value" and borders on the obscene.
In making such remarks, the state seemed to have exceeded its familiar role of being the moral police. It has now taken on the onus of deciding what constitutes good and bad artistic expression. Don't be surprised if the next new thing from the Indian government is compulsory state-sanctioned crash courses in cultural appreciation for all citizens.
To give it credit though, the state does raise pertinent worries about the safety of women in public dance bars. One doesn't need to be an expert to guess that such places could become a site of violence, mounting aggression and even sex work. The bar dancer's life, as Sonia Faleiro describes in her book Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars (2010) or Madhur Bhandarkar's depicts in his movie Chandni Bar (2001) is a tough one — fraught with danger, indignity and even the risk of death.
The responsibility of ensuring the safety and dignity of the women lies with the establishments that employ them — and the state has every right to penalise them for failing to do so. But that has nothing to do with the state's feelings about the quality and nature of the performances that take place on their premises.
Assuming it is the objectification of women that's most upsetting to the government, can the latter then offer them another source of income that doesn't involve having to expose themselves to the male gaze? But that's not all either. How exactly does the government decide the "entertainment value" of a certain activity or the fact that it borders on the "obscene" and spreads "vulgarity"? What kind of a rulebook of proper taste is it referring to in making such value judgments?
By all means, the state should nab anyone running a sex racket, or an establishment that causes harm to women or exploits them, but it has no business playing the role of the hectoring patriarch, telling citizens what to like and what to stay away from.
Also on HuffPost