Bar dancing is a form of erotic dancing where women dance in liquor bars fully clothed to Bollywood music. Bar dancing as a sector grew in the Indian state of Maharashtra starting in the mid-1980s and by 2006 when it was banned, easily employed about 75,000 dancers and 800,000 men and women in related employment. The sector was regulated by an elaborate labyrinth of licensing regimes relating to food, liquor, and public entertainment, as well as by the public nuisance provisions of the Bombay Police Act 1951 and Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code 1860 relating to obscenity. A conservative provincial government took over and banned bar dancing in 2005 in bars other than those located in hotels with three stars or above. The justification was the negative externalities that such behaviour produced as well as the offence that bar dancing caused to the dignity of women. Bar owners challenged the ban and the Mumbai High Court in 2006 overturned the ban upholding the right to livelihood of bar dancers.
The court demonstrated a keen awareness of the gender bias operative in the state’s ban, was not convinced that bar dancing was against the public interest and held that women could not be effectively penalized for men’s insatiable sexual needs or the public consequences of liquor consumption. It reminded the state that many of the bar dancers were widowed, deserted or divorced and tried to earn a decent living for themselves and their families. Even if some were exploited, the state could not prevent others from pursuing a livelihood of their choice, even if involuntary at times. The court also challenged the state’s notion that bar dancers stay poor rather than engage in unpalatable work. Thus, judges asked why an illiterate but otherwise beautiful girl should be prohibited from earning well through dancing rather than be condemned to a life of menial jobs?
The case was appealed in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed with the Mumbai High Court and struck down the ban as unconstitutional. The state of Maharashtra then passed the Maharashtra Prohibition of Obscene Dance in Hotels, Restaurants and Bar Rooms and Protection of Dignity of Women (working therein) Act, 2016 imposing a range of restrictions on dancing in bars. This was challenged by the bar owners and the Supreme Court in January 2019 struck down various provisions of the Act that it deemed unreasonable and unconstitutional. However, it upheld the broader regulatory framework for the issue of licenses to dance bars; these licenses need to be reissued by the provincial government, which has made every effort to ban bar dancing through licensing law. The project will study the impact of this long-running litigation on the lives of bar dancers and the circumstances under which this sector will now re-emerge with protections to bar dancers as workers.