In a significant order, the Supreme Court today stayed the 2014 amendment of Maharashtra Police Act which banned dance performances in various places including bars in the state.
A bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra however gave power to licensing authorities to regulate "indecent" performances.
"Dignity of women should be protected and it was the duty of the state police to ensure that it was done", said the bench
Dance bars have been a contentious issue in the state, despite successive governments, cutting across the political divide, branding them as fronts for prostitution.
The law banning dance bars was passed unanimously without a debate in June 2014, after the top court had quashed an earlier law banning dance performances in bars the year before.
The order came on a petition by restaurant owners who challenged the amendment and sought contempt of court action against the Maharashtra government arguing that the state was thwarting the intention of the court.
The court agreed that although it had set aside a similar provision, the law had been brought in a new manner. The court has posted the matter for further hearing on November 6.
There were around 700 dance bars across Maharashtra, which employed more than 75,000 women. They performed Bollywood-style dance routines in bars, receiving cash tips from patrons apart from their salaries.
The petition had questioned the refusal of the licensing authority to let dance bars re-open even after the previous law was held bad by the court.
Last year, ostensibly to nullify the SC ruling that had paved the way for dance bar owners lift their shutters once again, the Congress- led Maharashtra government had cleared an amendment to plug the legal loophole, which had led the court quash the ban in 2013. The state cabinet decided to extend the ban to high-end hotels and private clubs too and the new law will hence affect a total ban on dance bars and dance performances.
In the process, however, the state government has clearly ignored the larger point made by the apex court in its 133-page July 2013 judgement.
While the state government has apparently chosen to drop a provision from the Bombay Police Act, 1951, that allowed dance performances in "exempted" establishments like three-star and five-star hotels but banned it elsewhere, it has failed to address the real issue flagged by the SC.
"A large number of imaginative alternative steps could be taken instead of completely prohibiting dancing if the real concern of the State is the safety of women," the court had said in its order, while emphasising that the state had failed in establishing that such restrictions would be reasonable or be in the interest of general public.
The SC had added: "It would be more appropriate to bring about measures which should ensure the safety and improve the working conditions of the persons working as bar girls."
The court had then unequivocally told the Maharashtra government: "In our opinion, in the present case, 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."
Wondering why there was a need to have the contentious provisions in the Police Act, the SC had asserted that there were "already sufficient rules and regulations and legislation in place which, if efficiently applied, would control if not eradicate all the dangers to the society," and "protect the dignity of women."
The Rules under the Bombay Police Act have been framed in the interest of public safety and social welfare and to safeguard the dignity of women as well as prevent exploitation of women.
Read the order here.