Is Bangalore right about its right to dance?

The Water Cooler

Two weeks ago, Bangalore Police Commissioner B G Jyothiprakash Mirji ruffled familiar feathers by bringing back into the limelight a ban on dancing in entertainment venues where live music is played. September 11, while the world was obsessing over the tenth anniversary of the iconic terrorist attacks that hit New York City, police raided a well-known watering hole in Bangalore and closed down a party in which international DJs were performing. The pub, police said, violated regulations that are required to be followed by venues that maintain dance floors.

This seemingly stray incident reignited the debate over "moral policing" and the clampdown on dancing and live music in Bangalore's watering holes. Though this subject has repeatedly made headlines, it has always been unclear as to why the issue is contentious in the first place.

Rewind to August 2008. Bangalore police enforced a ban on live music in venues that served liquor citing the Licensing and Controlling of Places of Public Entertainment (Bangalore City) Order, 2005. Although policing of public entertainment has been prevalent for some time in Bangalore, this order first came into effect under the Dharam Singh-led Congress state government in 2005. The restriction applied equally to all public entertainment and did not differentiate among clubs, dance bars, discotheques or regular restaurants with regard to live music.

Restaurants that serve alcohol are required to shut down by 11:30 pm under prevailing excise licensing norms. The 2005 order also mandated that license applicants follow strict regulations pertaining to show timings, safety of women working or performing at these establishments, and technicalities such as seating area vis-à-vis performance zones. However, few establishments adhered to every specification, leading to a total absence of live music or dancing in restaurants.

Later that year the Resto-Lounge Bar and Discotheque Owners Association moved the Supreme Court and were granted relief when the apex court ruled that licenses may be granted to venues that did not promote indecent shows and prostitution. Consequently the police also softened its stand.

However, this interval of relief ended when dance bar owners challenged the liberty granted to restaurants and bars, alleging that many discotheques in the city were flouting norms.

Dance bars, by definition places that serve liquor and employ dancing women to entertain patrons, have long been accused of promoting prostitution and "obscene behavior" as they were accused of doing in Mumbai. Even as the Maharashtra government ordered the closure of dance bars in 2005, it was estimated that hundreds of women working in these bars had been robbed of their livelihoods. Commentators argued that a move that intended to curb prostitution had ironically driven them to the streets. A few months later the Karnataka government followed suit in implementing a similar ban in the state, reportedly fearing that many of these women would migrate to Bangalore seeking employment in dance bars.

Police brought the rule back into force, this time citing Rule 11 of the Karnataka State Excise Licence General Conditions Rules, 1967, which states that 'no dancing, no get-together and no feast shall be allowed in clubs, bars and pubs'."

In the 1990s Bangalore acquired, among other sobriquets, the tag of Pub City, one that certain self-appointed guardians of public morality have refused to tolerate. Attacks on "pub culture" and western symbols have been commonplace. In August 2008, with the BJP government in power in Karnataka, the ban on live music in pubs and bars was clamped again. Defending the police action, then Bangalore Police Commissioner Shankar M Bidari said that police had raided only unlicensed discotheques, hotels and clubs that feature live music.

The move came in for vocal criticism from activists for Bangalore's vibrant performing musicians. Bars, pubs, restaurants and other entertainment venues frequently employ the services of rock bands, musicians and performing artists to entertain patrons. Prime among the protesters' demands was for the authorities to clearly differentiate between dance bars and other venues playing live music.

In August 2008, days after the order came into effect, about 2,000 activists, artists, students, musicians and other performers gathered at the landmark Queen's statue on Mahatma Gandhi Road in what was dubbed "The Big Bangalore Protest Unit" together with a signature campaign that answered to the name of Bangalore Bleeding. Under the watchful eyes of the police force represented by "somnolent constables" (as one magazine called them), the protesters stressed that dance and music were integral to Indian culture. After a few Sundays, the protest was forced to wind up, even as the police maintained that dance bars fostered prostitution and live music in bars created law and order problems.

The present police commissioner has been making his intentions clear since April, when he had a run-in with state excise minister M P Renukacharya over the closure of dance bars in the city. Although the Supreme Court has allowed women to work in bars in the capacity of bartenders (with clear guidelines on uniforms and apparel), Bangalore police have maintained that many bars have been employing women in violation of these guidelines. In addition to not abiding by the statute — which includes, among other points, maintaining photo identification cards of women employees and paying them a Provident Fund allowance — Mirji accused the bar management of employing women with "obscene" attire to dance with customers, implying that these violations amount to abetment of "immoral" acts.

Pub and bar owners, on the other hand, complain that the conditions imposed by the police are "unrealistic" and requires fulfilling many "impractical" conditions. The continuing clampdown on watering holes of all stripes, irrespective of whether they employ dancing girls, threatens the livelihoods of performing artists, liquor resellers and entertainment management companies.

The odds are stacked against all parties to reach a reasonable solution to the problem. Perhaps Karnataka might want to look towards Mumbai — the city that took the lead in shutting down dance bars (although more recently its administrators have been flayed for raising the legal drinking age to 25) is also likely to take major steps to resolve the contentious issue. Earlier this month the Supreme Court directed the Maharashtra government to examine if it can modify certain provisions of the Bombay Police Act and ban only "obscene and objectionable" forms of dance in restaurants, bars and hotels, adding that dance alone cannot be considered obscene. The bench remarked that the state should not push women employed at these establishments into the streets.

An admirable first step, undoubtedly. If the citizens of Bangalore wish to follow suit and reclaim their freedom, they might want to start by attempting to draw a clear and definite line between pleasures licit and illicit, and then lobbying hard to defend civil liberties.

As one famous band sang in the Sixties, they must all "come together, right now."