Unbridled moral policing in Mumbai

The Maharashtra government’s obstinate refusal to grant licences to dance bars has crossed all limits of propriety. The government seems to be disregarding the Supreme Court which has slammed it for its proposal that dance bars place CCTV cameras in the performance area, with live feed to police stations for security considerations. The apex court rightly jettisoned the voyeuristic twist to moral policing.

It all began in 2005 with the then Maharashtra home minister R.R. Patil imposing a ban on dance bars. According to him, the bars corrupted the younger generation and threatened the cultural fabric of the country: “these bars are corrupting the moral fibre of our youth and culture.” The morals of the well-heeled were, however, considered to robust enough to resist any corrupting influence, so three- and five-star establishments were exempted from the restriction.

This, apparently, proved to be the state government’s undoing, as the Supreme Court struck down the ban on the grounds of this discrepancy. However, it took a very long time. But such is the prudery of Maharashtra politicians—for it is not just the ruling party members who want dance bars to be proscribed—that they have consistently and insistently resisted the implementation of the apex court order.

It is interesting to note that the humble dance bar girls of Bombay had shared something common with Socrates: both were accused of corrupting the youth. More than two millennia after the great Greek philosopher was executed on the charge that he was corrupting the youth of Athens, dance bar girls were charged with the same.

This brings us to the basic instinct of the political class: keep control over the people; for, though technically they are citizens, they should be kept as subjects; their thoughts, feelings, manners, behavior, activities, and movements should be observed and monitored. Politicians want to create a prescriptive society in which everything would be scrutinized and controlled. Anybody coming between them and control, be it the thinker or the dancing girl, is dealt with severely. Hence Socrates was ordered to drink hemlock. And hence Bombay bars were shut down. The Maharashtra government decided to extend its ban on dance bars in the rest of the state. The charge was the same: MLAs from rural areas complained that they were corrupting the youth. The Bombay ban alone was estimated to have rendered 1.5 lakh people, including 75,000 bar girls, jobless.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the controversy is the concern shown by politicians for the moral health of the youth. One need not be a political analyst to know that some of the most unscrupulous people join politics. They are involved in all kinds of scandals and scams; they fool the voters and intimidate adversaries. They seek bribes and favors from businessmen; favors often include women. Yet, these people show concern for morality! Never before was hypocrisy louder.

The clamor to save culture—whatever it means—appears even more obscene when one finds that the political class is doing precious little what is its duty. The government in Maharashtra—or, for that matter, in any other state and at the Centre—has myriad things to do. The law and order situation is worsening; corruption remains the bane of citizens; the cities and towns are decaying; villages are little better; the environment is deteriorating; the Naxalite menace is knocking at the door; but, instead of addressing such grave problems, the government is hell-bent on shutting down dance bars, fighting the bar owners, and tormenting the bar girls. The government can’t police the state properly; but it has already taken the assignment of moral policing.

All this in name of saving ‘culture.’ It was a famous Nazi who said that he reached for his gun whenever he heard the word ‘culture.’ But so obscene is the clamor raised to save ‘our culture’ that it can enrage even the most liberal citizens.