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Mumbai no bar, Morality bar bar

Anil Dharker

Posted: Apr 25, 2005 at 1044 hrs IST

R.R. Patil needs to realise that dance girls in bars are often bewildered and innocent and their dances are nowhere near the pelvic thrusts of Bollywood.

R.R. Patil, Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister, came to his office unheralded and unsung. When he leaves, whoever will sing his praises, you can be sure it won’t be the state’s bar girls.

The minister’s crusade against bar dancers has puzzled most people, particularly those who have been to one of Mumbai’s many bars. I did, about a year ago, for a story on them. I went in, expecting sleaze, but found instead a bewildering innocence about them. Men, most of them young, sat in chairs lined up against the walls of a longish room, in the centre of which women, all of them young, stood in a line and danced.

The dancing was of a minimalist kind. There was none of the pelvic thrusting and bosom heaving you see in a standard Bollywood dance, nor was there the belly-dancer’s undulations or the stripper’s suggestive gyrations. This was movement designed for the conservation of energy: the girls, fully clothed, made some cursory movements, often coming to a complete standstill as they chatted, either amongst themselves, or with the young men. The only time a dancer’s movements became animated was when one of the men showered a couple of currency notes on her. The flurry, if you could call it that, lasted only a brief moment.

Many of the men seemed to know the women; the regulars had their particular favourites, who stood and danced near them. There was repartee, some mild flirting, but no physical contact. Most of us who live in a society where the easy mixing of genders is taken for granted, forget that we are the exceptions, not the rule. In a conventional middle-class environment, boys go out with boys and girls with girls. Mingling of the sexes either happens in groups or in an individual committed relationship. In such a situation, to be able to spend an evening with a pretty girl for the price of a couple of beers and a few ten rupee notes must seem like an answer to several prayers. And if you want an additional likely reason, how about this: which lowly office-going man, made timid by the weight of hierarchy, would be able to resist the feeling of power that must come from making a woman literally dance to his bidding?

It would be naive to think that that is where it begins and that is where it ends. It is likely, and human, that some of these liaisons may end up in bed. But the very point of the dance bar is that this is neither obvious nor is it the norm. The flesh trade has its own address and its own environment and neither can stand the scrutiny of the dance bar’s bright lights.

In his campaign to close down all the dance bars in Maharashtra, has Patil, then, completely missed the point? His reputation as a politician has been of a man whose honesty is unquestioned. Is this, then, an inevitable corollary, that the man of scruples has a highly developed sense of moral outrage which then leads to prudishness? That could also explain the police crackdown on ‘‘obscene’’ posters and hoardings, arbitrary decisions, none of which would stand up in courts which define obscenity in far more liberal terms.

Is the small-town mentality of many of our politicians responsible for this squeamishness? Yes, possibly. But only if the dance bar campaign is taken in isolation. As it happens, the brouhaha around it, has drowned out a great many other things, which if taken together point to a calculated whole.

R. R. Patil, for example, didn’t just talk of bar girls from a moral stand point. He also said that many of their phone calls had been traced to Bangladesh, thus implying that many of them had come from that country and that concern for their well-being was, thus misplaced. This, in turn, was an echo of what Maharashtra’s Chef Minister has been saying of late: the state, particularly its premier city, cannot cope with the influx of outsiders, that their unchecked migration puts to severe strain an already inadequate infrastructure. This wouldn’t be such an outrageous thing to say because it is the truth, but the tone in which it has been said has been so xenophobic that Vilasrao Deshmukh has had to issue several clarifications: No, the CM didn’t mean South Indians; he, in fact, was referring to Bangladeshis etc, etc.

Look at the whole and do a double-take. This is Shiv Sena territory: The cleansing of a city of its moral turpitude and its outsiders, and restoring it to a pristine state where, cured of the vices of a big city and the influence of ‘evil foreigners’, the middle-class can settle into a quiet gentility. It’s the dream the Shiv Sena has been selling since its inception, and which the Congress-NCP combine now seems to be usurping for itself.

There can only be one explanation for this volte-face: Maharashtra and particularly Mumbai’s problems are beyond solving, good governance, given the contradictory pulls and pressures of the electorate, is an impossibility, so what is needed are cheap tricks to distract the citizen. The cheapest trick is to get bar girls to pack up their suitcases and leave.

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