No morality greater than economic morality of basic survival

But the images of the dancers splashed across the media, despite being dressed in their fineries, were indeed pathetic.

As though they had no other existence in the last eight years except to wait, with their make up on, for the bars to reopen. But these are the very images that the people of Mumbai gloat over. These images, along with the human interest stories beside them, give us, the middle class of Mumbai, sadistic pleasure and the right to comment on their morality. The poverty, squalor, degradation, starvation, disease, violence, suicides…. is all kept out of sight.

In fact, many of these lost and forlorn souls are not in the city any more. There was no way they could survive here. Their dreams of providing a better future for their children by enrolling them in good schools were shattered as the ban came into force. Many put them in the ‘trade’ and no one cared.

It is ironic that our conservative courts were their only saviours, that understood their plight and tried to bring them succour, but not the ordinary people who had taken great pleasure in visiting the bars and revelling in their dancing. One would have imagined that the people at large and their political representatives would be more progressive, and also more compassionate. But that was not to be.

After the April 2006 ruling of a division bench of Bombay High Court, there were murmurings in official circles that since both the judges, justices FI Rebello and RS Dalvi, belonged to minority communities, the judgment had gone in favour of the dancers. But seven years later, the judgment delivered by a bench of the Supreme Court headed by no less than the country’s Chief Justice Altamas Kabir along with justice SS Nijjar (a former judge of the Bombay High Court), has upheld this ruling and has commented sympathetically on the plight of the girls who dance in these bars. In the Chief Justice’s own words, the remedy sought by the state government to deprive 75,000 dancers, many of whom lacked basic literacy and many other skills, on the premise that the girls were exploited in these bars, appears to be a cure which is worse than the disease.

“Many of these unfortunate people were forced into prostitution merely to survive, as they had no other means of survival. The compulsion of physical needs has to be taken care of while making any laws… even a bar dancer has to satisfy her hunger, provide for her family and meet her day to day expenses”, the outgoing Chief Justice commented.

Will our politicians keep their egos aside and heed the advice of the Chief Justice and bring about a policy which will safeguard the fundamental rights and the dignity of the dancers and evolve a policy that will prevent exploitation while allowing them to earn a livelihood? After all, there is no morality greater than economic morality.

-- The author is a women’s rights lawyer and had represented the bar dancers before the Bombay High Court in 2006  

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