Dance Bars aren’t the problem, hypocrisy is
This is a political column. So the only reason you are reading about dance bars this week is because it was for entirely political reasons that they were closed in Maharashtra in 2005. Political reasons so narrow that the opinion of vociferous middle class moralists was given precedence over the livelihood of thousands of women who supported whole families on what they earned. And so hypocritical that the Home Minister of Maharashtra, RR Patil has never dared admit that dance bars have nothing to do with child prostitution. Little girls are no use in dance bars because they look like little girls even if they are dressed in the glittering skirts and veils of bar dancers but they can be easily turned into prostitutes in the pitiless brothels of Mumbai where depraved old men come to satisfy their disgusting desires.
Mumbai is one of the world’s largest centres for child trafficking according to organisations that work to stop this awful commerce and most trafficked children end up in the brothels. If Patil were sincere about ridding this city of child trafficking he needed only to wander down to the sad, squalid brothels under this city’s Kennedy Bridge, a stone’s throw from his office, and he would find the real victims. Instead, he chose to go for an easier target and ended up depriving 75,000 bar dancers of their livelihood and closing down bars that were a uniquely Mumbai institution and an amusing side product of Bollywood. The Supreme Court has reversed a serious injustice in its recent judgement and we can only hope that Maharashtra’s narrow-minded and hypocritical politicians do not find some other way of preventing the dance bars from opening again.
If they are genuinely interested in ending the horror of child prostitution, they need to work harder to ensure that the brothels of Mumbai stop forcing children to become sex slaves. This can easily be done because the police know exactly which brothels have children in them and which ones do not. If they do not stop child prostitution it is because the brothel owners make enough money to keep the police happy. If anyone can change things, it should be the Home Minister that is if he is really interested in stopping the most sickening form of child abuse.
Dance bars go live in Mumbai
Around the time that Patil closed the dance bars in 2005, I was doing a programme for NDTV’s Hindi channel called Indianama. One of the first episodes I did was about child prostitution in Mumbai and I was able to do it only because the police chief at the time, Anami Roy, was eager to publicise the raids that he was conducting on brothels. The story that unfolded for me that day was so horrible that by the time we finished visiting brothels late that evening I had a high fever and was sickened to my soul. I met young girls, some no more than fourteen years old, who had been kidnapped and forced into prostitution before they reached puberty. I remember in particular the story of a girl whose name I think was Rubina who was kidnapped while playing outside her parents’ pavement home in Delhi. She was sold to a brothel under the Kennedy Bridge and forced to have sex with more than ten men a day in a cubicle no wider than a large desk.
She came back with us the day we went on the raid to search for a scrap of paper on which she thought was written her parents address. When we got to the brothel she searched desperately in a blue plastic vanity case filled with cheap cosmetics and she searched under the narrow wooden plank that had been her bed. She did not find it and it clearly broke her heart. As we were leaving Ian Dowling, the man who ran the rescue centre where she had been taken, told me that she was HIV positive. In Mumbai, there are hundreds of thousands of girls like her in the brothels. They should be easy to find but for this to happen you need political leaders who are motivated by more than hypocrisy and tokenism.
Because of their fraudulent motives, girls who made an honest living and good money out of dancing in bars were driven into the streets. Some were forced into prostitution, some were trafficked to countries in the Middle East and some found whatever work they could to feed their families. In the words of a bar dancer I interviewed for a column that appeared in April 2005, “Where we could make Rs 200 and Rs 300 a day we barely manage to make Rs 20 and sometimes it gets so bad the owner gives us a few rupees to go and eat a meal.” The girls I interviewed in the ‘dancers room’ of a bar just after the ban came into effect came from very poor families in Kolkata, Kanpur and Lucknow. They were mostly illiterate, so their employment options were limited but the moralists who imposed the ban could not have cared less. They come from middle class families who mostly believe that poor people are ‘bad’ at the best of times.
Moralists are not easily defeated either. Like all puritans they believe righteousness is on their side. So if the Supreme Court does not keep a careful eye on what is going to happen now it is entirely possible that the same people will get back into action and find some other way to ensure that dance bars do not come back into business. It is the city that has to give licenses for a bar to open and the licenses may become impossible to get. If this happens, it would be a tragedy for Mumbai because I remember the dance bar in which I went to do my interviews as a happy place filled with music, lights and gilded ceilings. The brothels of Mumbai, on the other hand, I remember as places that reek of evil, exploitation and disease. The rescued child prostitutes I talked to told stories of being beaten and starved if they refused to service customers. Even on days when they were sick, they were forced to work and more often than not all they ’earned’ were two meals a day and some clothes. If RR Patil is sincere in wanting to do something good for Mumbai, it is the brothels he needs to attack. The question to ask is why he has not already done so.
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Tavleen Singh is an Indian columnist, political reporter and writer.