The dance bar ban: Politics and Profit

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Mumbai:  No sooner did Supreme Court lift the ban on Mumbai's dance bars than politicians across the board protested, saying that the bars should remain shut because they are a source of moral corruption and because they pose a law and order menace. But is this outright hypocrisy given that politicians seem to patronise dance bars or directly profit from them?

The most direct instance of ownership is the Drumbeat Dance Bar in Tardeo and Mood Bar in Malad, both owned by Bal Thackeray's son, the late Binda Thackeray.

After he died in a car accident, the licence was shifted to his wife Madhavi, who has leased it out to be run as orchestra bars.

The ban in 2005 cancelled dance licences, but allowed the bars to retain an orchestra licence, which permits a certain number of girls on stage, only for singing.

Shiv Sena legislator and former leader of the party in the assembly, Ramdas Kadam, also owns a bar, Savli, in Malad; the license is in the name of his wife, Jyoti Kadam.

Mr Kadam claims that Sawli is just a bar, without any girls.  But when we had visited Sawli earlier this year, it was clearly running as an orchestra bar.

In fact, Savli was one of the bars raided last year by inspector Laxman Dhoble in his crusade against Mumbai's nightlife, on charges that it was a front for prostitution. The management, however, denied these charges.
 
Industries Minister Narayan Rane also owned a dance bar Neelam in Chembur, which is named after his wife. It's now in the name of the Nair family, and called Cannon. Mr Rane claimed that it was only a restaurant, not a dance bar, but he could not explain why it had a licence for dancing.
 
Santosh Shetty, a Congress Corporator, is said to own or have a partnership in at least three dance bars, including Titan Dance Bar, in Panvel on the outskirts of Mumbai. Mr Shetty refused to comment.
 
The enmeshed nexus between politicians and dance bar owners is evident in the VIPs attending the launch of Jai Maharashtra, the channel launched by builder Sudhakar Shetty. This included Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, his ministers Narayan Rane and Chhagan Bhujbal, as well as BJP leaders Nitin Gadkari and Gopinath Munde.

Mr Shetty owned the notorious and now defunct Deepa Bar in Vile Parle, which has been shrouded in controversy. In 2005, one of the prominent dancers at Deepa Bar, Tarannum, was arrested after allegations surfaced that she is involved in the match-fixing controversy. In the same year, suspected underworld members shot at Mr Shetty's partner Humayun Chandiwal who escaped unhurt.

Despite this, the politicians flocked in strength for the launch of his channel. The logic? That he is now a respectable builder.

So why did this cosy arrangement between bar owners and politicians break down, leading to the ban in 2005? Was it a worsening moral climate, as the politicians claim, or is it because of a dispute over payoffs?

After a series of raids on the bar owners in 1998, and the hiking of excise fee by almost 300 per cent, the two sides finally reached an agreement in January 2001, with the government agreeing to extend the deadline by an hour: from 12:30 am to 1:30 am.

Opposition parties allege that Maharashtra Home Minister Chaggan Bhujbal, who signed that declaration, was paid off by the bar owners. BJP leader Vinod Tavde says it was well-known that bar owners were paying NCP ministers to extend the deadline. Mr Bhujbal denied the charges saying he was simply trying to streamline timings.

Flushed with success, the dance bar association then tried to get the deadline further extended to 3:30 am.

By then, Mr Bhujbal had been replaced by RR Patil as Home Minister. It is at this time that Manjit Singh claims he was approached by two men claiming to represent the state government. One of them was Vilas Satam, whose card described him as the Vice President of the NCP's Maharashtra Seva Dal. The other was Paresh Patil, who Mr Singh claims met him at the NCP's office where he had a cabin. Mr Singh claims they asked for Rs 5 crore for the party fund in exchange for extending the deadline, which the association agreed to paying as a cheque transaction.

Mr Singh says he held an AGM where every bar contributed a fixed rate based on their size: small hotels paid Rs 25,000, medium Rs 50,000 and big hotels Rs 1 lakh. He said they collected Rs 5 crore and were ready to deliver it in a delegation.

But he claimed that something went wrong, and the amount was then almost tripled - to 15 crores - which he said the bar association was not prepared to pay. A few months later, the dance bars were banned.

The BJP alleged that it's the failure to pay the kickbacks which led to the ban on the bars, charges that the NCP denies.

But the allegations were found to carry some weight by the Bombay High Court, which struck down the ban in 2006, and before whom Manjit Singh placed the evidence.

In its order, the court said, "We prima facie find that Vilas Satam and Paresh Patil were dealing with Manjit Singh to get the law amended for change of timings of dance bars for a huge consideration. We, therefore, direct the Commissioner of Police, Mumbai, to continue with the ongoing investigation and file a report with this court within the period of three months from today on the outcome of the investigation."

The fate of that probe is unknown. NCP spokesperson Nawab Mallik told us that a contempt petition should be filed by the petitioners for the failure to obey the court's instructions, an odd argument given that it his government and his party which controls the Home portfolio.
   
Had that probe ever been carried out without interference, we might have known whether it was morality, or a deal gone wrong, which led to the end of Mumbai's dance bars.
 


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