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Volume 12 Number 2
New Delhi, Summer 2005

Moral Policing or Moral Terrorism

Duhita Das
Former Consultant, World Health Organisation

April has been a busy month for the self-proclaimed moral watchdogs of Indian society to reinforce restrictions on basic freedom and rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India.

On 31st March 2005, the state government of Maharashtra ordered the immediate closure of dance bars all over the state, barring Mumbai. There are reportedly 75,0001 women working in the dance bars of Maharashtra, where customers are served alcohol while the women dance to the latest film music. The Government requires these dance bars to obtain an entertainment licence before they start operating.

While the Maharashtra Government has defended its action purely on legal grounds, saying that a lot of these bars don’t have licences, it is well known that the bars have been closed as they are seen as morally corrupting the fabric of society. What has conspicuously been overlooked is the human rights of the women who join these bars to earn not only a living for themselves but also for their families.

There has been no directive placed on the rehabilitation of the employed women in the bars. These women come from all over India, Bangladesh and Nepal and have little or no formal education. They are either tricked into the profession or coerced due to economic reasons. Those willingly employed don’t see it as a permanent career path but a means to earn quick money.

Moral policing has been on the rise in India. Sections of the civil society have demanded explanations from the government on this latest move, some even organising rehabilitation measures. The greater challenge however, is to counter the society’s stigmatised attitude towards the women. What is horrifying is that these attitudes have fertile breeding grounds in the minds of high profile members of the government who have been democratically elected. The Indian Express, a leading national daily, reported Maharashtra Home Minister Mr. R.R. Patil making comments to the effect that women employed at these bars were a security threat to the state and to the country as a whole.

The ‘security threat’ looming over the country as specified by the leaders of the country has also extended itself to sex work. Like sex workers, the profession of the women employed at bars is not legalised leaving them highly vulnerable. They therefore have no support from law-enforcing authorities and receive no health or other benefits in case they come to harm of any kind. From time to time, there have been reports of “rescue operations” conducted by the state. This may be termed as good intention if only one assumes that the sex workers see it as being rescued, however they may face societal ire and abuse. Methods used are rescue operations are also questionable with little or no follow up on the women who have been rescued.

The Sonagachi project in the eastern part of Calcutta, West Bengal, India is often cited as a successful model case for health workers who counsel/train sex workers battling sexually transmitted diseases among sex workers. The organisers explain: “From the very beginning there was no attempt to ‘rescue’ or ‘rehabilitate’ sex workers. Their capabilities as human beings and workers were recognised and respected. The basic approach of the Sonagachi Project can be summed up as the three ‘R’s: Respect, Reliance and Recognition.

Women who are working in dance bars being declared a security threat. Sex workers being counted as beggars by the Indian census because their profession is not legalised. It is time we determine, who is more out of line – the law maker or the law breaker.


CHRI Newsletter, Summer 2005

Editors: Vaishali Mishra & Clare Doube, CHRI;
Print: Anshu Tejpal,
Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.