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Chandigarh skirt ‘ban’ explained: The story of how the City Beautiful ended up looking so ugly despite best intentions that ‘rights will never be infringed’

Skirting no rules
Skirting no rules

On Wednesday, the internet was drowning in headlines about the ‘bizarre’ rule in Chandigarh banning anti-national and indecent skirts.

By the evening of the same day, earlier headlines were replaced with suggestions that the skirt ban news was only a rumour and based on a misreading of the newly notified policy.

However, by the time the clarifications came, articles and blogs were already swamped with suggestions that skirts were banned because “women are sin, impure and signify temptation”.

Chandigarh is the capital of Haryana and Punjab but for the purpose of administration, Chandigarh is a Union Territory (UT) and is administered by the ‘Lt. Governor’/ ‘Administrator’ appointed by the President of India under Article 239 of the Constitution; who usually is the Governor of Punjab/Haryana.

Coming back to the skirt story, the controversy is related to the notification of the ‘Controlling of Places of Public Amusement Policy 2016’ by the Administrator of Chandigarh on 1 April 2016 (amusingly, the rules have been uploaded on the website of the Chandigarh Administration as a file called ‘Disco_Rules.pdf’).

Public amusement is quite a legal matter

Chandigarh is not first to come up with such rules.

(West) Bengal had enforced similar laws even before independence with the Bengal Places of Public Amusement Act, 1933.

To mention a few others, Maharashtra covers public amusement laws under the Bombay Police Act, 1951; Karnataka regulates it through the Karnataka Police Act and Delhi through The Regulations for Licensing and Controlling Place of Amusement and Performance for Public Amusement Act, 1980.

In fact, the Punjab Municipal Corporation Act 1976, which also applies to Chandigarh, already contained provisions for licensing of places of public amusement.

Under the 2016 policy, a nodal committee would be responsible for issuance of a ‘permission certificate’ for places of public amusement. The committee includes members such as the District Magistrate, Superintendent of Police, Commissioner of Municipal Corporation etc. It further provides for appointment of a monitoring committee.

So what does the Chandigarh disco rules PDF do?

As per section 6 of the new Chandigarh Public Amusement policy 2016, which has been the focal point of the skirt-controversy, the District Magistrate (Nodal officer) has been empowered to "refuse issuance of fresh permission or revoke the existing permission certificate for operation of business" if such a place is considered to be indecent or of scurrilous character; may wound the susceptibilities of any nation of followers of any religion; contains offensive references to personalities; is seditious; is likely to excite political discontent; or may be calculated to cause a breach of trust.

And what about indecent clothes?

The only reference to clothes to be found in the policy, is under the grounds for refusing permission of “photographs of scantily dressed women” in “exhibition or advertisements whether by way of posters or in the newspapers”.

No ban on skirts in pubs then?

No. The Chandigarh 'disco policy' refers to photographs of scantily dressed women and not to the women themselves.

Of course, it is very possible that this inclusion of indecency in the rules may be semi-wilfully misinterpreted to take action against places of public amusement, but first, one should note that it’s very difficult to define indecency and second, ‘indecency’ is also used to covers acts such as public exhibition of pornography, prostitution, etc.

Chandigarh admin went into damage control

In full damage control mode, the Chandigarh administration then issued a press release and said:

Surprisingly, some of the newspapers and electronic media has misquoted, misinterpreted and distorted the facts related to this policy, especially with the section 6 of the policy. The news articles have distorted the whole policy by picking up words and phrases from different part of the Policy and have tried to create sensational news.

The [Policy] has been carefully drafted by the administration with a view to regulate the related businesses in Chandigarh. It aims at taking preventive steps timely for the convenience of citizens and to maintain law and order within the city.

Regarding skirts, it said:

The fact therein that nowhere in the policy it has been mentioned that females can’t wear skirts, while going to the places defined under the policy, as stated in the print and electronic media.

So why was a policy even framed in the first place?

It appears that there were no detailed laws to regulate the “places of public amusement” which may include

“discotheque, pool game/virtual reality game/game machine parlours, bowling alleys including places where music, singing, dancing (excluding cinema) and facility of eating and consumption of alcohol are provided to the customers or patrons in the prescribed premises/area with the purpose of running a commercial enterprise for pecuniary gains”

What happened is that this policy has been the result of a writ petition before the Hon’ble High Court of Punjab and Haryana, which had ordered the administration to formulate such policies.

The writ petition titled Kulvir Kaur v. Union Territory of Chandigarh & Ors - CRM M-22351 of 2015 was filed by petitioner “seeking protection to her life and liberty on the ground that she and her family members were being harassed at the hands of Chandigarh police”.

The petition was filed against a backdrop of a shootout at a Chandigarh discotheque at around 2am on the morning of 2 June 2015.

Hearing the petition on 19 August 2015, Justice Rajan Gupta asked the Chandigarh Union Territory to clarify bar opening hours, their licensing and if there were verification of antecedents of private security guards employed there.

The high court observed:

“This court expects that administration is conscious of the fact that the City cannot be allowed to turn into haven for hooligans at night.”

On 23 September 2015, the high court asked UT to apprise it of “why some benchmark cannot be adopted for running of hotels, discos etc.” On perusal of the affidavit, the high court observed “it is not clear whether any guidelines are framed for functioning of these clubs, discotheque etc.”

On 28 October 2015, the high court added:

“Number of queries have been raised by this court on various dates of hearing. This court has already deemed it fit to enlarge the scope of the petition to examine various aspects pertaining to operation of clubs, discotheque etc. during the night time. No clear answer is forthcoming. It is inexplicable why such clubs, discotheque etc. operate up to the wee hours despite the fact that law and order problem is created.”

After having faced the above remarks from the court, the administration swung into action and on 6 November 2015 informed the bench that it was in the process of framing a comprehensive policy governing all matters that arose in the case.

The high court had also directed Chandigarh to submit a copy of the policy to the court before its finalisation for reference of the amicus curiae appointed by it.

On 21 December 2015, the union territory submitted a draft of the policy before the high court and informed it about the proposed closure timings of the places serving alcohol.

The high court noted in particular the relevant paragraph which read: “The operation of business such as discotheque, pool game/virtual reality game/game machine parlors, bowling alleys shall be operational till 12.00 a.m. Whereas, serving of liquor shall be served as per rules notified by the Department of Excise & Taxation, Chandigarh.”

The court then reserved its order in the case.

However on 22 January 2016, observing that “certain issues require consideration”, the high court ordered a further hearing of the case.

On 24 February, the high court was told that the draft policy was approved by the ‘administrator’ and would be notified shortly.

On 17 March, the high court was informed that a notification had been issued on 26 February 2016, for controlling places of public amusement and that “the administration has taken a conscious decision while framing the policy and to implement it in letter and spirit”.

Finally, on 30 March 2016, the union territory's counsel informed the high court that the policy would come into effect on 1 April 2016.

The high court has posted the matter for 28 April 2016, where the Chandigarh counsel has to tell the court about the implementation of the policy.

So, all a case of non-news then?

Fortunately, yes: the stories about skirt ban and moral policing appear to be false.

And now that the policy has been notified, hopefully the union territory administration will not misuse it and can go on to implement it for the original motive. In its own words:

The only motive of framing this policy is to provide conducive atmosphere for the guests visiting such places and to avoid any unlawful activities or any untoward incident. Chandigarh Administration assures all the residents and visitors coming to City Beautiful that their rights will never be infringed.

Mohit Singh is an advocate practising at the Supreme Court of India.

Photo by Geneva Vanderzeil

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