Ban on Booze: Short cut, fig leaf, knee jerk
Nitish Kumar’s anti-alcohol package may be a classic socially-themed blockbuster in the recognisable traditions of the Indian nation-state, but it is scarily disdainful of history and ground realities
Dhruba Basu Delhi
At a time when the UN convened a special session after 18 years to consider alternatives to the criminalisation of drugs and the marginalisation and incarceration of users, policies that have for the last 50 years or so been at the centre of the horrific and utterly failed US-backed ‘War on Drugs’, there is something boldly ironic about the obsessive craze for alcohol prohibition in India.
The most recent instance of this was Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s announcement on April 5 of a total ban on the production, marketing and consumption of any kind of alcoholic beverage within the territory of Bihar. Only the timing of the decision came as a surprise; country liquor had already been banned in the state’s rural areas on April 1 and a phased widening of the ban’s ambit was always going to follow as per the chief minister’s campaign promises to his most loyal constituency, the women of Bihar.
There is a more significant reason to not be surprised, and that is the larger picture of liquor regulations in India. At a glance: everyone knows Gujarat has always been a dry state; Tamil Nadu was dry until 1971 and then again from 1973 to 1981, and the run-up to the May Assembly elections this year has seen Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa prop up AIADMK’s campaign on the promise of complete prohibition, which has also been the mobilising instrument of other parties in the state like the DMK, PMK, DMDK and TMC; Lakshwadeep has been dry since 1979 and Nagaland since 1989; Mizoram was dry between 1995 and 2014 (barring certain kinds of wine, which were permitted by an amendment in 2007), Andhra Pradesh between 1995 and 1997 and Haryana between 1996 and 1998. Kerala, infamous for its morbid rates of per capita consumption and no stranger to abkari acts, is implementing a phased prohibition, having begun by marking Sundays dry and with a ban on all bars apart from those run by 5-star hotels, which sparked allegations of corruption against government officials revealed by bar owners to have accepted bribes in the handing out of licenses.
The chastity belt approach to combating alcohol consumption has, therefore, enjoyed a degree of popularity in India that distinguishes it from probably every other secular-liberal economy of the contemporary world. Interestingly enough, we share this distinction with nations that brand themselves as ‘Islamic’ and, to put it bluntly, are widely regarded as repressive and regressive regimes, ranging from theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran to constitutional monarchies and republics like Malaysia and Yemen and our illustrious neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Indeed, Article 47 of the Constitution of India lays down in no unclear manner the duty of the State to “endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health”. To follow the lineage of this sentiment is to discover the election pledge of Congress candidates which was to include a commitment to “the introduction and active promotion of total prohibition” from 1931 onwards. It is to encounter the formidable Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whose position about alcohol is well-summarised in his 1926 declaration: “If I were appointed dictator for one hour for all India, the first thing I would do would be to close without compensation all the liquor shops (and) destroy all the toddy palms such as I know them in Gujarat.”
Ban on alcohol: we share this distinction with nations that brand themselves as ‘Islamic’ and, to put it bluntly, are widely regarded as repressive and regressive regimes, ranging from theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran to constitutional monarchies and republics like Malaysia and Yemen and our illustrious neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh
It is instructive to note that the Abkari Act of 1878, promulgated in the Bombay Presidency by a colonial State under pressure from temperance activists, targeted toddy production in a manner somewhat similar to what would have ensued if Gandhi’s dictatorial ambitions had come to fruition. The Act raised the tax on toddy palms and brought the price of the produce down precipitously, with the result that large numbers of small-scale cultivators were forced to cut down their trees, dealing a body blow to local economies (thereby appeasing temperance advocates and benefitting the illegal trade of liquor and the foreign liquor cartel). Gandhi was about a decade into his life at this point; one wonders how differently history might have turned out if he had been born a toddy-trading Bhandari rather than a Bania from Gujarat.
Looking beyond the Father of the Nation’s characteristically messianic moral take on the matter, taxes from the sale of alcohol did accrue to the colonial government and in view of this, proposing a boycott did make some sense for the freedom movement, but it was never simply a matter of getting liquor vendors to stop selling imported liquor and paying tax on toddy and country liquor. Rather, it took the form of the untruth that alcohol was a colonial import responsible for spoiling the purity of an ‘abstemious race’, which begs interrogation. Was it out of the vacuum of Indian abstention that the several mentions of liquor found their way into Kautilya’s Arthashastra? The notion reflects a striking ignorance of traditions of alcohol consumption that have always existed in the subcontinent and are documented in texts no less hallowed than the Puranas and the Vedas. The Rig Veda has an entire section dedicated to the preparation of soma, a distilled beverage enjoyed by the privileged (and by Indra, the king of gods himself). In fact, although it is reasonable to assume such traditions to have been the preserve of men, the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the writings of Vatsyayana, Kalidas and Dandin alike refer to female drinkers; by some accounts, neither Sita nor Draupadi was opposed to the occasional tipple.
A large percentage of poor men are afflicted with alcoholism, towards which they end up funnelling a large percentage of the funds that they as the principal breadwinners of their families earn and control. Violence against women and children is often directly related to alcohol abuse
As recent events have reminded us, nationalism does not concern itself with substance, thriving rather on the suppression of it. Freedom is envisioned in terms of nationalism as subordinate to sovereignty. It is a negotiated transfer and symbolic legitimisation of power, not a revolution. Thus, it came to pass that the temperance movement, itself a western import that can be sourced to the efforts of Christian organisations from Britain and the USA, evolved over time into a site of resistance for the nascent Indian National Congress, with such leaders as Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale at the forefront of efforts to ‘secure a more restrictive administration of abkari laws.’ Picketing of liquor shops played a major role in both the Non-Cooperation and Civil Disobedience movements; by the time of the latter, trade in liquor was regarded as tantamount to treason.
(JD(U) leaders at an awareness march after Bihar government imposed ban on country made liquor, in Patna)
It need scarcely be pointed out that the idea of returning India to an expediently but carefully fabricated ‘purity’ has Sanskritisation, or supremacist cultural indoctrination of the sort that also upholds the sanctity of vegetarianism, written all over its walls. Purity itself was a carefully policed matter, semantically the jurisdiction of those at the top of Mt Chaturvarna, who earned their ennoblement in previous lives.
To be fair, it is unsurprising that a coalition of foreign and high-caste intentions found its personal home and vehicle in a party conceptualised by an Englishman and operationalised and dominated by Brahmins; as a result, teetotalism was written into the ‘national’ character at a time when that character was in the process of being invented, constructed and disseminated, from the top down. C Rajagopalachari’s claim that “all shades of public opinion in India (except those actually interested in a drink) are agreed to the desirability of prohibition at the earliest date” relegated to a parenthesis what Babasaheb Ambedkar estimated to be “almost all the castes belonging to the three groups of backward classes and more than one-fifth of the total population”.
Under the press of events, a relationship was forged between the nation state and alcohol that has shaped policy-making and vote-mongering ever since. Prohibition was introduced in the Bombay Presidency in 1939 but was compromised by the onset of the Second World War; it returned in full force under Morarji Desai in 1950, by which time it had been enshrined as a directive principle and the regulation of liquor made a State subject in the Constitution. Large portions of the country followed suit, with eight other states (Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Kerala) either fully or to a sizable extent ‘dry’ by 1954.
A Prohibition Enquiry Committee appointed in the same year proposed 1958 as the deadline for complete nationwide prohibition, with severe punitive action the suggested counter to a pattern of increasing violations. Sixty-two years later, the country remains far from dry in spite of all the policy oscillations across its length and breadth, but the Bihar government has thrown its weight behind the retributive impulse, instituting 7-10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs 10 lakh for illegal trade and transport of liquor.
The worst-kept secret of history is that this approach succeeds not in lowering the manufacture, sale or consumption of alcohol but in creating predatory conditions that are exploited by politicians and criminals. What emerges out of this nexus in most cases is a vast supply of liquor, dangerously adulterated in the absence of enforced standards and immensely lucrative for everyone involved, particularly those who look away. The most high-profile instance of such a pattern is to be found in Bombay, where the illicit liquor trade spawned an alliance between Varadarajan Mudaliar, Haji Mastan and Karim Lala, titans of the city’s underworld for over two decades and the predecessors of Dawood Ibrahim and Co.
Smuggled arrack from neighbouring states was a huge problem in Andhra Pradesh, with approximately 1.3 lakh litres of it seized in 2005-6, while cases of smuggling in Kerala numbered nearly 50,000 in 2013. The situation in Nagaland was laughable: grocery stores and paan shops dealt in liquor and supply of IMFL increased. The former governor of Mizoram, Vakkom Purushothaman, described it as the ‘wettest dry state’ in India, notwithstanding the violent vigilantism of groups like the Supply Reduction Service. Meanwhile, the massive excise revenue lost by the State, an amount that runs into thousands of crores per year, finds its way into the hands of profiteers.
Stray examples, but even light research into the matter cannot fail to unearth the wealth of detail from around the world that constitutes that case against prohibition. It has been historically documented and proved that in regions where prohibition has been imposed, the illegal trade of liquor has increased manifold, including across porous borders. After all, the dons, smugglers and bootleggers of Maharashtra, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram are but variations on legendary mobster Al Capone, who taught America the same lessons during its prohibition years (1920-33). Not that America learned a whole lot; the ‘War on Drugs’ is characterised by its lack of engagement with the counterproductive effects of criminalising substances and with the huge strides that have been made through alternative and progressive policies like harm reduction, which addresses the negative consequences of drug use, instead of stigmatising it, and total decriminalisation as practiced in Portugal since 2000. The special session of the UN was called for by Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, countries that attribute their raging crime rates to global drug policy.
One rejoices for the women of Bihar who are freed from the abuse that alcohol brought into their lives, for the men who are able to make the transition to sobriety successfully and for their families. The conviction that a liquor-free utopia awaits on the other side of yet another man’s disdain for history, however, is hard to come by
Certainly, the need for intervention is unquestionable, dictated by a recognition of the very real conditions that give rise to anti-liquor movements, led and peopled by women who must pull themselves and their families back from the edge of the abyss. Statistics on these conditions are widely available; instead of reproducing them, it might be constructive to provide here a precis of what they say. A large percentage of poor men are afflicted with alcoholism, towards which they end up funnelling a large percentage of the funds that they as the principal breadwinners of their families earn and control. Violence against women and children is often directly related to alcohol abuse. The results are triply destructive; the men themselves are gradually disabled by the spurious ingredients used to adulterate (and in effect poison) the country liquor that is all they can afford, their families are deprived of the money that could otherwise have been spent on their needs, such as household supplies, medical care and education, and domestic violence is an almost inevitable consequence of alcohol-induced rage and derangement.
(Bihar police personnel taking oath not to use liquor in Patna)
But the fact of the matter is that prohibition has never been the cure. It represents the conservatism that labels alcoholism as a legal rather than a health issue, that isolates the phenomenon of alcoholism instead of looking into the structural factors that generate it. Alcohol dependency is most prominently a feature of the economically deprived and educationally backward classes; it is an escape from survivalist circumstances and an index of the failure of the state to address and ameliorate them. To ban liquor is to conflate the consequence with the cause, which worsens the consequences since the cause is left unattended, as is undeniably the case in a country that is constitutionally in favour of prohibition, but only spends 3-4 per cent of its GDP on education. Indeed, the current regime has drastically cut the health budget, and the lobby seeking to privatise government hospitals is still going strong. Surely, the ban is a short cut, a fig leaf, a jerk of the knee.
One rejoices for the women of Bihar who are freed from the abuse that alcohol brought into their lives, for the men who are able to make the transition to sobriety successfully and for their families. The conviction that a liquor-free utopia awaits on the other side of yet another man’s disdain for history, however, is hard to come by.