Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar had staked much of his image and authority on enforcing a liquor ban, which the Pat High Court has now struck down as not only ‘draconian’, but ‘illegal’ as well. Ever since the much-publicized ban was imposed from April this year, over 12,000 persons have been jailed in Bihar for making, storing, selling, smuggling and consuming liquor. The ‘Mahagatbandhan’ government there had first banned country liquor, later extending it to all types of liquor, including Indian made foreign liquor. Nitish Kumar had drawn much kudos for coming good on his promise made to women voters on the campaign trail last year — that if re-elected, he will rid Bihar homes of the curse of alcoholism and domestic violence. Truth be told, many rural organizations and self-help groups in that state have been reporting how village men were becoming more tractable in the evenings with little scope for getting drunk, that the money they once splurged on liquor shacks was at last reaching home for better use. But the harshness of the crackdown on liquor was surprising. The excise law was amended to prescribe not only long jail terms and stiff fines to direct offenders, but also confiscation of premises and punishment to the community (offender’s family and neighbors). Even soldiers felt the force of the ban with as many as 70 army personnel, including officers, sent to jail in the last four months. Early this month, thousands of ex-army personnel took out a protest march in Pat against the ban and submitted a memorandum to the Governor. “The presumption of innocence is totally taken away and the burden of proof thereof is put on the accused. For any reason, if he fails to prove his innocence, he would straightway be liable to punishment, which would be minimum 10 years imprisonment with astronomical fine, and would lose his entire property by virtue of confiscation,” the court ruling noted. Little wonder then that these pelties were deemed by the Pat High Court as ‘unreasoble’ and ‘justified only in a police state’.
And as it has happened in other states in the past, most notably in Mahatma Gandhi’s home state Gujarat, total prohibition in Bihar simply drove the liquor trade underground. Toddy which had been exempted from the ban, thanks to RJD chief Laloo Prasad’s pressure, was spiked up by bootleggers. Hardcore tipplers took to visiting areas bordering Nepal, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand to get hold of the drink that cheers. Then came the Gopalganj tragedy on August 15, in which 16 persons died drinking spurious hooch. Interestingly, the two-judge Pat HC bench, while agreeing that the liquor ban order was ‘unconstitutiol’ primarily due to the stringent punishments handed out under the amended law, differed on whether prohibition violated an individual’s fundamental right to life (including the right to eat and drink as per choice within a space deemed private). Now that the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act, 2016 has been struck down, the Nitish Kumar government may well move the Supreme Court. If it does go for appeal, it will have to prepare its case well. The apex court recently refused to entertain a plea by a Delhi BJP leader and advocate seeking a countrywide liquor ban, holding these to be ‘policy matters in which a court could not interfere’. For sure, chief minister Nitish Kumar’s intent to battle alcoholism is admirable, but his policy of targeting liquor consumption instead of abuse has come a cropper, while its heavy-handed implementation has been nothing short of a disaster. The opposition BJP, while on the same page with the CM on banning liquor, has alleged that the law gave unbridled powers to the police. Compared to Nitish Kumar, his Tamil du counterpart Jayalalitha has been moving steadily towards a phased but complete liquor ban. All major parties in Tamil du support prohibition; liquor is sold there only through state-run outlets. After the AIADMK was re-elected to power this year, one of Jayalalitha’s first acts was to close down 500 such outlets and reduce the timings of others. Such a scerio, of course, remains far-fetched in Assam. Excise duties contribute substantially to the State’s revenue earnings. Its new government is worried that the 70 percent excise duty hike on liquor by the previous government has hurt liquor sales, leading to diversion of trade to neighboring states and leakages in tax collection. The State government has not only formed a committee to suggest proper excise and VAT rates for liquor, its budget this year proposed to promote various types of local liquor. But if governments in Assam do not keep an eye on alcohol abuse, the State may be saddled with an intractable problem in the coming years. Endemic alcoholism may well open the door to drugs abuse, as Punjab has been discovering.