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Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicles

By Tata Literature Live!

09th August 2016

In Bihar, drinking liquor is worse than terror,rape or murder. If that sounds like an outlandish statement, consider the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act, 2016 and the revised Bihar Special Courts Act through which special courts will now be appointed to deal with prohibition offences. There are no special courts for terror, rape or murder. Yes sir, Shri Nitish Kumar, Bihar Chief Minister, JD(U) chief, sometime Prime Minister aspirant, means business. Come hell or high water, he wants to make Bihar free of the evil of drinking.

He is so serious about this aim that he amended the amended act within four months of passing it. The first law, passed on April 1, provided for part prohibition and banned only country liquor. But Nitish Kumar, the Messiah of the masses, saw that this partial ban was highly popular in rural areas, especially among women. If he could become so popular with just a partial ban, he reasoned, how much more popular would he be if he banned liquor altogether! (And, perhaps secretly, he reasoned, that if the Chief Minister of the only state in the country to have total prohibition, namely Gujarat, could go on to become the country`s Prime Minister, couldn`t he too be fast-tracked to the highest post in the land?).

Shame of on us to ascribe a base motive like ambition to what surely must be a moral crusade: Nitishji knows how evil booze is, how it ruins lives (not to speak of livers) and, therefore, how important it is to stamp it out. And completely, not wishy-washily like in Gujarat. So he asked his legal people to draw up stringent laws to punish offenders. His legal eagles with their hawk eyes (mixed-up birds of the same feather) came up with a law that`s more stringent than stringent. Here`s how some of its provisions go:

— The Collector, the police and the Excise Department`s officers now have more powers, including arrest without warrant. Given the arbitrary ways of all these three ‘law enforcers’, there will now be any number of arrests to exact revenge, to settle old scores or to use these powers to extract money.

— The next provision is truly breath-taking because at its foundation is a firm belief in family bonding and togetherness. The law now states that if you are caught consuming (or even storing) liquor at home, not only will you be considered an offender meriting a jail sentence, but so will your mother, father, son, daughter, grand-father, grand-mother etc (This assumes that your children are adults and your parents and grand-parents are alive). In short, all adults in the household will be culpable.

— And when the cops come calling, which you can safely assume they will quite often, and they step into the kitchen as you can safely assume they will every time, they better not find utensils (or a utensil) containing jaggery or sugar with a quantity of grapes lying around. Because then they can (and are enjoined to) assume that you are making liquor on the sly. In that case you, your mother, father, son, daughter, grand-father and grand-mother will all be punishable for the offence of bootlegging. Not only they, but the people who helped in transporting the sugar, jaggery or grapes, and the people who provided the containers for them, all will be liable for prosecution. Given our national habit of drinking tea with sugar (or jaggery) in it, I can`t see these two ingredients not being kept in a house-hold. Which leaves out grapes. There will now be none in the market.

— There`s more. If you have rented a room or an apartment, it`s your duty, yes your duty, to inform the police if your tenant is drinking. What a convenient way to get rid of a tenant! The phrase ‘threatens with dire consequences’ now takes on a diabolical meaning.

— Here`s a direr consequence: the police is now empowered to confiscate any premises where liquor is stored or consumed. So if you are found drinking, not only will your family be in the lock-up, your home will no longer be your home.

— If there is a frequent offender in a village or town, the District Collector can impose a collective fine on the whole village or town! As for the habitual or frequent offender, the Collector can extern him from his district for up to six months.

You probably think this column is being written when I have had one too many. Or perhaps, it`s not August we are in but April, and today is the first of the month. But no such luck. Shri Nitish Kumarji is serious: police have arrested over 10,000 people so far under the new law, and no doubt considerable property has been seized. Not content with this, the Bihar Chief Minister has asked Prime Minister Modi to follow the Bihar Model all over India. Better, he says, than the Gujarat Model.

The politics of prohibition is strange indeed. Tamil Nadu tried it under the DMK, gave it up, and now Ms Jayalalitha threatens to try it again. The Congress tried it in Kerala, and failed. The only state in India with prohibition, Gujarat, practices it in such a farcical way that the beneficiaries are bootleggers and the mafia (not to mention the politicians who protect them). Liquor is freely smuggled in from neighbouring states, and sold at three or four times the original price. The brewing of hooch, beneficial to everyone but the imbiber, is rampant. Why, then, do politicians keep trying to impose it from time to time?

Silly question. In a country where politicians shamelessly claim the high moral ground, where ‘leaders’ talk of spiritual values (as long as they don`t come out of a bottle), where ministers talk of clean government while leaving their desk drawers wide open, the ‘evils of alcohol’ slogan is the biggest hypocrisy of all. In Bihar, for example, Lalu Prasad`s RJD, criticised the amendments, but voted for them. He also said – the ultimate irony—that he would be happy if the courts struck them down. As for the BJP, its MLAs said they were so opposed to the amendments that they walked out of the house just before voting began, thus ensuring the bill`s passage.

Here`s a thought to end with. Nitish Kumar, himself personally not known for hypocrisy, is a teetotaller himself. So prohibition follows. Let`s hope for the sake of the average Bihari that he is not a bramhachari as well.