Bihar’s liquor war: Prisoners of prohibition and the conspiracy of silence

President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has launched a war on drugs and this war has been bloody. More than 7000 people, mostly addicts and drug pushers, have been killed by the police and the vigilantes ever since Duterte came to power eight months ago.

We have another politician much closer to home who has launched a campaign against alcohol with the same sense of purpose as Duterte. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s prohibition campaign has not spilled that much blood as has been spilled in the Philippines (though there have been cases like this). But it has definitely managed to rob 35000 people of their liberty.

This is no doubt a staggering number. With so many people behind bars, the Bihar government has been forced to consider the expansion of jails. Although the overburdened courts are hearing large number of bail applications related to prohibition violations daily, there are thousands, including poor women,  waiting for freedom for as minor a violation as a liquor bottle found near the wooden chulha.

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So what are the reasons for this deafening silence regarding the incarceration of thousands of our citizens when even the arrests of terror suspects cause much debate and discussion in our media and polity? Let us analyse:

Silence of the alliance partners: Nitish has been in power in Bihar in alliance with his foe turned friend Lalu Yadav and former adversaries the Congress party. Despite having more number of seats in the Vidhan Sabha than JD(U), Lalu has accepted the leadership of Nitish for the sole purpose of establishing the next generation of his family in politics.

Many liquor traders have lost businesses and thousands of jobs have been lost after prohibition as government licensed liquor outlets had mushroomed around Bihar in the previous Nitish led government. Many of these people left unemployed are voters of Lalu. But when the careers of the sons and daughters are at stake, it is difficult to imagine that Lalu will make job losses an issue.

Congress party, which prides itself in its liberalism going to the extent of defending the freedom of expression of even separatist elements, has conveniently forgotten the right to liberty of thousands behind bars or the right to choose the food and beverages of the millions of Biharis for the sake of power.

Silence of the opposition: The principal opposition party in Bihar, the BJP is suffering from a huge dilemma. While BJP leaders have opposed the draconian nature of the prohibition laws and the singular focus of the Nitish government on prohibition, the party is still analysing the electoral costs of an all-out opposition to prohibition.

The moral angle of prohibition in a deeply conservative society as well as the fear of antagonising women voters has dissuaded BJP from opposing prohibition strongly, despite the fact that governance and development work in Bihar have taken a backseat due to priorities attached to prohibition.

Matters have been further complicated by Prime Minister praising Nitish Kumar for enforcing prohibition in Bihar, perhaps as a reciprocal gesture to the support he received from Nitish on demonetisation.

Silence of the bureaucracy: Bureaucracy in Bihar is under deep depression. Last one year has seen major scams in Bihar; in intermediate examinations, recruitment in an agricultural university, as well as in the most recent case of examination paper leak which led to the arrest of a senior IAS officer.

The IAS Association of Bihar has the grouse that while politicians involved in these scams roam freely, it is the bureaucrats who have to face the music. There is also much debate around the rivalry between the two All India Services – IAS and IPS.

In these difficult circumstances for the Bihari bureaucrats, the government has brought further stringent provisions regarding prohibition for government servants. Now, anyone serving the Government of Bihar cannot consume alcohol anywhere on this planet without attracting disciplinary action. So for the next tipple, the civil servant from Bihar will have to travel to Mars. Or perhaps the extra-territorial application of prohibition laws is also valid for Mars.

Not a murmur of protest was heard from the civil servants regarding the introduction of these new provisions. Nitish has definitely managed to put the civil servants in their place.

Silence of the media: It is the primary responsibility of our ‘fiercely independent’ media to bring to the fore any transgressions of the state. However, in the case of implementation of the harsh prohibition laws in Bihar, the media has generally failed.

For an outsider, the imprisonment of thousands of people for a minor offence like possessing liquor bottles may seem very ‘North Korean’ and the silence of the media may be surprising. However, the print media in Bihar suffers from a unique problem. Because of very low levels of industrialisation and the small service sector, the major newspapers are mainly dependent on the government for advertisement revenues.

This weakness has been very deftly used by the government so much so that it has even embarrassed major newspapers. For example, the largest selling Hindi daily in Bihar, Hindustan carried the news of the hooch tragedy in Gopalganj, which killed at least 16 people, as deaths due to diarrhea, and had to change its tune only when its error was too glaring after coverage in other newspapers and TV channels.

Our national media, though not dependent on the government of Bihar, has generally ignored the problems related to prohibition in Bihar. Channels which pride themselves in fighting for the rights of the terror suspects have nothing to say about the rights of the thousands behind bars in Bihar.

While prohibition has its virtues and has made a positive impact on savings of the poor households and could have the support of women, the draconian nature of the law in Bihar has given it a bad name. Police can put one behind bars without bail on such grounds as possession of  a bottle of liquor and even the property where liquor is found could be attached.

It also makes it easier for people and police to frame law-abiding citizens. There has already been a case of a house of a senior Department of Post official being raided on the suspicion of possession of liquor. It was an attempt to frame the officer and was a traumatic experience for the family. Anywhere else this will be considered as measures implemented in a dictatorial police state.

The ostensible social aim of the prohibition law is to protect the weak, the vulnerable and the poor from the dangers of alcoholism. However, it is they who are also facing the brunt of this very blunt instrument. It is safe to assume that out of the 35,000 people in jail in Bihar due to the prohibition law, majority consists of the weak, the vulnerable and the poor as they have little means to navigate our legal system to set themselves free again.

Does anyone care for them?

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