Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Police-collector raj in Nitish Kumar’s Bihar

The state's draconian law for enforcing the liquor ban merits censure

Following his re-election as chief minister of Bihar in November 2015, Nitish Kumar has been quick to fulfil his campaign promise of banning liquor in the state. A law to the effect was passed by the Bihar legislative assembly four months ago. However, a new law Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act (2016) passed by the assembly on 1 August has further fortified prohibition measures in the state. Consisting of many draconian provisions, the new law goes against the principle of natural justice and ideas inscribed in the Constitution.

For instance, consumption or possession of liquor by any member at home will now implicate all the adults of the family. Home owners will be required to inform the police if a tenant is found drinking. The new law places sweeping powers in the hands of the police and the district collector. The police is empowered to confiscate the property of the offender and make arrests without a warrant. The district collector can impose collective fines on an entire village or a town and can extern a habitual drinker—how this will be established is anyone’s guess—for a period of six months. To add to these absurdities, the law presumes the person being prosecuted to be guilty and places the onus of proving his innocence on the accused.

While a competent court of law should, and most likely will, strike down such provisions, the very fact that a legislative assembly can enact such a law which effectively creates a police-collector raj merits strong censure. The law indeed provides for harsh punishment in case of misuse by police and other government officials but that is no respite. In fact, it further entrenches a punishment culture that the Kumar government has resorted to in this matter. This kind of policymaking fits the medieval age, not the 21st century.

What is driving Kumar’s obsessive pursuit of prohibition? In two words, women voters. It is difficult to cite empirical evidence, but the widely held perception is that the female electorate of Bihar has now become a consistent supporter of Kumar. Since Kumar assumed power in the state in 2005, a dramatic improvement in law and order—and consequently women’s safety—and policies such as provision of cycles to schoolgirls has endeared him to women voters. The promise of prohibition, as the perception goes, strengthened Kumar’s support among women, especially those facing the brunt of domestic violence at the hands of often-intoxicated husbands. That prohibition is not the best solution to domestic violence is often ignored, including by policymakers.

Kumar believes that the prohibition ploy will work not just in Bihar, but in the entire nation. And one need not be an astute political analyst to observe that his ambition is to capture the seat of the prime minister following the 2019 Lok Sabha election. To pursue his dream, Kumar has addressed several public meetings outside his state in recent months. He has used these meetings to advertise his prohibition policy and exhorted the Bharatiya Janata Party to impose liquor bans in the states that it rules. That states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu have also imposed or moved towards prohibition shows the political traction of this policy in the current milieu.

But why such draconian provisions? One, to signal commitment to the cause. Two, to overcome the odds of history when it comes to execution of prohibition. A liquor ban is notoriously difficult to enforce and there are examples galore in India and elsewhere to show that. Smuggling and illegal sale pick up to quench demand which doesn’t go away with prohibition. The money often goes into funding mafia and criminal activities—beneficiaries have included Haji Mastan in the erstwhile state of Bombay and Al Capone in Chicago. A realization of implementation difficulties should have made Kumar withdraw his policy and double down on de-addiction centres, counselling and rehabilitation facilities. Unfortunately, he resorted to authoritarian measures to implement the liquor ban in Bihar.

Apart from efficacy, a bigger question concerns the ethics of prohibition. What about the individual choice to consume liquor without being dictated to by the state? The greatest harm this law might end up doing is to shift the debate from the ethics and efficacy of prohibition to the extent of permissible enforcement measures for prohibition.

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