Behind changes to Bihar’s liquor law, a stirred and shaken Nitish Kumar
Is the decision to dilute the draconian law just course correction, or does it have political implications?
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There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has finally spotted some. On July 11, the Bihar cabinet passed a proposal to dilute the state’s liquor ban law, the most draconian prohibition law in the country.
Sobering Truth: Nitish knows he no longer has the political heft he commanded when he passed the prohibition law. (Photo: PTI/file)
While Nitish may very well have just listened to what activists, the Opposition, and common sense had been saying all this while — that, in his zeal to appear the social reformer-chief minister, 'Sushasan Babu' had gone overboard with the law — the timing of the decision, and the political developments in the state, suggest there may be more to this than just course correction.
Bihar’s prohibition law has had strange, if not wholly unpredictable, outcomes: meant to “free the poorer sections from the evil clutches of alcohol”, it has brought them misery, taking away jobs, making the poor easy targets for the police, while the bigger fish get away.
However, the women from this socio-economic section have backed the ban to the hilt, and they are an important voter block for Nitish.
Also, the Opposition in Bihar has switched since the ban was imposed — the BJP is now part of the government, the RJD is in the Opposition — and the liquor law now adds up very differently in the political equation of the state than when it was imposed.
The ban hit the lower castes the worst. The Mahadalits are important to the JD(U), the RJD is chipping away at Nitish's OBC supporters' votebank, and Nitish’s relationship with the BJP, which holds the key to a significant section of the upper caste votes, is less than comfortable.
The highs and lows
The amendments to the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 cleared by the cabinet will be tabled in the monsoon session of the state Assembly, to begin on July 20.
Here are some of the provisions the amendments will knock off: attachment of house or vehicle for possessing liquor; collective fine on entire village if liquor is found from a public place and making entire family responsible if any of the members was found consuming liquor in the house. There is also talk of letting first-time offenders get away with a fine and making sections of the law bailable.
Bitter cup: 15 people died in Gopalganj in August 2016 after consuming illegally brewed liquor. (Photo: PTI)
The benefits from the amendments are obvious – if all adult members of a family are arrested if one member is consuming liquor, who looks after the children? Who goes out to earn wages so that the legal fight for the arrested members can be paid for?
The provision of fining the entire village is nothing but paternalistic overenthusiasm. It is unfair, and also goes against the grain of criminal jurisprudence in India — the village is necessarily neither conniving, nor sheltering, and nowhere does the Indian Penal Code envisage punishing people for a crime they did not directly commit.
The brunt of the strict provisions have been borne by the lower castes – according to data compiled by jail officials and accessed by The Indian Express in May this year, the share of SC/ST/OBC members in jails because of the law exceeded their share in the state’s population. The report said: “Scheduled Castes, for example, account for 27.1 per cent of arrests while their share in population is just 16 per cent. Scheduled Tribes make up 6.8 per cent of those arrested but form only 1.3 per cent of the population. And the OBC share is 34.4 per cent of the arrests, and 25 per cent of Bihar’s population.”
The higher rate of arrests for lower castes is due to simple reasons — they don’t have the money to bribe policemen, and raiding slums and villages is easier than the walled-off abodes of the rich.
Also, most of the people employed in manufacturing and selling local liquor belonged to the lower castes, while a high number of Yadavs held contracts for selling alcohol.
On the other side, studies have shown that the purchase of milk, honey, expensive clothes and household assets went up in the state after the prohibition law, as people were left with more disposable incomes that they would otherwise have blown on booze.
In another welcome outcome, incidents of domestic violence reportedly went down too.
When Nitish took the decision to ban alcohol in April 2016, his position was secure enough to pull off such stunts. Flush with the victory over the BJP just a few months ago by joining hands with arch rival, the RJD, Nitish had a solid caste combination backing him.
On a high: Opposition leaders like Tejashwai Yadav and Jitan Ram Manjhi now call the law 'anti-poor' and anti-Dalit'. (Photo: PTI)
Two years later, he is in a much more precarious state.
The RJD, which had reluctantly supported the ban in 2016, is now going hammer and tongs after it, terming the law “anti-poor” and “anti-lower castes”. Jitan Ram Manjhi, then a Dalit leader within the JD(U), has been expelled from the party, and now, in the Opposition camp, is promising from the pulpits to scrap the law.
The amendments to the prohibition law, thus, could be an attempt by Nitish to arrest the slide in his backward caste votebank.
The JD(U)’s history with the BJP, its current ally, has always been thorny, and the saffron party has a reputation of not treating allies too well. Even if the two do swim together for the 2019 General Elections and the state polls in Bihar a year later, Nitish knows he needs to have a unique, loyal votebank to hold any bargaining power.
Whether or not the revised law brings Nitish political benefits, the amendments are definitely sensible.
For that, a toast to Sushasan Babu.