Shorts In The Dark

When the river runs dry: Why Nitish Babu's war on alcohol is misguided

The answer to our problems may lie in gradually bringing about a change in drinking habits, rather than banning all alcohol as an evil agent.

 |  Shorts In The Dark  |  10-minute read |   23-09-2018
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There is nothing that we love more as a nation than a good ban.

In reality, we are lawless and libertarian citizens. There is a law regarding everything, but few are followed in letter and spirit.

The Road and Transport Office is a corrupt joke in every town. Most get a driving license without even driving a vehicle. Despite laws to the contrary, children are beaten in schools and medical and engineering college students are brutally ragged.

Contrary to popular belief, black money is not the exclusive domain of the super-corrupt. Out of 125 crore Indians, only 1.5 per cent pay their taxes. Educated fathers, from Haryana to Andhra, routinely take out suparis on their daughters and sons-in-law who have dared to marry out of caste. Dowry is asked for and given. The death penalty doesn’t seem to have any deterrent effect on rapists.

2000-copy_092118045446.jpgContrary to popular belief, black money is not the exclusive domain of the super-corrupt. (Photo: Reuters)

Meanwhile, our love for frivolous bans (and harsh laws) shows no sign of abating. Three scenes from Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyan were randomly cut by the producers after some Indian somewhere in this vast land filed a PIL, saying his "sentiments" were hurt. We’ve already forgotten about the Padmavat furore.

Given our love of bans, Nitish Kumar’s prohibition in Bihar is the king of bans. It’s like bipolar 1. There are many categories of bipolar illness but bipolar 1 is considered numero uno.

Underlying it is an essentialist principle — fix one "wrong", and the rest of the system will fix itself. It’s an easy charming fantasy that, like alcohol, lulls one into thinking that the magic solution to all ills has been found. Like alcohol, the fantasy too has a hangover. One wakes up and realises that things are worse than they were. To make things better, one reaches out to the fantasy again. Like the proverbial hair of the dog.

Nitish Kumar wants to extend his Bihar prohibition fantasy to the rest of the country — a pan-India ban, nothing less.

Speaking at Karunanidhi’s memorial meeting in Chennai on August 31, he said: “Soon the nation will formally be celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhiji in 2019. I firmly believe that there can be no greater reverence to the father of the nation if you implement prohibition in the country.”

nitish2-copy_092118045549.jpgSushasan Babu has called for a ban on alcohol across the country. (Photo: PTI)

Earlier, as a politically secular-minded drinker, I would follow Nitish’s fortunes. At one point, Ram Guha outlined his fantasy to NDTV: Rahul backs down and Nitish Kumar joins the Congress and becomes PM. There was also talk of him heading a Third Front.

But once Nitish took the prohibition turn, I back-tracked. I’d rather live with the reality of Nitish supporting a Hindu right government than have my right-to-have a-drink taken from me. Pan-India prohibition? No way. Every voter votes out of selfish self-interest.

India is a provincial country of provincial leaders. One man’s village is different from another woman’s city. In my city, Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand, women have been coming out to drink in large numbers.

This is a new phenomenon. Fifteen years ago, the bars were seedy dingy places where men went to drown their sorrow. Suryast Garwhal mast.

Then, things began to change. Young women got into opening pubs and cafes. Some of us were skeptical at first – will these places attract a ‘good crowd’? It turns out that Dehradun was more than ready. Now there is a bunch of watering holes where girls come out to drink without any male escort.

indians-drinking1-co_092118045928.jpgIndia and Bharat do not drink alike. (Photo: Facebook)

What I saw in Dehradun was the evolution of drinking culture. Girls were at the forefront of it. Along with drinking culture came local talent — musicians, stand-up acts, poets, who started performing in these spaces.

Dehradun is just one small town. The bar scene in Guwahati is booming as well, with women again leading the way.

I wonder what Nitish makes of these women? Perhaps he will say that the women that form his vote bank are different from the educated women that I am talking about. If so, why punish one class for the sins of another?

One of Nitish’s arguments for pan-India prohibition is that all Indians – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian – want it. Religion is not monolithic; a religion itself is divided into several sects and sub-sects. Do we know what all of them want? For instance, the Hinduism I follow doesn’t ask me to abjure alcohol. And from the looks of it, nor so the Hinduism of my friends. Let us not forget that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had gin factories. And that alcohol is part of every Irish Catholic ritual – from birth to marriage to death.

Religious strictures, it seems, have had no effect on Indian drinking habits. Surveys prove that Indians are the biggest consumers of whisky worldwide by far. For instance, in 2015, India consumed almost 1,600,000,000 litres of whisky each year or nearly half the world’s supply.

Besides, since when did religious belief start dictating civil laws? In fact, now that the right to privacy is a fundamental right under the Constitution, a challenge can be mounted against blanket prohibition bans. What I do in the privacy of my house is no business of the state. Whether it is kissing another man or pouring myself a drink.

Let’s focus on the real problem: what kind of alcohol do Indians drink? It’s a question that Nitish doesn’t ask since, I’m presuming, he doesn’t drink.

One morning, I went to check out a local dive in Dehradun, right across from a thana. The poor are drinking tharra or corrosive country liquor, in other words, pure ethyl alcohol. It’s cheaper than a kilo of dal. It’s manufactured and sold by the state. Why? At night, lifeless drunks are pulled out of the dive and left on the pavement.

If you want this to stop, you have to ban country liquor. Better, cheaper liquor can be made available to the working class poor by reducing taxes.

desi_daru_with_chakn_092118050108.jpgWill we be served better by banning state-made corrosive country liquor instead of a blanket ban on alcohol? (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Even the middle class in India has been drinking godawful alcohol for decades. McDowells No 1 is not a whisky. Like all Indian whiskeys, it is molasses-based and closer to rum. This has begun to change with exclusive imported liquor stores opening shop. As incomes increase, people want to drink better. Why not the poor?

This seems counter-intuitive – that the solution to alcoholism can come from alcohol itself. But it’s a method that has worked in the West. After spending billions on the failed war on drugs, several western societies are now coming up with novel approaches. In one of the largest treatment facilities in Canada, homeless alcoholics are given free wine at fixed times of the day. It keeps them off the hard stuff... and happy.

Portugal has decriminalised all drugs and transferred the funds they used to spend on the war on drugs to making addicts’ lives better. The result — injecting drug use is down by 50 per cent. Switzerland has legalised heroin, reducing deaths on legal heroin to zero. Bud, a homeless street addict in Vancouver, organised a group to persuade city authorities to change its approach to addicts. Vancouver opened the first safe injection room in North America. The outcome — deaths from overdose in Bud’s neighbourhood are down by 80 per cent.

Banning substances creates mafias and cartels that flood the market with substandard and harmful cocaine, heroin or alcohol. As the British journalist Johann Hari writes, "The one thing the cartels fear – more than anything else – is a regulated, legal market."

In Chasing the Scream, Hari tells us how the opposite of Prohibition has worked wonders in several countries. Addiction to alcohol, or to any other drug, is a mental and social health issue and needs to be addressed as such. Criminalising the user and shaming him is not the solution. All that you are doing, by clamping prohibition, is creating a new category of criminal where none such previously existed.

At this point, I can hear Nitish’s objections to my argument. It’s one that Indians are fond of making. What works for the West, does not work for us.

One Dehradun teacher, teaching in a school where hitting kids was expressly banned, told me that he still did it. His argument — all this don’t-hit business does not work with Indian kids: ‘Ye sab India mein nahin chalta hai.’

The same logic is then applied to defend several malpractices. Including prohibition. But why will these progressive practices, articulated and followed by the West, not work elsewhere in the world? Addiction is a universal problem. The chemical composition of an Indian addict’s brain is no different from that of a "foreign" addict.

In saying "this will not work in India", what we’re doing is rehashing the coloniser’s arrogance vis-a-vis native races. Just replace the white coloniser with an Indian politician who thinks that his fellow Indians need the "danda".

Let’s travel back to 1863 when Calcutta’s police commissioner claimed that "a large proportion of crime is caused by drunkenness... liquor shops are frequented by every class of criminals. In Calcutta, no house can be licensed, and no person can obtain a license to sell liquor without any police sanction."

liquor-ban-copy_092118050555.jpgCrushed: Is Nitish Kumar trying to define what Indians can and can't handle? (Photo: ANI)

Underlying the police commissioner’s statement was the racist belief that "natives" are incapable of handling their drink. In the 1880s, England saw the formation of the United Committee for the Prevention of the Demoralisation of the Native Races by the Liquor Traffic.

The effects of alcohol on the "yet-to-be-civilised" native peoples of Africa were seen to be destructive; it was widely believed that alcoholism was more prevalent among native populations that lacked "will-power" and "self-discipline".

To follow this argument then is to accept a racial stereotype about us propagated by the white ruling class: the post-colonial ruling class accepts that its people are racially inferior, and so, banning is the only solution. This stinks of low self-esteem. Is this why we fought for our independence from the British?

But, in India, hope springs eternal. While Nitish dreams of pan-India prohibition, enlightened Bengal has shown the way forward.

It looks like that liquor made from mahua flowers – a centuries-old tradition in the tribal belt – will soon be available in Calcutta. Last month, Pravir Krishna, managing director of Trifed, told The Telegraph, “We are trying to mainstream mahua. We want to make it a commercial venture and bring the drink to urban areas."

Trifed plans to open six retail outlets in Calcutta over the next three months, including at the airport's new terminal, GPO, Bhowanipore post office and in the Uttarapan shopping complex near Ultadanga.

The "mainstream" mahua, made in collaboration with IIT Delhi, will have a lower alcohol content – four to five per cent – than the usual 40 per cent. The flowers will be sourced from local self-help groups.

The answer, it seems, might lie in gradually bringing about a change in drinking habits rather than banning all alcohol as an evil agent. It certainly does not lie in a patriarchal state infantilising and criminalising its own citizenry.

Also read: A short history of India's drinking culture


Palash Krishna Mehrotra Palash Krishna Mehrotra @palashmehrotra

The writer is the editor of 'House Spirit: Drinking in India'

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