Nitish Kumar and the weaponisation of prohibition
PR Ramesh | 27 Nov, 2020
Seized liquor bottles being destroyed in Danapur near Patna, may 2017 (Photo: Biharpictures)
The Bihari, the story goes, can dance to any tune, even the national anthem. A Patiala peg, a heated socio-political debate and music to dance to—and ‘Munni Badnaam Hui’ can move over. Yesteryear’s chronicles have it that Bihari men swayed with abandon to Bacchanalian beats from the late 1970s through the 1990s. Dance transmuted into the Bihari man’s customised rebellion against the prevailing social decree—unstated but set in stone—that alpha males do not indulge in exhibitionist gyrations. The Punjabi could do it; so could the Coorgi; men in the Northeast could too; but the Bihari male did not succumb to his baser instincts outside his private space. Owning the rapturous act in public, however momentarily, was at once a wondrous giving-in to soul-stirring yearnings and a revolt against gender-defined norms in a conservative society. It was their own ‘Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker’ moment.
Of all Bihar’s politicians, Lalu Prasad understood the sentiment best. In the 1990s, the posterboy of Bihar’s new-age social justice was able to politically harness the class-straddling sentiment to the optimum when he quashed the nominal tax that toddy tappers paid to the government. Coming from the masses, Lalu knew the hold of the potent desi taadi on the men of his homeland. The shadow of Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) had yet to fall fully over rural Bihar where toddy continued to rule the roost. Taadi was the flavour, the rage that manifested itself in the men gathered around small vending shanties all over the Bihar countryside beneath the toddy palm. Facing another state election in which his rout had been prophesied—in the light of every lantern in every dusty village—Lalu withdrew the tax. The tax itself was less than five paise per tree. It dated back to the Raj and was meant to keep track of toddy palms on public land. According to reports from that period, for Lalu, it was smooth-sailing thereafter all the way to the hustings.
The calculated move unleashed the music and the elegant, or ungainly, limb-shaking of the inebriated throughout the state. As a thousand hiccups rent the poll-eve air, it was often interjected with the slogan “Taadi free, country free!” from passing Passi voters. An unpopular Lalu Prasad had ensured that a djinn would indeed emerge from the ballot box as he had promised.
Of Greco-Roman origin, nothing could be farther from Bihar and its men folk than Bacchus and bacchanals. That is, before they arrived on wings of glory. Through the 1980s till the mid-2000s, the Bihari bacchanalian dancer let out pent-up steam and let his close-cropped hair down in public as he contorted unabashedly at various fora. Weddings were the most preferred occasions. As the groom wound his way to the bride’s house, his tipsy friends in their Sunday best would romp in the open to favourite numbers topped by ‘Aaj Mere Yaar ki Shaadi Hai’. It would be a wide range of popular nagin dances, from the 1986 Sridevi starrer Nagina (‘Main Teri Dushman’) to Vyjayanthimala’s 1954 Nagin, with Hemant Kumar’s original clay violin song ‘Man Dole, Mera Tan Dole’. Another, rather odd, favourite of the tipplers would be ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’, perhaps in reference to the colonial past or as commentary on their own worldview. Since nobody had the forethought to patronise folk and classical dances like the Jhumer from Rajasthan or the Kathak in Lucknow, the snake dance, embellished and popularised by Bihar’s closet braves, became the state’s unofficial folk romp.
Wedding bands mushroomed all over Patna, with banners and hoardings extolling their virtues at belting out popular tunes. Middles-class Bihari men, their friends and families would dance to live band music while sprinkling banknotes like confetti on the garishly dressed musicians. The unwritten rule was that no one except the band members could lay claim to the lavish tips from the tirelessly tipsy. It was also an unscripted edict that liquor would flow at these events like Bihar’s great rivers in spate. It was the golden age of live wedding bands in the cities, small towns and even villages. Top-notch ones like the Bachcha Band, the Punjab Band and the Moosa Band in Patna had an overflowing ledger of bookings in the wedding season, for parties and in winter. If liberty were to be measured in those days by the incredible lightness of being induced by free-flowing liquor, the heated existential debates and general bonhomie on these select occasions, Bihar then was the land of the free, of the fearless and fun-loving.
The culture of dissent that the Bihari man had carved out for himself vanished overnight in 2016 when Nitish Kumar announced a total prohibition on alcohol, running up a loss of Rs 6,000 crore in excise. The idea was to create a separate and loyal vote bank among women
In the late 1980s, the state capital Patna was a somnolent town. It sported little by way of social entertainment for the Bihari man of modest means. Except that ephemeral tipple. Shady, smoky bars like Mayur on Frazer Road were the quintessential hangouts for government employees, down-at-the-heels journalists and others with some money to spare as dusk fell. Owned by Congress leader Baleshwar Ram, the Mayur Bar was a typical watering hole of the time. It had basic seating, vied for each evening by impatient and thirsty customers in jostling queues. Dark rum was the preferred poison, with spicy chana on the side. Each tippler had 10 brief minutes to drink it down and vacate the space for the next one. Dour-faced waiters applied a greasy piece of cloth at lightning speed to the table top, often careful to leave detritus behind to entice the next batch of boisterous patrons lost in a heated political argument. In the thick pall of cigarette smoke there would manifest the maudlin melodies of Ghulam Ali’s ‘Hungama kyon barpa/ thodi si to pee hai/ daka to nahin dala/ chori to nahin ki hai’ and Pankaj Udhas’ lyrics that mirrored the sentiment of many of those present, such as ‘Huyi mehengi bahut hi sharaab/ ke thodi thodi piya karo/ piyo lekin rakho hisab/ ki thodi thodi piya karo’, or even the more atmospheric ‘Sharaab cheez hi aisi hai, na chhodi jaye/ yeh mere yaar ki jaisi hai/ na chhodi jaye’.
IT WAS THE AGE of a rollicking and untrammelled sub-culture of dissent against all things Establishment. Every Bihari man subscribed to it. Until Nitish Kumar rang in prohibition as a poll plank. Suddenly, the smoky little bars, the bare tables and the waiters, the music and the bands—including the top ones and the hoardings advertising their virtues—as well as the tipplers themselves evaporated into thin air. The waiters turned to menial labour. The bands disbanded to return home to villages and farming. The unstructured, liquor-lubricated microcosm of dissent that the Bihari man had painstakingly carved out for himself over decades, with all its appendages, vanished overnight. There were no more legit sundowners to be had, for love or money. The year was 2016.
That year, Chief Minister ‘Niteshey’ Kumar, or Sushasan Babu, announced a total prohibition on the sale, distribution and consumption of alcohol in the state, running up a loss of Rs 6,000 crore in excise for the state. It was the Janata Dal-United leader’s grand scheme to create a separate and loyal vote bank among women while addressing alcohol-related and increasing incidences of domestic violence and liquor outgoes from household incomes. It was a promise Nitish had made to women in the 2015 state elections. The ‘new’ Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, promulgated on October 2nd that year, was stringent, even draconian, in its scope. It provided for seizure of property, house and/or vehicle, if liquor was consumed at home. A non-bailable offence. If a single person in a family was caught consuming, transporting or selling liquor, the whole family could face jail-time. For the Bihari man who had elevated his customised bacchanal to dissent, this was a bolt from the blue of the worst kind. If acute withdrawal symptoms, distress and dismay could be bottled, this would be it. It all came for him. Petrified, liquor went underground. As did the legions of tipplers. Bottles began to be sold just across the Nepal border. Others drove to neighbouring Jharkhand and West Bengal where roadside vendors appeared on the interstate highways. Bihar’s loss in excise was, three times and over, the gain of its neighbours.
As the weeks and months wore on, there seemed to be no let-up in the terror unleashed by the law in both urban and rural societies. Time, and human resourcefulness in response to the law of demand and supply, crafted a fuzzy and flighty underground network for the sale of liquor. Its shape shifted rapidly when cornered by law enforcement. The fly-by-night operators began to eke out a dangerous living dodging the terrifying new law. Bihar had gone dry, bitter and brittle.
Of all Bihar’s politicians, Lalu Prasad understood the sentiment best. He knew the hold of desi taadi. Facing an election rout, he withdrew the toddy tax. It was smooth-sailing for him after that
The regime empowered certain police officials to bulldoze property, strike fear and wreak havoc all over the state. These officials appeared to viscerally hate all things liquid and intoxicating. A friend narrated a tale of how an uncle in Patna would procure liquor of dubious quality for the price of a bottle of Teacher’s, gulp it down alone in the privacy of his home, and then dispose of the container—glass to begin with, but later plastic for reasons of resilience, lightness and easy transportation—into the depths of the dry well in his backyard for fear of being charged under the law if it were to be found in his garbage. “At this rate, the bottles are going to spill out of the well in a few weeks,” he confessed, tears in his alpha male eyes. Since the passage of the law, the vending network has upgraded to plastic bottles and pouches, direct-to-home supply and express delivery. Disposal of the container remains a glitch in the system though, always threatening to give the timid tippler away.
Apart from the social costs of prohibition and the loss to the exchequer, the impact was felt in other sectors too. Patna’s big hotels wore a dreary look; the carpets began to smell musty and rooms remained empty or faced low occupancy for many months. Gaya, once bustling and boasting state-of-the-art hotels for foreign tourists on the Buddhist circuit, also began to look weathered and worn down. The absence of liquor meant parched coffers for associated industries.
Never high on the list for the private sector and entrepreneurs, Bihar is now showing even less of an inclination to lure them to the state. The youth, both the better educated and the less, has been compelled to leave in search of decent employment.
Through the 1980s till the mid-2000s, the Bihari bacchanalian dancer vented pent-up steam as he contorted in public. Weddings were the preferred occasions and wedding bands mushroomed all over Patna
Studies on the impact of prohibition in the state have concluded that families have more disposable incomes now, spend a lot more on retail such as clothes and durables. And on children’s education, as the hoardings marking the city’s skyline will testify. Despite severe odds, educated Bihari youth top several national career examinations but have little option to not leave. Meanwhile, the numbers of those still subscribing to bootleggers and the subterranean liquor trade, notwithstanding the higher expenses, continues to remain high.
Experts point out that the IMFL industry contributes, overall, more than Rs 1 lakh crore in taxes every year, supports the livelihood of 35 lakh farming families and employs lakhs of workers. There are hundreds of ancillary industries that rely on alcohol, including tin, plastic, paper, etcetera, with a turnover of Rs 6,000-7,000 crore. Losses from all these sectors keep climbing on the list of ‘cons’ for Bihar, with continued prohibition. The prevailing situation has meant more unemployment, a higher crime rate as well as a higher suicide rate.
BIHAR COULD Learn some lessons from the history of prohibition in the US in the first half of the 20th century. Apart from consolidating organised crime (the likes of Al Capone), studies say prohibition increased corruption in law enforcement agencies and created a flourishing liquor trade. The exchequer suffered huge losses in excise and consumers were forced to drink poor-quality alcohol at many times the price of legit alcohol. There are other cautionary tales from closer home—from Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Kerala, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Maharashtra, Nagaland, Manipur, etcetera. Prohibition as policy failed almost everywhere and at multiple levels, not merely politically, exposing laws riven with double standards that were confusing in their execution.
Banning alcohol is a futile exercise on every count. In the late 1990s, Haryana, under the anti- consumption zeal of Bansi Lal, is a prime example of how public policy on an alcohol ban can go completely wrong. Unlike Kerala, Andhra and some other states where consuming alcohol has, to a large extent, become socially accepted, Haryanvi society was rooted in austerity. Lal’s own community of Jats was frugal and vegetarian, influenced by the Arya Samaj. There was no rivaz of liquor consumotion. All that changed with the arrival of the ‘Gypsy Jat’.
As real estate companies began charting Gurugram’s course to become the industrial and business hub of the National Capital Region, the socio-economic profiles of Haryana’s villages began to change. Rapid development meant largescale rural land acquisition. Villages close to the capital became urbanised overnight. Farther away, villages transformed into semi-urban islets of high rises and MNCs over time. The speed at which all this happened, and the complete lack of long-term investment advice from either the state or elsewhere, meant the nouveau riche spent their wealth on vanity trophies, acquiring sporty status symbols of that time like the Maruti Gypsy (thus the moniker ‘Gypsy Jat’) or even imported cars. With fissures appearing in joint families, the young Haryanvi male spent a lot in Delhi’s snooty watering holes. Crime began to skyrocket. Worried about his own community and the larger Haryanvi society, Bansi Lal imposed prohibition, only to drive the liquor sale into the waiting arms of the mafia. He was forced to abolish prohibition within two years.
A 1998 news report of the day detailed how a red-faced state prohibition minister, Ganeshi Lal, announced in public “Aaj se sharab bandhi khatam (Prohibition is abolished from today)” to loud cheers. ‘It was an obsession that lasted exactly 21 months—and cost both his government and the state dearly. While it left the state poorer by Rs 1,300 crore in lost excise revenue, for months to come the administration will be saddled with over 90,000 liquor-related cases in courts, 13 lakh seized bottles, not to mention 16 hooch tragedies, which left 60 people dead,’ the report said. Bansi Lal rode to power in 1996 from a prohibition platform but after two years, prohibition cost both his Haryana Vikas Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party dearly in terms of Lok Sabha seats. From seven seats, the tally plummeted to two. It did not work even as a political gambit.
In Gujarat, where prohibition has practically become a permanent guest, bootlegging is big business. The Union Territory of Daman, a hop away for tipplers, has a per capita consumption of 56 litres per annum against the national average of 4.3 litres. No prize for guessing why. It is estimated that Gujarat’s loss in excise revenue is almost Rs 8,000 crore per year. Of late, though, the state has watered down prohibition to arrest losses in the tourism and the MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) sector.
Hoisted to the chief minister’s chair again, Nitish Kumar looks determined to keep prohibition going despite, among other things, a roaring black economy created by it. But widespread anger at how stern the law was, legal challenges and the other problems caused by it, including the household outgoes on illicit liquor, forced a rethink in his administration and a dilution of the law in 2018. It became a bailable offence. First-time offenders could pay a penalty of Rs 50,000 and stay out of jail. Whole families would not be arrested any more if one member was founding drinking at home. But the numbers are still mind-boggling. Since April 2016, cops in Bihar have reportedly registered 1.58 lakh FIRs and arrested some 2.12 lakh people, most by now released on bail. Some 10 lakh litres if liquor worth an estimated Rs 700 crore were seized. Thousands of vehicles and buildings were confiscated as property. All of this was the result of a massive operation by the state police against bootleggers. At one point, there were 40,000 bail applications pending in the courts.
Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi, aka Johnny Walker, was a trailblazer. He was perhaps the first to adapt and adopt the name of a popular Scotch brand on screen, the first to stop working on Sundays, the first to employ a secretary/ manager, the first non-hero to have songs written especially for him that broke the box office, and so on. Walker’s shadow loomed a very long time over legions of comedians in Hindi cinema. The tipplers and Johnny Walkers of Bihar are now waiting for Nitish to learn the hard lessons of weaponising prohibition politically. Referring to how public policy should encourage responsible drinking and not ban it, BH Khardekar, the MP from Kolhapur in the first Lok Sabha, had told the Constituent Assembly in 1948: “It’s not alcohol but excessive and irresponsible intake of alcohol that is a matter of concern and should be addressed…you do not know the essential difference between a drinker and a drunkard.” It was an argument that stopped prohibition from being adopted as a national policy. Let’s raise a toast to that.