Mainstream, VOL LIV No 36, New Delhi, August 27, 2016
Prohibition and the Fallacy of State-imposed Values
Sunday 28 August 2016
by Garima Mani Tripathi
When the Nitish Kumar Government in Bihar promulgated the Bihar Excise (Amend-ment) Act (2016) early this year, it was hailed as a milestone step towards prohibition in the poor State. However, the recent amendments take prohibition to an extreme end and make liquor consumption and storage a far more criminal and draconian act. For instance, all adults of a family would be held responsible for the consumption and possession of liquor at home by any member of the family! The assumption that all adults must be in the know, and must be held responsible until proven otherwise is simply atrocious. Further, all sections of the Act are non-bailable leaving it solely to courts to decide individual cases. The punishable tenure is as harsh as given in serious offences like rape etc. Prohibition in Bihar, thus, has become a victim of moralistic authori-tarianism and state-imposed value system.
The amendments also expose two funda-mental contradictions in the prohibition policy. First, the Nitish Government has overturned its previous notion of rationality. The pre-2016 liquor sale and distribution policy was targeted at ‘revenue generation’ assuming only people who could afford and seek access to liquor. That there would be social and criminal consequences was irrelevant. As expected, the government earned huge revenues but it came with concurrent proliferation in social crimes. The state-sponsored proliferation of liquor shops was violative of the common man’s aspirations for a healthy society, adequately enshrined in the Directive Principles of State Policy, where the state is supposed to encourage prohibition so that the health of its citizenry is not diluted. Now, the very activities related to liquor consumption have become a criminal offence, thus redefining rationality for a social cause. Second, a select category of privileged individuals like defence personnel and those in the five-star set-up would be allowed to consume liquor. How and why should the state provide for contradictory treatment of its different class of citizens for the same social behaviour? This contradiction wherein one set of people becomes a criminal class against the privileged few is difficult to understand and perhaps may not stand the scrutiny of Articles 14 and 21 of the Indian Constitution.
The amendments also put to debate certain considerations at stake. First, the relationship between society and state has become quite volatile in the Indian context and often not based on a similar pattern of democratic arrangement of governing mechanisms. The society is not as autonomous as it should be in a democracy. Instead, its regulating patterns are being decided by the State entering even within the ethical domains like the issue of righteous-ness. The State, at will, decides if liquor consu-mption is right or the same is a culpable offence. Second, the state-society conflict also reflects on the individual’s freedom to indulge in ‘rational choice’. While there are issues adversely impacting the societal arrangements, many individuals consume liquor within accepted norms (that too debatable) without infringing upon the rights of others towards a dignified life. To treat such individuals as serious criminals makes a complete mockery of the criminal justice system. Third, there is also a possibility of prohibition laws being misused by the police state. The very absence of bail and other stringent provisions means that hapless individuals would be at the mercy of abusers of the state machinery. While placing prohibition as one of the ‘desirable’ goals in the Directive Principles of State Policy, the Constitution does not envisage a situation where the attempts for prohibition would go against the very grain of personal liberty and indeed jeopardise it through a criminal colouring of prohibition! Fourth, the amendments also reflect that politics of persuasion and tolerance is on decline in India where the state machinery abrogates to itself the right to speak for society and portray the same as general will.
The prohibition policy of the Nitish Govern-ment through the methodology of retributive justice rather than reformative justice is unfortunate and only shows wrong diagnosis of the problem. The government could have given a serious thought to this pre-supposition that any action has three dimensions: intention; performance; and consequences of the action for an ethical-rational foundation. The intention is certainly good. However, the performance and the consequences part have not been well-thought off! The government has imposed too much of criminality, given too much powers to the police and the very agenda of prohibition seems to be defeated! It is debatable if the new prohibition policy will gain wider acceptance and win the hearts for Nitish Kumar.
Consumption of liquor is a social issue that can best be tackled through a social and ideological movement. The history of prohi-bition reveals that state-enforced ban has not always worked. It failed in the US much before Gandhi started preaching it. Many States in India experimented it with variable experiences and some like Haryana gave it up completely. Rather than making a criminal case out of liquor consumption, the Nitish Kumar Government would do well to protect, preserve and promote social engineering through a political, persuasive and progressive agenda against the evil effects of liquor.
Dr Garima Mani Tripathi is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Mata Sundri College for Women, University of Delhi.