Bihar's Draft Liquor Law Amendments Unlikely to Benefit Those Who Need it Most

By working in favour of those who are able to pay fines, the amended liquor law will not come to the rescue of the marginalised castes most often accused in these cases.

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Patna (Bihar): After sharp criticism from many quarters on the liquor ban in Bihar, the Nitish Kumar government has decided to bring some amendments to the law.

According to state government officials, one of the amendments is to set drinkers free without any FIR against them, after paying a penalty. Only if they do not pay the penalty will they face a police case and go to jail.

The proposed amendments plan to section related to ‘non-compounding of offences’. Instead, it will introduce a penalty, as may be notified by the state government, if anyone is found drunk at home or outside. Failure to pay the penalty shall invite simple imprisonment of one month, but repeat offences may invite additional penalty or imprisonment or both, says a Hindustan Times report.

This move, the government believes, will help minimise bail-related cases which have piled up in Bihar courts.

According to the amendments, vehicles seized carrying liquor will be released and all cases related to liquor will be tried by special courts.

The proposed amendments are the result of recent critical remarks by the chief justice of India. On December 1, the Supreme Court said that the prohibition law has affected the functioning of the Patna high court, as the court is busy granting bail to those arrested under the prohibition law and trials are pending in other cases.

The Bihar government had submitted a petition in the Supreme Court against granting bail to those arrested under the prohibition law. While hearing this petition, Chief Justice N.V. Ramana said, “Do you know how much impact this prohibition law has had on the High Court of Bihar? It is taking up to a year for the listing of the case in the court. All courts are busy disposing of bailable cases.”

Not only this, in a public programme, Justice Ramana termed the Bihar government’s prohibition law as a model of short-sightedness. He had said, “The courts of the country are full of cases. Because of this, there is a lack of foresight in drafting such a law. For example, due to the introduction of the prohibition law in Bihar, applications for bail have flooded in the high court. Because of this, the disposal of a simple bail application takes a year.”

Who will benefit from the amendment?

The proposed amendment says that drinkers will be set free upon paying a penalty. That means that this amendment will likely benefit only wealthy people, while poor and marginalised will continue to languish in jail – like Vinod Ram is.

Ram was arrested for allegedly creating chaos on the road after drinking alcohol on April 15 last year by the Patna police. He was put behind bars. He got bail in November, after spending almost six months imprisoned. But despite being granted bail he is still in jail, as he has no property worth Rs 20,000 to deposit as guarantee.

Similarly, Ashok Paswan was granted bail on November 17 last year, but he is still in jail as he has no property worth Rs 20,000 to deposit as guarantee.

He was arrested on July 30 by the Naubatpur police in Patna for misbehaving in front of a police station. The police claimed that he was drunk.

Also read: Bihar’s Draconian Prohibition Law Will Only Drive the Liquor Trade Underground

Praveen Kumar, director of the LAW Foundation (Patna), which works with prisoners from poor socio-economic backgrounds, told The Wire, “The proposal for a fine is irrelevant. A lot of offenders are landless or belong to poor socio-economic backgrounds; they hardly have money to bear expenses. If an amount that is unreasonable in nature is imposed on them, how will they be able to pay it?”

“The proposed amendment is speaking about being applicable to all pending cases under the Act. In that case, if a prisoner languishing in jail booked under this Act is granted bail but is not able to furnish the conditions of the bail bond due to belonging from a poor socio-economic background, what will be the remedy for them?” he asked.

Allegation of false cases, poor and Dalits are victims

In November last year, around 40 persons had died after consuming spurious liquor in four districts of Bihar.

The incidents had drawn criticism from not only opposition parties but also the JD(U)’s alliance partner BJP. BJP state president and MP Sanjay Jaiswal had said, “There is a need to review this law. Liquor ban is a good initiative by Nitish Kumar which has been done with good intentions and is also in favour of women. This law was enacted six years ago and I believe that its successes and failures should be reconsidered.”

But an adamant Nitish Kumar had categorically said that there was no way of reviewing the law. Instead, he ordered the implementation of the law more strictly.

Soon after, he appointed IAS officer K.K. Pathak as additional chief secretary of the Prohibition and Excise Department. When the Nitish government implemented the prohibition law in 2016, Pathak was the principal secretary in the excise department. Police action also intensified as soon as Pathak returned to the excise department. In November last year alone, 11,084 persons were arrested under the liquor law – 78.4% higher than October.

Last year, 82,903 persons were arrested in liquor-related cases, according to Bihar police data. Most of them belong to economically and socially backward communities.

The Wire went through around 30 uploaded FIRs lodged in 2021 in Vaishali district’s Baligaon police station under the liquor law, and found that 28 of these FIRs were against Dalits and Mahadalits. The Wire contacted a few families of the arrested persons, who said that police arrested them and allegedly falsely slapped a section of the liquor law.

Jitendra Sahni was arrested in September 2021 and charged under sections of the liquor law. His wife, however, says he had nothing to do with the alcohol business. Photo: Special arrangement

Jitendra Sahni drives a vehicle for the Patna Municipal Corporation. Police officials of Gardanibagh police station had raided the adjoining Yarpur slum on September 19, and had found Sahni’s identity card in his room. Later an FIR was lodged against him for allegedly running an illegal liquor business.

His wife Gudiya Devi told The Wire, “Police didn’t find any liquor from our room. They took my husband’s identity card with them. When my husband returned, I informed him that the police had taken his identity card.”

The next day, Sahni turned to the police station to collect his identity card, but the police arrested him and slapped a case against him under the liquor law.

The Wire contacted the Gardanibagh station house officer, but he didn’t answer the call.

The FIR says that Sahni fled when police raided the area. It also says that a huge quantity of liquor was seized from a room which belongs to Sahni, but his wife refutes the police’s claims.

“We had never been in the business of liquor. We don’t know what our neighbours were doing. Even the police didn’t find my husband in the room or anywhere else. Instead they arrested him in a liquor case when he went to collect his identity card. This is a clear misuse of the liquor law,” she said.

Neeraj Kumar Singh, a lawyer practicing in Kaimur district, told The Wire, “We get many cases where accused say that they were not selling liquor nor any liquor was recovered from their possession, but police falsely framed them. And most of them belong to Dalit and Mahadalit communities.”