The Bihar hooch tragedy, which led to the death of more than 35 people (according to government estimates), has sparked off a political battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal (United).
Last week, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar called BJP MLAs ‘sharabi’ or drunkards after they criticised him over the poor implementation of the prohibition policy in the state. BJP’s Sushil Kumar Modi, former deputy chief minister of Bihar, claimed that similar tragedies have happened in the state since the prohibition began.
However, on January 5, 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called Nitish’s move to ban liquor in the state a “courageous step”.
The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, was enacted after massive protests by women and social activists to ban all types of alcohol in the state.
Separately, in July, 42 people had died in Gujarat, which has a similar law, after consuming spurious liquor.
Gujarat was declared a dry state after it was carved out from Bombay in 1960.
In 2009, it became the only state in India to have a death penalty for the violation of the prohibition law, which was introduced after 136 people had died after consuming illicit liquor in Gujarat, when Modi was the chief minister of the state.
BJP’s contradictory stand
Whatever may be the stand of the BJP, the fact, however, remains that prohibition has largely failed in both Gujarat and Bihar.
Although Bihar has relaxed its prohibition law – according to which offenders will have to pay a fine and won’t go to jail – the state has failed to check the illegal smuggling and manufacturing of liquor.
The state’s liquor problem has led to a high number of deaths, especially during festivals and cold weather.
In the same way, Gujarat’s stringent law has also not stopped the illegal business of bootlegging, and the subsequent loss of lives.
However, Modi knew how difficult it was for him to implement the alcohol ban when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. That is why, during a speech he made in Patna in 2017, when he had praised Nitish, he had said that bringing about a social change is a tough task and the society should cooperate.
Women’s role in the prohibition of liquor consumption
Nitish may be under attack from various quarters now, however, after the enactment of the prohibition law on April 1, 2016, his move was widely hailed by women and social groups.
In fact, on the day of Holi, in March 2016, a few days before the law was made, many women handed over to the police their relatives, including their own husbands, who were drunk.
The law was unanimously passed in the state assembly. However, some Rashtriya Janata Dal leaders, which was then its ally, had questioned its practicality. (It’s important to note here that when Lalu Prasad Yadav was the chief minister of Bihar, he had removed tax on toddy.)
Several months after the law was enacted, things started changing in Bihar. The liquor ban started affecting the businessmen, and even those who were engaged in the alcohol business at the local level.
However, there’s a reason why Nitish is dubbed as the ‘U-turn’ man. He has switched sides politically and has also reversed many of his administrative decisions.
For example, nearly two years after coming to power in November 2005, he had announced the New Excise Policy, to help the state increase its revenue. A large number of licences were distributed for opening liquor outlets. Foreign firms, too, were invited to produce alcohol and beer in the state. Some alcohol manufacturing plants also came up in the vicinity of Patna.
But it wasn’t only Nitish, but his then deputy, Sushil Kumar Modi (who’s now a BJP MP), who had argued how the new policy would bring in a lot of revenue for the resource-starved state.
The state’s economy sharply declined after it was separated from the mineral-rich Jharkhand.
The then Rabri Devi government had found it extremely difficult to run the state. So when it was voted out of power in 2005, Nitish decided to shore up the state economy by adopting the excise policy.
But socially, the Nitish government’s move was not appreciated as the free sale and consumption of liquor led to a huge jump in domestic violence crimes. What’s worse, these crimes went unreported.
As no first information reports were lodged, the status of law and order on paper appeared rosy.
The power equation
By 2015, the situation had turned so bad that on July 9 that year, the chief minister was gheraoed by a large group of women self-help workers to protest against the negative impact of rampant alcoholism.
Nitish had then announced that he would impose the prohibition after he returns to power. The state assembly elections in Bihar were due in October-November that year.
What the chief minister had failed to realise was that the liquor lobby promoted by him in the last nine years had become strong. The beneficiaries of the previous excise policy included many prominent JD(U) and BJP leaders.
It was Nitish, who in February 2010 had sacked his then excise minister, Jamshed Ashraf, when he had tried to expose the liquor scam.
Interestingly, the BJP always stood behind Nitish on this count, when it was an ally till June 16, 2013, and again between July 26, 2017 and August 9, 2022, when it was in the government for the second time.
However, after the latest hooch tragedy, its leaders are citing a series of large-scale deaths which rocked Bihar in the past so many years.
What they are not highlighting is that they had strongly defended him when they were sharing power with Nitish.
When Bihar was declared dry, the media had turned against Nitish, saying the state would lose a lot of investments. However, they never seemed to have questioned the Gujarat government’s liquor policy.
Although Gujarat woos huge foreign investments, but according to estimates, it suffers a loss of Rs 10,000 crore annually due to prohibition.
Bihar was earning Rs 4,000 crore annually from the tax on liquor till 2015-16.
The question here is, why did Prime Minister Modi openly applaud Nitish’s prohibition policy in January 2017.
This was because two months prior to the prime minister’s Patna speech, the Bihar chief minister had supported the November 8, 2016, demonetisation decision of the Union government. The saffron party’s efforts to attract Nitish back to the NDA fold had started back then. On July 26, the move had materialised.
Liquor, a poll issue
The BJP had raised the prohibition policy of Bihar as an election issue ahead of the recent bypolls in the state.
Therefore, it would be premature to answer whether the saffron party would succeed in making the liquor policy introduced by Nitish an election issue in 2024 or in 2025.
A junior police official told The Wire that there is no doubt that the administration has failed. However, he cited some other problems too.
He said that alcohol can be easily smuggled from different states and through the international border with Nepal manned by the Sashastra Seema Bal jawans. The biggest problem, however, according to him, is that they are smuggled on motor boats through the river Ganga.
How can one track them in the midstream, he asked.
Now even women and children are being involved in this racket. The alcohol brought from the neighbouring states is unloaded in an obscure place, he added.
It is not that people are not dying in other states after consuming spurious liquor. But, in Bihar, when a person falls ill after drinking, he does not go to the hospital as he fears that a case would be lodged against him. This aggravates the situation and ultimately leads to his death without proper treatment.
Soroor Ahmed is a Patna-based freelance journalist.