Sanctimoniousness breeds evil of prohibition

The Bihar Excise and Prohibition Act, 2016, recently cleared by the Bihar Assembly, is obnoxious on several counts. Apart from being a gross form of moral policing, the new legislation curtails civil liberties, further shrinks the ever-shrinking sphere of liberty, empowers the already corrupt officials and cops, and takes the state back to the medieval period.

The Nitish Kumar government sets the clock back by this legislation, for punishing the family and community of a culprit is a harshest medieval method of dispensing justice. For instance, Balban, the 13th century ruler of the Slave Dynasty, not only got a rebel, Tughril Khan, executed but also got his friends butchered. Often, the entire family, friends, and even acquaintances of enemies were massacred in olden times. The Bihar Chief Minister seems determined to revive that long-abandoned practice of meting out punishment wholesale.

So, the Collector, police and the excise department have been empowered to not only arrest the accused without a warrant but make all adults of his family accountable for the consumption and possession of liquor at home. That the sections of the new legislation are non-bailable makes it more draconian.

Further, there is a new provision that makes the discovery of utensils with a mix of sugar or jaggery with grapes suspicious. Such discovery gives the cops the right to prosecute the owner of the premises. Landlords are supposed to inform police if their tenants consume alcohol. A district Collector will now have the authority to impose a collective fine if a group in a village or town is found to be a frequent offender. The premises where the prohibition law is breached can be confiscated by police.

The idea of prohibition is predicated upon the postulate that government and people are two separate entities—the former, being the repository of all wisdom, on a much higher plane than the latter. So, it is the right and duty of the powers that be to teach, preach, and prescribe what is good for individuals who, at any rate, are bereft of the faculties of commonsense, reason, and prudence. If the need arises, the state has the right to spank people for moral misdemeanor.

The postulate jells pretty well for the kings and emperors of yore; it is also implicit in the logic of totalitarian state, but surely not in a democratic republic. Lest Nitish Kumar and his ilk forget, he needs to be reminded that the people of India have given themselves the Indian Republic as we know it; and the people of Bihar have given him the power to govern their state, not to prescribe a way of life he deems fit for them not to proscribe what he finds bad. But, unfortunately, this is exactly what he is doing.

What is more unfortunate is the fact that few in the political have the courage to challenge Kumar’s undermining of the basic principle of democracy—that the people of Bihar are free citizens who, endowed as they are with the gifts of reason and prudence, need no prescription and proscription as to conduct their lives. Such is the tyranny of sanctimoniousness in public life that politicians are afraid to take a reasoned position on the issue of prohibition, despite the well-acknowledged fact that it has invariably led to bootlegging, corruption, and organized crime all over the world. They fear that highlighting such facts and the correct democratic code—that individuals should have limitless freedom subject only to harm to others—would earn them the tag of being debauched and, worse, an agent of the liquor lobby.

Therefore, Nitish’s ally, the RJD, had to support the draconian Bill even as many of its leaders were opposed to it; RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav had to issue a whip to ensure their support to the Bill. The Bharatiya Janata Party, too, had to support prohibition in principle, though they opposed the legislation because of its stringency. Still, the party couldn’t garner the courage to vote against the Bill; it walked out.

In a nutshell, the evil of prohibition is not restricted to the impending police raj, curtailment of civil liberties, and the shrinking of the sphere of liberty; it also pertains to the self-censorship that the political and intellectual classes have imposed on themselves regarding the evil.