One of India’s most-populous states recently banned alcohol. Mayhem ensued.
Praveen Kumar, in a white sleeveless vest, says he is too afraid to a drink since prohibition started in April. His wife, Sumedhi Kumar, is part of a women’s liquor squad that reports — or even beats up — men who are found drinking liquor. ( Rama Lakshmi/The Washington Post)
By Rama Lakshmi September 24 at 3:30 AM
KHANPUR, India — For decades, this riverside hamlet of lower-caste Indians made liquor for a living by fermenting the fruit of the mahua tree, but since a strict prohibition was imposed in Bihar state in April, police have begun raiding homes, chasing away drinkers and arresting villagers.
In response, the village vowed to give up its main source of income and poured 200 gallons of freshly made hooch into the river in a public declaration of defeat.
“Now where do we go, what do we do? Our money and food will not last long,” said Jagar Rajvanshi, 60, a balding and spectacled man in a blue sarong who had been producing alcohol for years.
[Indians are rioting over water. Is this a glimpse into the future?]
Alcohol is not illegal in predominantly Hindu India, but there has long been a social stigma against it in this conservative country, and state-level bans have become a popular ploy for politicians in India anxious to secure the women’s vote.
Village elders read out news about prohibition’s strict rules and news about recent raids and arrests to the men in the Simrauka village. Praveen Kumar, middle, says he wants to drink but is too afraid to do so because of the strict laws. ( Rama Lakshmi/The Washington Post)
Drinking is on the increase in India, with rising middle-class affluence, a youth bulge and increased opportunities to dine out. According to a report by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last year, India ranked third on a list of 40 nations in terms of rising alcohol consumption between 1992 and 2012.
At the same time, rural female voters are becoming more assertive about the depredations of alcoholic husbands, and this has become a potent election issue.
The southern state of Kerala has begun a phased ban, and neighboring Tamil Nadu is contemplating introducing such a prohibition again after a lapse of several years.
But the man who has made the issue his own is the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, who instituted the controversial ban after an election-year promise to women voters who complained about their drunken husbands.
But prohibition has brought unintended consequences — much as the United States found out almost a century ago — and now thousands are in jail, liquor smuggling has exploded and vigilantism is on the rise.
The anti-alcohol campaign has sent more than 14,000 people to jail since April in a state where the prisons were already overcrowded. More than 43,000 gallons of alcohol have been seized and thousands of shops shuttered. Those caught consuming alcohol can face 10 years in prison, and bail can take weeks.
Anup Kumar sells toddy on the streets of Bihar. The largely poor northern state has one of the toughest prohibition laws, setting off panic among people. ( Rama Lakshmi/The Washington Post)
But what has set off panic among residents are the draconian provisions in the law, including a clause whereby all adults in a family are now accountable if one member drinks. Homeowners can be arrested if a tenant is drinking, and the entire village can be fined if liquor is made there.
“We are not opposing prohibition, but we are saying it is unimplementable in the 21st century,” said Sushil Modi, opposition leader from the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bihar. “There is a climate of fear everywhere.”
Over the years, Kumar has carefully constructed an image as a politician who listens keenly to women voters. His government provided free bicycles to young girls to encourage them to attend school. He set aside government job quotas for women and promoted village self-help groups.
His proposal for an alcohol ban came against a backdrop of the real suffering by some wives at the hands of their husbands.
“My husband spent all the wages on alcohol. If I said something, he would throw things around in anger and hit me. He would say, ‘Who are you to question me?’ ” Sumedhi Kumar, 35, recalled.
[She was raped at 13. Her case has been in India’s courts for 11 years — and counting.]
So after he came to power for his third term — when he trounced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party in the state — Kumar announced a total prohibition. He did so with the full support of local women’s groups, who have since formed squads to enforce the ban, reminiscent of Carry Nation’s temperance movement before the period of prohibition in the United States.
“We now beat up men who dare to drink, with sticks and brooms. Women have become the liquor police,” said Sunaina Prasad, 45, in Simrauka village.
It is interesting to anticipate what will happen in India with this prohibition. When we were in India, we were headquartered in Gujurat where Prime Minister Modi was the Chief Minister. Gujurat was a dry state , though the students found some way around that, as students are want to do !
I am glad that women are being heard in India !