By Arun Srivastava
The decision was taken at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday but the verdict was passed at the get together of some senior BJP leaders at the residence of a national leader a couple of months ago. The BJP leaders attending the session demanded that the government water down provisions of the Prohibition law. They agreed to a common precept that the law was detrimental to their party’s interest.
The decision to remove some of the most stringent provisions of the Prohibition law in the state was announced by chief minister Nitish Kumar just a day ahead of his one to one meeting with BJP president Amit Shah. Though Nitish clarified that the government was amending the law only to address the grievance of people that officials were abusing the 2016 Act, his numerous past statements testify he simply rubbed off such complaints in the past and patted his officials and state police.
It was at the behest of a senior IPS officer he agreed to incorporate arrest and prosecution of the family members of the person caught with the drink. While Nitish took this step to gain publicity, the police personnel used it to extort money, especially from the poor. A look at the people arrested under the law would make it clear that no moneyed people or even those belonging to the middle class were ever arrested.
The police have been carrying out raids and arrests. But this was simply an eye wash. If the police were really keen to stop booze, they would not have allowed liquor to be imported into Bihar. Intriguingly, after the promulgation of Prohibition huge quantities of liquors were seized in the state daily.
The Act was promulgated on April 5, 2016 and during the two years around 1.56 lakh people were arrested under the provisions of the law. This is substantially more than the 1.1 lakh people arrested during the Emergency years. The police have filed nearly one lakh FIRs. Paradoxically out of this huge number of detainees, so far the government has achieved success in convicting only 30 people. The government is contemplating to hire around 50 prosecutors to handle the remaining cases.
In crime infested Bihar, Nitish should be credited for adding a large number of new criminals. In fact, he has created a new breed of criminals. Not only the people of Bihar but a major section of the bureaucrats describe the law as Talibani. When Nitish came to power for the first time in 2005, he had given liquor licence liberally and thousands of liquor shops were opened. He had then justified his action saying that the revenue from booze was spent on buying cycles, school dress and books for girls.
Suddenly he seemed to realise his poor political image and came out with the proposal to ban liquor. Incidentally the first victims of the law were two daily wage brothers of Jehanabad. They were awarded jail term for 5 years each and asked to pay a fine of Rs 1 lakh. Almost 99 percent of the people arrested under the law belonged to the weaker sections. The law also empowered the police to seize the house and vehicle of the person, including the women occupants, where liquor was found. Recently the Patna high court pulled up the state police for seizing vehicles in which liquor was found, saying there is no such provision under the Act. Earlier, the high court also pulled up police for confiscating a bus belonging to the West Bengal government in which a person was found to be carrying liquor.
In at least six districts including in Patna, the offenders belonged to SC community (Mushahars and Pasis). Even Nitish’s party men said that the ban on sale and consumption of liquor in the state has made the government “unpopular” among the Mahadalit castes, especially among those who used to earn their livelihood by selling country liquor. Nitish had faced a lot of criticism from the opposition and civil rights groups, who had contended that most people arrested under this law were from among Bihar’s poorest and unable to bribe their way out of the police cases. But he refused to retreat.
Nitish justified his latest action of going soft on the law citing the feedbacks on its misuse. On his own he would not have done this, but with the top BJP leadership taking up the matter at the behest of the state unit of the party, Nitish was left with no option. (IPA Service)