Last year and the year before (2014 and 2015), I was at my hometown, Darbhanga, Bihar on the festive days of Holi and Ram-Navami. I had a chance to see up close the consumption of alcohol and abuse of the auspicious celebration of Ram-Navami in the Bihari society.
In the 1970’s, there used to be only one joint of Desi liquor (local tharra) in my neighborhood and a couple of joints of fermented toddy (taari-khana) at five minutes' walk from our house. Every evening, as I made my way home through the Gudari Bazar, I would notice these spots crowded and humming. I didn’t have a chance to see what goes on inside the shops because we considered those places out of bounds. But the users of those facilities were contained and seemed to drink in privacy.
But this time around, I was amazed to see a rather sophisticated shop full of all types of intoxicants from beer to wine to whisky operating from behind a transparently grilled shutter. There was no trace of that Desi Tharra joint. Men in the age groups of twenties or sixties dotted the sidewalks and barely hid their bottles of whisky they placed on a makeshift wooden shop selling prepared eggs or other types of appetizers (chakhani). In groups, they consumed alcohol openly while their two-wheel-motor vehicles were parked nearby that further choked the traffic.
It was a clear demonstration of a substantially enhanced buying power of the consumers, but an equally astounding revelation of the absence of civic sense and order. There’s a police post (Naka) in the Gudari Bazar which, we know since our childhood, receives weekly payments (hafta) from illicit businesses. But it’s not bothered about enforcing any public decorum in its own surroundings.
I was stunned and horrified to see how an auspicious day of Ram Navami was soaked in alcohol by the local young boys roaming around like thugs. For at least a week before Ram Navami, I noticed young boys between ages 18 to 25 going from door to door in residential mohallas and businesses collecting money in the name of Ram Navami. I was told beforehand that these ruffians who masqueraded as community activists or temple supporters collected huge amounts of money. They would arrange for some decorated vehicles loaded with high volume, multiple speaker sound system, locally called DJ, participate in the evening procession and then they would use up larger part of the money collected in getting drunk. Some would even participate in the procession drunk.
This is just an example -- replayed on almost every religious occasion -- of how liquor has made its place in the Bihari society.
By re-enacting prohibition, Nitish might have fulfilled the election promise given to the women who complained that the men in their families abused them under the influence of alcohol. Recently, Nitish affirmed that it were women who opened his eyes to the reality of this social ill. Alcoholism was and is a problem in Bihar. No doubt. Many families have been devastated.
However, time will only tell if Nitish threw the baby out with the bathwater by legislating a restrictive prohibition law. According to one logic, he can’t take away the rights of those who afford and would like to drink alcohol in moderation in the privacy of their family or social circles.
Secondly, Nitish’s administration doesn't have the wherewithal to enforce full and complete prohibition. Stories are surfacing where the lawmakers and law enforcers are in collusion with the illicit liquor traders’ ring. If such cases multiply, the officials of the Nitish administration will be seen helplessly looking the other way and making a mockery of the law. In a province like Gujarat also, the prohibition policy is consistently violated on one pretext or the other.
Stripped of their traditional profession of tapping toddy, the Pasi community has also revolted because there's no alternative occupation they can immediately turn to. Ram Vilas Paswan, by now a seasoned politician from Bihar and also from the same caste, knows better than others.
The best (although not foolproof) way for the Nitish administration to have a grip on the evil of alcohol abuse was to imitate what the Western countries do: Alcohol can be bought and consumed by qualified customers only at designated places and during fixed hours, no exceptions. Violators are sent to jail and drunk drivers’ licenses are suspended or taken away. The governments don’t pry into the privacy of the people, but anyone found abusing regardless of the influence of alcohol, is seriously dealt with. This arrangement frees up liquor, restaurant and hospitality industry to flourish, consumers are at liberty to drink in privacy. Most importantly, the executive branch of the government is spared the impossible task of mobilizing resources to prevent everyone from drinking.
Despite the best intention and enforcement of law, the West, it must be noted, has its own share of problems with alcohol, drug and substance abuse. However, fear of law is universal and its implementation is executed seriously and expeditiously.
In contrast, with the corrupt and inept arms of administration, the government of Bihar can’t stop production of illicit liquor, its supply and consumption if there aren’t open and legal outlets available.
On top of all, a citizen-social collective awareness, a consensus that there are certain things legally and morally unacceptable seems to have frustratingly disappeared from the Bihari society. No one apparently stands up for ethical reasons. The abusers are not referred to the law enforcement agencies, and if they are, settlements are done outside the system. The citizenry perhaps knows rightly nothing positive can happen. They become accomplice in the act. That’s likely the reason people who gave Ram Navami subscription to the ruffians didn’t give me a good justification for doing so. When I engaged the mohalla “collectors,” no one could volunteer an explanation as to why Ram Navami was significant to the religion they belonged to.
This must be a wakeup call for leaders and people representing the entire political spectrum to ponder which way their society and religion is headed.
In saffron scarf, leaders of both the JD(U) and the BJP were seen offering Puja together in Patna on the occasion of Ram Navami: Is this just to impress the Hindus for their votes or to enforce the principles of their role model, “Maryada Purushottam” Ram?
Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). A former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA, he has taught politics and authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India, and Canada.
Dr. Prasad administers a facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.