Of the women, for the women
Travelling to Bihar last week, the first after Nitish Kumar introduced total prohibition in the state, there was liquor talk buzzing all around. This was, in fact, the first time I heard people discuss liquor so openly in the state. Unlike Punjab, Bachchus has never part of Bihari pantheon, especially among the Bhadralok.
Liquor in Bihar in the pre-Janata Dal days was limited to consumption in a few clubs (to which membership was very restrictive), a few restaurants with bar license (that families avoided visiting), and the homes of a few “independent” families. With large joint families still the norm back then, open consumption of liquor within the house was a rarity.
I was brought up in a nuclear family and my father was a doctor, a community identified for prescribing dawa (medicines) and consuming daru (liquor). My father’s generation of doctors, in large numbers, went to the United Kingdom for specialised studies and came back with sufficient exposure of the British life and ways - the taste of quality whisky being one of them.
But the doctor community of the state was careful that they consumed whisky only after their clinic hours, and kept it largely a private affair. About 25 years ago when I started my career as a stringer (reporter) for a national daily from the state backwaters in Bhagalpur, I recall reading a local paper carrying a nasty headline about the head of the bureau of our newspaper’s sister Hindi publication.
It said, “Kotwali Ki Har Sham Rangeen; Patrakar Aur Police Hote Hum Pyala”. Loosely translated, it means that the city’s main police station turned into a bar every evening with journalists and cops enjoying a drink. The headline delineated the social difference between “Hindi Patrakar” and English journalist. The person who was the face of English journalism in that city for decades, too, enjoyed his whisky but had the district police head for his company and not the station house officer.
The coming of the Lalu Yadav and Mandalisation of politics had its social reverberation too. There emerged a new political and social elite, who as part of their Sanskritisation (in kind of a reverse order) process showed-off brands – of shoes, of clothes, of cigarettes, and of whisky. The ownership of the liquor vends too passed off from the hands of the traditional upper castes to that of the newly politically empowered other backward classes.
In fact, Nitish Kumar during his first term as Chief Minister saw an opportunity in expanding the liquor trade to increase the state’s revenue for getting the much-needed moolah to fund development projects. His 2007 liquor policy took alcohol to villages. The levels of pilferage were brought down and the state’s revenue increased. In 2016, Nitish Kumar decided to bring in the prohibition law at a time when the state was raking in Rs 4000 crore annually as excise revenue. This is a huge price to pay but Nitish Kumar must have visualised a political harvest when he made the decision.
Belonging to the Kurmi caste, which despite being part of the OBC mosaic is not populous enough to hold a leader on its own strength, Nitish Kumar in the past 10 years has built a caste-neutral political constituency of women. No wonder the mascot of the Prohibition Movement in the state is a woman – Girija Devi.
Belonging to the same Mushar community as Mountain Man Dashrath Manjhi, Girija Devi around the turn of this century started a movement in Chamaparan, yes the same place from where Mahatma Gandhi began his political journey for the nation’s tryst with freedom. An illiterate Musahar woman of a nameless Bhirkhia-Chipulia village under East Champaran district, Girija single-handedly created awareness against the widespread addiction to alcohol in her community’s men folk.
For her, charity began at home. She took her husband Singheswar Manjhi to task first and foremost. Her movement over the years got support from other Mushar women and they started to participate in her campaign. She first requested the men folk to give up alcohol as it ruined their and their family’s life. Many gave up on their own volition. Those who defied her had their head tonsured and were garlanded with shoes. The carrot and stick strategy worked and it is said that she has managed to make 125 Mushar villages in Champaran free of alcohol.
The agony of Girija Devi in Bihar was not limited to only the women of Mushar community. With a liberal liquor policy in place, it was uniformly spread across the poor families. Every housemaid in Bihar had a miserable alcoholic wife-beating husband at home. The women in the state were left to either tend their own wounds or to the ailments which alcohol addiction brought to their husbands.
Soon after coming to office in 2005, Nitish Kumar had started to work towards creating a following among women. The first concrete step was giving 50 percent reservation to women candidates in Panchayat elections, which followed in 2006. Pitched against the juggernaut of Narendra Modi-led BJP and desertions from his own rank and file, Nitish during the 2015 Assembly campaign fell back on women voters. He promised them complete prohibition if he returned to power.
Thus, for Kumar, having got a fresh mandate, with a great support from women voters, it was indeed time to payback. In November 2015, he announced phased implementation of prohibition in the state. He followed this up by implementing the law from April 1 this year and finally revising the deadline for complete liquor ban from April 6.
Nitish Kumar has a tough task at hand though as of now, he is basking in the glory of the early success of the law. The real test will be to see how he succeeds in implementing prohibition on a long-term basis and also control the sale of spurious liquor, which is a direct fallout of liquor-ban policies. The first report of death due to consumption of spurious liquor in the state has already trickled in.
(The author is President Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and Consulting Editor, Millennium Post. The views expressed are strictly personal.)