Prohibition in India
On a sunny afternoon in January, Geeta Devi sat with two dozen neighborhood women in a small Hindu temple in Patna, the capital city of the eastern Indian state of Bihar. The women gather here every week, discussing everything from how to obtain cheap rice and grains to the latest fashions. But these days, their discussions increasingly revolve around alcohol-fueled violence at the hands of the men of their households.
Devi lifted her salwar, or loose cotton pajamas, to show the dark purple wound on her left knee. Some of the women gasped. “My husband did it,” she said with a sob. “My husband hit me in places I cannot even show.”
In Bihar, 83 percent of married women are beaten by their husbands after the men have been drinking, according to the latest available official data. Devi said her husband, a construction worker, drinks excessively every night after work.
It was for this reason women such as Devi fought for decades to bring about prohibition in their state. The women believed that banning alcohol would reduce domestic violence and improve their financial stability. After decades of advocacy, they had their way in April 2016, when the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Act banned alcohol in Bihar state, one of four of India’s 28 states to pass prohibition.
The temperance movement, which pushes for laws to regulate the sale of alcohol or to ban it completely, first came to colonial India in the early 1900s, while it was spreading in Britain. Mahatma Gandhi championed a ban on alcohol, and his home state of Gujarat has officially prohibited liquor since the state was formed in 1960.
Yet for just as long, there has been an extensive underground market for liquor. The neighboring state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, saw 25 years of alcohol prohibition. During that time the infamous mafia in Mumbai, often compared to the Italian mafia in New York City, came to be partially because of the black market liquor trade.
Compared to the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, eastern India ranks lower in life expectancy, education and per capita income. Land ownership in Bihar is concentrated in the hands of the few, and because the state has not seen sufficient economic development to generate employment, it exports labor to other parts of the country.
“A lot of the people do hard manual labor in the state. They end up consuming alcohol to numb their pain,” said a police officer in Patna who requested anonymity. He was referring to construction or nonmechanized agricultural work. “This makes them consume whatever alcohol they can lay their hands on at the end of the day.”
In December 2022, 70 people in Bihar died after consuming cheap adulterated liquor. A judge at the Patna High Court said that since prohibition, a large number of people have died from spurious liquor.
“My husband earns about Rs 800 (about $10 in U.S. dollars) a day; all he can afford is cheap liquor,” said Vandana Kumari, an artisan who lives in Nehru Nagar, a neighborhood of Patna.
The abundant availability of dangerous black-market liquor is because of a lack of good-quality liquor, women in Bihar say. Hooch also was available in the past, they said, but the men had access to better-quality regulated alcohol.
There is also a market for smuggling quality liquor from neighboring states into Bihar. Those who can afford it buy this smuggled alcohol on the black market. Twenty-one of Bihar’s 38 districts share borders with the states of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengal, where there is no ban on liquor. Liquor is smuggled from these states into Bihar.
“Imagine a network of four to five young men who ensure liquor is smuggled into each of the approximately 40,000 villages of Bihar,” said Pushpendra Kumar, a professor and chairperson of the Centre for Development Practice and Research in Patna. “That is the magnitude of a parallel industry prohibition has created in Bihar.” India shares an 800-kilometer-long porous border with Nepal, with more than 6,000 villages in Bihar along this border. Every month, some 200,000 people cross the identified 49 transit points between Bihar and Nepal. Liquor is smuggled across this border as well.
Those who do not live in border areas and have little access to off-market or smuggled alcohol make do in other ways. Many women say men in their households inhale whitener or acid to experience intoxication. “My husband inhales whitener because that is easily available in a hardware store. And he says it intoxicates him more than liquor,” said Kumari, one of two dozen women sitting in the temple behind the Nehru Nagar police station. Many had told police about their husbands’ domestic violence, but jail time can saddle a family with additional financial stresses.
“My husband was behind bars for three months,” said tailor Asha Devi, who supports her family of four on an income of Rs 5000 a month (about $60 in U.S. dollars). Devi said her husband began drinking immediately after he was released.
For these women, desperate to evade the violence of husbands who abuse alcohol, there is no clear place to turn. At the moment, they are demanding a lift of the alcohol ban.
About 50 kilometers from Patna city is Musahar Tola, an informal settlement of people who fall on the bottommost end of India’s caste hierarchy. The Musahar have been systematically discriminated against, and they face hardships so dire that some eat rats to survive. Many live in inhumane conditions, such as tin sheds covered with plastic sheets, even during the harsh winters.
For generations, the women of the Musahar community made alcohol with local flowers in their homes, but the prohibition law has ruined their traditional livelihood. “They do not have alternative work,” said Sudha Varghese, a social activist in Patna.
At 9 p.m. on a January night, about a dozen policemen stormed a Musahar locality within Patna limits. The police entered homes and threw out pots, pans and firewood kept for stove fuel. Men and women pleaded with the police to stop the rampage. Police justified their actions by calling it a liquor raid, with the goal of seizing illegal alcohol from Musahar Tola.
Varghese said she frequently gets calls from the Musahar community about the raids. “I go ask the police: What wrong have these people done?” she said. “They have no alternate forms of employment.”
Men of all castes have bought alcohol from Musahars, but people from oppressor castes tend to blame Musahar women for the liquor sales. “Those women spoil our men,” said Pushpa Kumari (no relation to Vandana), who belongs to a dominant caste.
Demand for alcohol has increased since the ban, and so have bribes to the authorities, said a Musahar Tola man who called himself Sanvla or “the dark one,” refusing to share his last name for fear of retribution. “Each household here can sell up to two liters a day; that is enough money to feed us well, he said. “But we cannot produce in bulk because the police destroy the liquor in their raids.”
Police charges could mean imprisonment for life or fines of up to a million rupees. A 2022 report revealed that compared to the period when alcohol was not banned in Bihar, there was a 1,190 percent increase in Undertrial prisoners violating the Bihar Liquor and Narcotics Drugs Excise Act, mainly involving alcohol.
Varghese said she spends a lot of time bailing out Musahar men who have been jailed for alcohol-related infractions.
In the weekly Bihar temple meeting, women say they worry about the effect alcohol abuse has on younger generations.
Devika Kumari, 17, said she thinks about her father’s violence even when she is at school. “I cannot stop thinking about how my mother and aunt have to work at home and outside to make ends meet,” she said. The teen fears she will meet the same fate. “What if my husband beats me?” she said. Young women of her community are usually married off between the ages of 18 and 21.
Before, the women wanted a liquor ban because they thought restricting the availability would lessen its negative influence on their lives. Eight years later, they realize that not only is liquor easily available despite the ban, but the law is pushing some people to seek more dangerous methods of intoxication.
In addition, the law gives the police more power over their lives. “Now the law is just a burden to us,” said Asha Devi.
Geeta Devi has an 18-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter. It scares her that her son has already taken to alcohol. The ban has only made access easier, she said. “Now young boys deliver alcohol pouches and bottles home,” she said.
Just before everyone dispersed, Geeta Devi, who had shared the story of the wound on her knee, slowly lifted her arms to reveal more bruises. She said solemnly, “My son did this.”Your support matters…
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