Abraham Lincoln and Nitish Kumar
Snapshot
  • To know why Bihar’s brutal prohibition Raj, which violates basic human rights, may fail to achieve its aim, listen to Abraham Lincoln.

Do you know how many people were arrested in those 21 months of “internal disturbance” aka Emergency, declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975? A whopping 1.1 lakh. Now let’s fast forward to 2018 — yet another 21 months have passed since the imposition of prohibition in Bihar. Do you know how many people have been arrested so far? 1.29 lakh. (Go ahead, read that figure again!) Of course, what is more disturbing is the fact that while those 1.1 lakh people who were arrested during the Emergency came from different parts of the nation, who in toto totalled 1.1 lakh, those 1.29 lakh prohibition-related arrests are figures from a single state. What’s more: our prison systems are not even equipped to handle that kind of inmate inflow. The fallout: overcrowding in the already overcrowded prisons. And in case you’re wondering, what exactly that entails… let me paint you a little picture.

Imagine the worst kind of hell-hole on earth, with dank depressing walls that bear an unbearable stench that can only be produced when dried blood is mixed with human sweat and urine (go ahead, add some tears to taste). Who would want to sleep in such a hell-hole? Would you? Before you answer in the negative, ponder this. Any one of those inmates would gladly give anything for a little shut eye… even if it is inside a hell-hole.

So alarming is overcrowding in Bihar prisons — thanks to the prohibition-related arrests — that inmates now have to take turns while sleeping. Of course, that’s not new, since overcrowding is a malaise that plagues most prisons in India and the rest of the world. What’s new is that they are now being denied even the basic human right to supine sleep. Thus, the prisoners now not only have to take turns to sleep, they cannot even turn while sleeping and are forced to sleep on their sides. I am sure I don’t even need to point out that that is a gross violation of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (popularly known as Nelson Mandela Rules in honour of the former South African president), which clearly mandates a minimum floor space for each inmate.

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This, despite the fact that India actually played an active role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. In fact, the Indian Constitution itself incorporated most of these rights as enumerated in the Universal Declaration, under the Fundamental Rights and the Directive Principles of State Policy. While Articles 2 to 21 of the Declaration resulted in the creation of Articles 12 to 35 of the Indian Constitution, Articles 22 to 28 of the Declaration can be found under Articles 36 to 51 of the Constitution. (Source: archive.india.gov.in)

But where is the criticism, and when is it coming?

When I first wrote on prohibition in Bihar (“Drink Less, Kill More”, Swarajya, June 2016), I chose wit and humour as my weapon. Then again, how could I not? The law seemed so laughable. Nonetheless, I was equally convinced that the courts would soon intervene and overturn the ludicrous law. Which, admittedly, it did, just three months after the appearance of my article, rightfully declaring the law “illegal”. Of course, to the chief minister, his law was in tune with the Directive Principles of State Policy, although to the judges of the Patna High Court, the law was ultra vires to the Constitution. Thus, according to the former, he had simply fulfilled his constitutional duty; while to the latter, he had overstepped the constitutional boundaries. And so, the debate continues.

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An obvious question, therefore, arises. Since human rights (and human dignity) are enshrined in the Constitution under the Directive Principles of State Policy, how can the Bihar Chief Minister evoke one principle from the Directive Principles of State Policy, but ignore the rest? How is that his constitutional duty?

To be perfectly honest, I think I was being rather naive when I penned the earlier article on prohibition. For I did not even realise that in this tug-of-war between the legislature and the judiciary, it would be the common man (and woman) who would have to pay the price of prohibition. After all, our belligerent Chief Minister was quick to retaliate with a newer and a more stringent prohibition law in a matter of two days. The judges and the judiciary be damned!

It was then that the oldest debate in English jurisprudence hit me hard: “Do judges make the law or do they merely declare it?” And with this age-old question, I was reminded of the following words of Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls, who was dubbed the “greatest judge of the (20th) century”: “Where is the argument on the other side? Only this, that no case has been found in which it has been done before. That argument does not appeal to me in the least. If we never do anything which has not been done before, we shall never get anywhere. The law will stand still whilst the rest of the world goes on: and that will be bad for both.”

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And so, here I am. To make the argument for the other side. So today, I speak for C2H6O alias ethanol!

Man’s love affair with booze began more than 9,000 years ago, even before he first learnt the how-to-s of farming. According to a National Geographic magazine article, “the active ingredient common to all alcoholic beverages is made by yeasts: microscopic, single-celled organisms that eat sugar and excrete carbon monoxide and ethanol, the only potable alcohol. That’s a form of fermentation… But yeasts are diverse and ubiquitous, and they’ve likely been fermenting ripe wild fruit for about 120 million years, ever since the first fruits appeared on Earth”.

The article further goes on to argue that while to the modern man, ethanol may have only one compelling property, that is, it makes us feel good; to our fruit-eating ancestors, ethanol in rotting fruit would have served three other purposes. First, it would have a strong, distinctive smell that would have made the fruit easy to locate. Second, it would be easier to digest, providing them more precious calories. And third, its antiseptic qualities would have repelled microbes that would have otherwise sickened (and possibly killed) our ancestors. (So who knows: maybe human beings owe their existence to alcohol, after all! Oh OK, I am exaggerating.)

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It goes without saying that drunken behaviour cannot be condoned, and excessive drinking/alcoholism has brought rack and ruin to millions of lives throughout history. But, taken in moderation, can it have a life-giving quality? So thought the remarkable Benjamin Franklin, who once said: “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria.”

Of course, the purpose of life is not merely to live, for life means so much more. The great American writer F Scott Fitzgerald once toasted the spirits: “Here’s to alcohol, the rose-coloured glasses of life.” The same sentiment resonated in George Bernard Shaw. who compared liquor to chloroform that enabled the poor man to endure the painful operation of living. It may also provide a certain physiological precondition, which, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, is a prerequisite for art or for any sort of aesthetic activity, to exist.

Of course, while we may spend hours harping upon philosophical musings of our great minds through the ages, they would not appeal to a certain politician in Bihar. Although, I hope that that politician in question would be willing to listen to another politician… a certain Mr Abraham Lincoln.

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While addressing the Springfield Washington Temperance Society in 1842 on the eve of 110th anniversary of George Washington’s birthday, Lincoln created quite the furore when he openly criticised the heavy-handedness of the American temperance movement, castigating it as both impolitic and unjust.

According to Lincoln, “it is impolitic, because, it is not much in the nature of man to be driven to anything; still less to be driven about that which is exclusively his own business; and least of all, where such driving is to be submitted to, at the expense of pecuniary interest, or burning appetite. When the dram-seller and drinker were incessantly told, not in accents of entreaty and persuasion, diffidently addressed by erring man to an erring brother; but in the thundering tones of anathema and denunciation, with which the lordly judge often groups together all the crimes of the felon’s life, and thrusts them in his face just ere he passes sentence of death upon him, that they were the authors of all the vice and misery and crime in the land; that they were the manufacturers and material of all the thieves and robbers and murderers that infested the earth; that their houses were the workshops of the devil; and that their persons should be shunned by all the good and virtuous, as moral pestilences — I say, when they were told all this, and in this way, it is not wonderful that they were slow, very slow, to acknowledge the truth of such denunciations, and to join the ranks of their denouncers in a hue and cry against themselves.

“To have expected them to do otherwise than they did — to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation, crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal of human nature, which is God’s decree, and never can be reversed. When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim, that ‘a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall’. So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one. On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”

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Thus, what Abraham Lincoln said in so many words can actually be summed up in the words of Mark Twain: “Temperate temperance is best; intemperate temperance injures the cause of temperance.”

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