Death Sentence In An Excise Law! Nitish Creates A Monster Anti-Liquor Law

by R Jagannathan - Apr 6, 2016 04:58 PM +05:30 IST

Death Sentence In An Excise Law! Nitish Creates A Monster Anti-Liquor LawNitish Kumar
    • Bihar has passed a draconian law, which aims to prohibit consumption of alcohol by prescribing even capital punishment in some cases.
    • This is another classic example of a weak state enacting draconian laws because it is unable to enforce even basic law and order with normal laws.
    • Such power into the law in a state like Bihar will surely lead to abuse and entrapment of many innocents – and more jungle raj.

Bihar has probably scored an unholy first. It has amended its excise laws to prescribe capital punishment – yes, hanging – in one extreme case where the consumption of hooch results in deaths. Seldom has an economic law been used to prescribe capital punishment in any country.

The Excise Amendment Bill 2016, which was passed last week by the Bihar assembly to impose prohibition in the state, also prescribes life imprisonment for liquor makers whose booze results in permanent disabilities for drinkers; and there’s 10 years of jail for being involved in an illegal liquor trade, seven years for the crime of selling alcohol in the guise of medicine, a similar time for involving women in the liquor trade, and five years if your drinking at home causes a public inconvenience.

To say that this is a draconian law would be an understatement, and it can be safely predicted that it will fail. While there is a good chance that the law will not pass judicial muster, the very fact that it has so much public support shows the bankruptcy of Nitish Kumar’s politics. This law is about populism, not about reducing the ill-effects of drunkenness and related problems.

Just as Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis sullied his image with a beef ban law that may ultimately fail the judicial test, Nitish Kumar’s liquor ban treads the same territory of illiberalism and populism without any thought about the consequences.

That the state may lose over Rs 4,000 crore in revenues from liquor, or cause job losses in this trade is almost beside the point. States do have the right to lose revenues if they think the sacrifice is worth it and results in other positive externalities – social benefits, or fewer crimes against women.

But the real reason to oppose Nitish Kumar is this: enacting a law that can never be properly enforced, and whose enforcement will itself lead to more crime, is counterproductive.

This is yet another classic example of a weak state enacting draconian laws that can only be subject to misuse and corruption. Worse, it can make Bihar even more amenable to jungle raj, as only the mafia can stand up to draconian laws.

Weak states enact strong laws because they are unable to enforce even basic law and order with normal laws. Thus, whether it is tackling terrorism or crimes against women or atrocities against Dalits or – now – enforcement of prohibition, we build such power into the law that it will surely lead to abuse and entrapment of many innocents apart from a few of the guilty.

Instead of gathering evidence against law-breakers, strong laws are used as a shortcut to show results to the voter. We routinely arrest suspects before gathering foolproof evidence; we announce confessions that won’t stand in a court of law; we stage fake encounters against those who we know may be guilty but are unable to find enough evidence against, and so on.

The Bihar prohibition law is one more law in this category that can only lead to tragedy.

Weak states opt for strong laws for two reasons: one, it enables politicians to show they mean business without actually strengthening the law enforcement machinery or giving the police autonomy; and two, when citizens demand action against specific criminals, the law helps the police achieve quick results by arresting someone immediately. Once the uproar dies down, the criminals will get bail and be let out quietly.

The collateral damage is done by jailing innocents or those against whom cases are not iron-clad.

Bihar is treading down the same path, and that too with one of the weakest law and order machineries in the country. A year or two from now, Nitish Kumar will find that he has failed to shove prohibition down his people’s throats. There will be widespread anger against the misuse of the law.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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