ANY LAW WHICH holds people guilty until they are able to prove their innocence is always a bad idea. It does not matter whether the charge is rape or terrorism, once the principle of assumed innocence (until otherwise) is turned upside down, everyone is potentially a rapist or terrorist as per the whim of a policeman. To crimes like these that arouse so much public anger that such laws are welcomed, Bihar has just added the drinking of alcohol.
This is what will happen in Bihar to people who consume, store or supply alcohol, as per an analysis of the The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Bill, 2016, by the research body PRS Legislative Research:
• ‘The Bill allows an authorised person to arrest the offender without a warrant’
• ‘…the Bill holds the following people criminally liable: Family members of the person (in case of illegal possession of alcohol). Family means husband, wife and their dependent children. Owner and occupants of a land or a building where such illegal acts are taking place. The Bill presumes that the family members, owner and occupants of the building or land ought to have known that an illegal act is taking place. In all such cases, the Bill prescribes a punishment of at least 10 years of imprisonment, and a fine of at least one lakh rupees’
• ‘Note that under the Indian Penal Code, 1860, an imprisonment of least 10 years is for crimes such as use of acid to cause injury, or trafficking of a minor.’
So, if a husband gets some hooch and stores it under the bed without his wife or mother’s knowledge, all three could go to jail for 10 years. If the same husband threw acid on someone’s face, he would go to jail for 10 years. What accounts for such absurdity? The general optimism of lawmakers that the more stringent a law is, the more people will be afraid to flout it. This might be true as a general case, but not always, especially if the crime itself is not really a crime. Anywhere in the civilised world, rape and terrorism is punished rigorously, but drinking, on the other hand, is a perfectly legal and pleasurable activity in most places.
Such a law might work in heavily policed societies like Saudi Arabia but unfortunately for the Bihar government, we happen to be a democracy and some of the biggest alcohol consumers are policemen themselves. If a policeman has a conscience, he would be reluctant to send a man to jail for 10 years because he had a peg or two, and if he does not have one, then he would extort.
And what would women voters, who Nitish Kumar had in mind when he brought in Prohibition, think of it when they can be punished for their husband’s alcoholism? Prohibition is hard to enforce, but to compound it by making people who drink alcohol hardcore criminals is a move that Biharis will regret. And at some point, so will the man who thought this up.