In striking down the Bihar Excise Act which bans the sale of liquor across the state, the Patna HC has set the cat among the pigeons. By being cheeky in challenging the ban as a violation of basic tenets of the Constitution, the judgement calls into question whether arbitrary and malafide acts can be justified in enforcing prohibition and deny citizens equality before the law and their liberty. The subject is bound to become a cause célèbre, more so because the Supreme Court upheld not so long ago the controversial “Liquor-Free Kerala policy” which the previous government had enforced, but only to the extent of bringing certain restrictions on the sale of liquor in “God’s own country”.
Where Bihar may have triggered the raising of such basic legal questions is in its draconian enforcement procedures by which everyone in the household of a drinker may be imprisoned. In the land of Gandhi in which it is the accepted principle that social benefits of temperance should be a directive aim of the state, it is hard to argue, particularly on the Mahatma’s birthday today, even against a failed policy initiative like prohibition.
Public health concerns and the collective good should overrule all arguments for responsible drinking that most governments in the world, including the few remaining diehard Communists, try to promote just as they notch up the revenues from stiff taxes imposed on alcoholic drinks. While each Indian state is free to pursue its own doctrine in this matter, why the issue has become such a convoluted issue is because political parties try to woo about half the population by the promise to ban liquor. What should in theory be a great social aim has been sidetracked into a circus even as tipplers say “cheers”.