In 10 years’ time, Kerala is to be an alcohol-free state, following in the footsteps of Gujarat and Nagaland, which share with Kashmir the distinction of being states where officialdom frowns on tipplers. Those who visit these states are aware that more than a few residents are unable to abstain from their daily glass (of whatever size), and consequently, rely on time-honoured methods in order to gain access to some sort of fiery liquid or the other. Indeed, if Gujarat, which under Narendra Modi has been remarkably well administered, is to emerge as an Indian challenge to Guangzhou, its government needs to accept that human beings are not saints, and that commonplace behaviour prohibited by law will simply move underground (where the dangers to society are much more), rather than disappear. After the experience of Prohibition in the United States between 1920 and 1933, or that in Haryana under Bansi Lal in the latter part of the 1990s, it was hoped that policymakers would realise that enforcing a legal ban on alcohol simply results in an exponential growth of mafias, networks of criminals that specialise in providing bootleg liquor.
In the US, the banning of liquor immediately gave a boost to the Cosa Nostra, which enjoyed a huge spurt in profits as a direct consequence. In Haryana, police persons would accost motorists travelling from the international airport to Gurgaon, searching their luggage for bottles of alcohol, even though these would have been legally acquired through duty free outlets in the airport. A hundred rupee note would usually suffice to ensure a sudden attack of blindness on the part of the defenders of law and order, enabling the guilty motorist to scoot off home, where too he may face the occasional raid, this time, having to pay a considerably higher bribe in order to escape going to jail because of the small stock of whisky, gin and beer that he has kept at home for the occasional party.
Let it be admitted that this columnist has been known to not always refuse an occasional glass of red wine in the evenings, despite the warning by Moral Police (and in a few states by the regular police) that such indulgence may subject him to eternal damnation, although such dire prophecies may not be accurate. Let it also be said that he favours the legalisation and sanitisation through regular medical checks of prostitution, and the legalisation of the milder versions of drugs, just as he believes that it is not the responsibility of the state to peek into bedrooms.
Fed by television anchors eager to enforce a morality on the public that few within their own profession would be prepared to embrace, India has seen the rise of a high-decibel army of Moral Police, demanding jail even for those “guilty” of sneaking an occasional glance at a charming lady. They forget that by targeting such a wide range of human behaviour, as for example under present narcotics laws, they allow the escape of the few individuals who truly need to be focused on and punished: the child molesters and the rapists, several of whom have evaded prison because of the concentration of police attention being on far less consequential deeds, most of which would not count as such in any civilised country.
In the US, the absurd “Three Strikes” law and the India-style penalties even on the milder versions of drugs has meant a ballooning of the prison population and consequent disruption of the social fabric. India ought not to go down such a path. Instead, the country needs to be true to its own heritage of tolerance by adopting laws that accept that human beings have frailties, and that the law should enter only when these endanger others.
Unfortunately, Kerala — long seen as a more progressive state — has begun travelling in a regressive direction. Goaded by Saint Sudheeran, the local Congress party chief, who has taken over the mantle of beatitude from A.K. Antony, the Kerala government is to introduce prohibition in stages. In this, the Congress in Kerala is following the trail blazed by another Morally Policed state run by that party, Maharashtra, whose government wants to shut down bars and even ban dancing, so that the state Home Minister will be given a warm welcome at the hideout of Mullah Omar or Sri Ram Sene boss Pramod Muthalik, should he choose to visit either.
Add this to reports that the Black Money SIT wants Indians to be subjected to still more onerous conditions of travel and the conduct of business, so that only hardened masochists would wish to remain behind in India to conduct their trades or professions.
Factor in the numerous laws passed by the UPA that criminalise vast swathes of behaviour, and the outlook for ever becoming a 21st century country seems dim, unless Narendra Modi can rein in the Moral Police and insist on following through his promise of “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”. Over to the Prime Minister.