Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s decision to ban liquor in the state from next year may not have been unexpected but it is certainly disappointing. Buoyed by a massive electoral victory, Kumar would naturally be eager to fulfill his poll promises but the correlation drawn between domestic violence and alcohol is tenuous at best and one that has been disputed for at least four decades now.
Politicians feel a heavy lure to draw a link between alcohol and violence against women because such correlation is easy to remedy by slapping a ban--a solution that bypasses the more difficult problems of a brutal masculine culture that thrives on the subjugation of others, an enfeebled state where reporting crime is as an ordeal in itself, and a society hostile to victims of violence.
Statistics put out by the National Crime Records Bureau for 2014 show Bihar has a lower rate of crimes against women than Gujarat -- where prohibition has been in force for over half a century. In fact, Gujarat is much closer to Uttar Pradesh, often considered India’s crime haven.
(Amitabh Bachchan plays a drunk chasing the woman he loves in the 1984 movie Sharabi)
States where alcohol consumption is legal also place randomly when ranked on the basis of the rate of crimes against women--Assam leads the pack while Punjab has about a third of the rate, West Bengal is somewhere in the middle while the other northeastern states bring up the rear--indicating the culture and nature of law and order play a far greater role in determining the rate of violence against women than alcohol.
The prohibitionist argument assumes alcohol causes men to lose control over their faculties and thrash women, fritter away money and devastate children’s education. But what they often discount is the pervasive culture of impunity that allows these men to use alcohol as an excuse for violence, precisely because they know brutality in the domestic sphere is not frowned upon in India.
The absence of inebriation during most cases of rape, assault or molestation--a majority of such crimes are committed by people known to the victim--is proof enough to show that alcohol acts as a crutch, a cog in a giant wheel that is inherently biased against women.
Experts have repeatedly pointed out that a pattern of economic control, sexual violence, and intimidation are part of ongoing abuse that may have little connection to alcohol dependence. Women cannot report domestic violence or abuse cases because they know the police will either remain inactive, mock the victim or communicate the matter to community elders, which will further jeopardize the victim’s already vulnerable status.
This culture also emboldens the perpetrators, who know their actions have the stamp of approval from large sections of the society and even the government, which refuses to look into making marital rape criminal.
Thus, more effective tackling of crimes against women will reduce the menace, not a mythical connection with alcohol.
Lastly, while alcohol’s connection with crime may be tenuous, prohibition’s link with festering crime rings isn’t. The short-lived prohibition in the United States birthed the mafia and in India, death due to consumption of spurious liquor is by the hundreds, especially among the rural poor who don’t have the resources to access five-star hotels.
States that have banned alcohol have struggled to cope with bootlegging problems as prohibition merely drives the alcohol production business underground, making it impossible for authorities to regulate it for quality and authenticity. The free flow of liquor across state borders and crime syndicates is a common sight in “dry” Gujarat.
It is time we admit our demand for a ban on liquor is less to do with our desire for women’s welfare and more with our moral positions vis-à-vis drinking. Whether we think booze is right or wrong, alcohol doesn’t make men beat up women. Banning it for this reason is simply disingenuous.