India: Bootleg Booze, the Subtle Genocide
It was Mahatma Gandhi’s firmest belief that the prohibition of alcohol would create a society unburdened by addiction, weakness and the sins of clouded judgement. In reality, it has become a death penalty for the country’s poorest and most desperate.
India still sanctions capital punishment, but rarely executes it. In the last decade, a mere three of its estimated 477 death row prisoners were actually put to death.
With international approval for death sentences waning, this isn’t surprising. Even in trigger-happy America, the execution rate has sunk to just 43 in each of the last two years. Considering there are thousands of people on death row, this number is significant.
However, just because state-sanctioned methods of disposing of people might be in decline, isn’t to say that there aren’t more subtle, indirect means of social purging.
Allowing the nation’s poorest to be poisoned with concentrated methanol…for example.
This is obviously a hefty allegation. And it would be inappropriate to intimate that the Indian government is consciously finding other ways of putting people to death. But, sometimes, inaction in the face of atrocity, is just as deplorable as the act itself.
In One Fell Swoop
More than 40 people have died in Uttar Pradesh in the last week, over the course of the Hindu festival of Dussehra, thanks to a particularly caustic brand of “moonshine” – black market alcohol. A comparable number remain in a critical condition, many with liver failure, or having permanently lost their site.
This is actually a relatively low figure, compared to the 180 that lost their lives in Bangalore in 2008, or the 169 who died in Bengal in 2011, for the same reasons. Compare those stats with the death penalty figures and consider that the only crime, ostensibly, committed was the purchase of alcohol that hadn’t been subject to national standardisation controls.
India’s history of prohibition – the illegalisation of the manufacture, sale and distribution of non-medicinal, non-industrial alcoholic substances – is long, influenced by religion and championed by one of the nation’s most celebrated public figures.
Mahatma Gandhi – father of Indian independence, exponent of non-violent civil disobedience and author of every over-shared Insta-quote that doesn’t hail from Confucius – became he standard-bearer for Indian prohibition.
The state does not cater for the vices if its people. We do no regulate or license houses of ill fame. We do not provide facilities for thieves to indulge their propensity for thieving and perhaps even prostitution. Is it not often the parent of both?
India, thanks in large part to Gandhi’s very public pronouncements, became one of the only countries in the world to have the principles of prohibition written into its constitution. Article 47 of the Directives of State Policy, drawn up to legislate a newly independent, post-colonial India, says: “The state shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the use, except for medicinal purposes, of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.”
By 1954, a quarter of India’s population were under prohibition. These days Gujarat, Mizoram and Nagaland are the only states to totally observe “Dry Laws”, but alcohol is in short supply in other states and certain religious and public holidays are still alcohol free.
However altruistic the principles behind Gandhi’s anti-alcohol stance, the reality of prohibition is dire.
Where there is interdiction, there will always be a black market. Human beings are hard wired to try and circumvent anything seen as restricting freedom of choice. And a gangster is a gangster, obviously.
In states where prohibition is total, bootleggers import illicit alcohols from other states and many produce their own. These alcohols are often supplemented by “fortifiers”, such as lead, arsenic, benzodiazepines and, most damagingly, methyl alcohols from industrial substances, such as cleaning fluids. These additives are designed to strengthen the moonshine, to give you more bang for your buck, but they are incredibly harmful and in the wrong quantities, lead to massive internal damage and, often, death. One bad batch can kill hundreds, as we’ve seen.
The most unsettling fact about these poisonings, is that the victims largely hail from India’s most vulnerable communities. In states which do not observe total prohibition, bootlegged booze is much cheaper than state sanctioned products – often a tenth of the price. Considering that around a third of India’s citizens live below the poverty line – with an income insufficient to provide them with enough food to live – the appeal of cheap moonshine is understandable. It is an accessible escape.
Gandhi envisioned prohibition as a cure for the mistreatment of women. As we’ve seen from recent, horrifying stories of attacks and gang rape, India certainly has a huge problem in its approach to women, particularly in the male approach to sex and the female body. It was Gandhi’s theory that making alcohol illegal eliminated the issue of drunk men harassing women in the street.
What he did not envisage, however, is that increasingly available moonshine, with alcohol in much more concentrated and toxic levels than anything state controlled, would generate even more violent and unpredictable behaviour than before, and that this violence would take place, in large part, behind closed doors, where less can be done to cease or prevent it. Young women might, arguably, be safer in the streets, but wives and children have become silent victims in their own homes.
There are many problems that result from prohibition. It gives rise to mafia and gangster behaviour, for one. In the words of author Peter Williams: “Prohibition made the gangster not just well paid, but well liked.”
And with gangsters come human trafficking, exploitation, drugs, murder and the exacerbation of corrupt practices among government officials.
It also prevents the effective treatment of alcoholism. With alcohol use made illegal in certain states and still carrying a stigma in most others, alcohol dependence is either unlawful or immoral, which means that there are very few adequate programmes for combating it.
In a four-to-five year follow up survey, conducted at a hospital in Bangalore, Sharma and Murthy found that 11.3% of those who had come in with alcohol dependency, and could be traced, had died. Most patients were middle aged or younger, making this a particularly worrying statistic.
By far the biggest issue with prohibition, though, is the pattern of its victims.
In trying to legislate against substances that are “injurious to health”, the country has promoted the production of things which have far more grievous and toxic properties than previously imagined – essentially, poison.
And who is suffering and dying as a result? The poor, women and children. The vulnerable and the dispossessed. The people who already need help. The people who, controversially, in some people’s eyes, are the largest drain on government resources. The very people that Gandhi was attempting to save, but that a government subject to continual allegations of corruption and inappropriate behaviour is seemingly choosing to ignore. You do the maths…