Search

Now reading Behind India’s Alcohol Taboo

Behind India’s Alcohol Taboo

Behind the moral calculus that goes into deciding who can and cannot drink in India.

Not too long ago, I found myself doing some work for the wife and unofficial business partner of a wealthy Mumbai real estate mogul, the sort of mind-numbing, ego-bruising work that freelance writers pick up in slow periods and disown immediately afterward. At some point toward the end of the project, when my patience and pride had both worn thin, we ended up chatting inanely about Bollywood (which is probably the only way to chat about Bollywood). She said she thought the worst thing about the industry was the way it glamorized drinking and drunkenness.

“Really?” I asked, genuinely surprised. I knew for a fact this woman drank. “What about, l don’t know, the objectification of women? Bollywood’s role in reinforcing an aggressively sexist and oppressive cultural status quo?”

She dismissed me with a wave of the hand, as though I were one of her “domestics.” “Girls don’t take that seriously,” she said. “The problem is importing Western culture, like drinking. It’s bad for the youth.”

India’s relationship to alcohol is fraught, to say the least. The rising middle class, largely conservative, tends to view alcohol as a particularly pernicious foreign excess, associated with decadence and moral laxity. The summer after I moved to Mumbai—a city that, despite being as booze-fueled as any I know, still operates under the arcane strictures of a 1949 prohibition act—an assistant police commissioner called Vasant Dhoble came to brief notoriety thanks to his aggressive raids on bars and clubs around the city, particularly those frequented by upwardly mobile young people. Young women in Western clothes were a particular focus for Dhoble’s police cadre. While researching a story on the raids, I came across a Facebook page called “SUPPORT MR. VASANT DHOBLE,” which featured the following comment: “We aren’t against the Western Culture or nyethng. We just against those perv acts that take place publicly n wch r against our Indian culture.”

And yet, as my wealthy interlocutor pointed out, boozing also plays a prominent part in depictions of a certain kind of modernity in Indian cinema. Watch any Bollywood movie these days—or any music video from one—and likely as not you’ll see people drinking copiously. Even women, for whom alcohol is a far greater taboo than it is for men, are often seen downing shots in Hindi cinema, though it’s an act often associated with shame or rock-bottom moments. Alcohol is also commonplace in the Adivasi (indigenous tribes) and Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) communities across India. In small villages I’ve visited across the subcontinent, I met people brewing liquors from local grains. Many of these, particularly those made from rice in northeast India, are seriously delicious.

Mohandas K. Gandhi himself, as much a high-handed moralist as a visionary, was deeply abstentious, writing in India of My Dreams, “I would rather have India without education if that is the price to be paid for making it dry.” B.R. Ambedkar, the radically liberal drafter of the Indian constitution and the real father of rights for India’s poor and dispossessed, for his part saw no special evil in drinking. But as India moved through the twentieth century, it has consistently been Gandhi’s more moderate, easily digestible ideas that have formed the reference text for India’s nationhood. Today, four of India’s twenty-nine states—including Gandhi’s native Gujarat, reputed today both for its cultural conservatism and its much-touted record in economic development—operate under prohibition laws, as do a whole slew of cities, towns, and districts throughout the country.

The origins of those laws, like those of India’s many other bans, tend to be moralistic and, from my perspective, totally paternalistic, too. In Gujarat, prohibition laws tend to appease a large conservative Hindu vote bank (the state’s large Muslim population probably doesn’t object either). In Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram, small tribal hill states in India’s far northeast—about as far from Gujarat ethnically, culturally, and religiously as you could want—prohibition laws were passed in 1989, 1991, and 1995, respectively, thanks to the efforts of powerful, temperance-minded women’s groups, the same kinds of groups that rallied behind American prohibition back in the twenties. The taboo on alcohol, as with most taboos in India, is related primarily to protecting and propagating traditional family structures. When women’s organizations petition for prohibition laws, it’s usually with the argument—valid, but insufficient—that alcohol tears families apart.

At the end of last year, the southwestern state of Kerala, which clocks in the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in India, passed its own prohibition law in order to crack down on alcoholism. Mumbai’s own archaic rules are built around a complicated system of permissions, requiring individuals to possess drinking permits, issued, at least in theory, only for those with a demonstrable medical need for alcohol (the ostensible “need” would be management of alcohol dependency). These permits are pretty easy to come by now, though no one I know has one. Still, it’s worth noting that the original law makes an important exception for foreigners: our permits don’t have to be for medical purposes. Being foreign, we must already require alcohol. As foreigners we’re ineligible for entry into the traditional family system; in alcohol, as in so much else, the moral rules and cultural taboos simply don’t apply to us.

But then there’s the question of money. In Gujarat, where prohibition laws have been on the books since 1958, exceptions are made for bars at five-star hotels, a policy that lubricates the movement of international investment through the state and removes obstacles to alcohol for the wealthy, and also tacitly reinforces the idea that alcohol is for outsiders. (Foreigners can also acquire drinking permits upon arrival at airports in Gujarat.) Bootlegging and home brewing are also common practices that line plenty of pockets.

In Mumbai, the individual-permit rule is a common tool for cops looking to extort money from partygoers (both times I’ve bribed cops in Mumbai have been alcohol-related). The bureaucratic nightmare of acquiring the necessary permits to serve alcohol in the city also generates significant revenue, both for the state government, collecting on the steep costs of acquiring permissions, and by individual officials who can expedite the process at a cost.

In Nagaland and Manipur, rampant corruption and powerful insurgent groups on the ground make it easy to capitalize on illegal trade in alcohol. Both of the major towns in Nagaland have small but well known circuits of restaurant-bars that openly serve liquor—all they have to do is dole out cash to the Underground, a sort of shadow government operated by the insurgency. At the top of a bar menu in Nagaland’s capital city, Kohima, the management had written the following message:

Prices may Change suddenly and Without Warning. Prices change subject to:

–The Diligence of the Police Forces…

–The Dedication of the Underground Forces in Collecting Taxes…

–The Luck of the Smugglers…

                                                We drink like this only :) :) :) CHEERS!!!

Kerala’s new rules resulted in a prompt backlash from the tourism industry, the state’s second-highest source of revenue, after foreign remittances. (An acquaintance in Kochi, Kerala’s largest city, once described his home state as having a “post-office economy.”) It didn’t take long for the government to start backpedaling, relaxing the initial restrictions to allow low- and mid-range hotels to keep “beer parlours” on their premises.

Mizoram, probably the most intensely Christian place I’ve ever been—87 percent identify as Christian, including ethnic minorities living at the state’s geographic and cultural peripheries; much of the Mizo majority is evangelical—just last month lifted its seventeen-year-old prohibition law, despite pressures from the politically influential Presbyterian Church, in order to generate revenue. When I spoke to Mizoram’s excise minister, he told me that within a month of announcing the new law, which will allow government-operated vendors to sell six 750-ml bottles of hard liquor per month to anyone over 21 holding a valid permit, the department had received nearly 40,000 permit applications. (The total population in Mizoram is only 1 million.) The excise minister told me the state hopes to rake in as much as 400 million rupees, about $6.4 million, in the first year of liquor sales. “Even in the most advanced countries like the United States,” he told me, “total prohibition has been a failure.”

So what is the moral calculus that goes into deciding who can and cannot drink in India? In most places, alcohol isn’t banned, and the governments that have passed the bans come from various political fronts—this isn’t an especially partisan issue. But there are still all kinds of moral judgments associated with drinking, particularly with women drinking, a symptom of upward mobility and a clear danger to the old moral and cultural codes that define the Indian nuclear family.

So who, then, gets to drink, and who gets to decide, and who gets to claim the financial benefits? Is drinking, as the mogul’s wife said, glamorized? And if it is, why is it okay for her to drink, but not “the youth”? Is it because she’s rich? Is alcohol the purview of the “Westernized,” wealthy classes and of the visiting foreigners? What role should government play in regulating people’s morality? And can questions of morality ever really be seen in isolation from the economic stakes that animate them?

Whatever the answers to these questions may be—and they’re all old questions, difficult questions, none of them specific to India—it’s probably worth remembering that it’s not Dr. Ambedkar’s face on every single rupee note. It’s Gandhi’s.