On August 10, Madhya Pradesh amended its century-old, colonial Excise Act of 1915 to legalise and profit off ‘Heritage Liquor’, or liquor produced by tribal communities, and prescribed the death penalty to deter the production of spurious liquor. An opportunity to dispose of colonial and casteist oppression in the law has instead capitalised it.

The manufacture and consumption of alcohol is central to the culture, religion and economy of several Adivasi communities, as well as Vimukta or denotified nomadic communities that were originally listed as ‘hereditary criminals’ under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. British colonial authorities characterised tribal alcohol consumption as a social ill.

However, in their ‘civilising’ mission, they instituted a regime of monopolising and taxing alcohol trade to line British pockets with windfall profits. Consequently, the MP Excise Act, 1915, is a marriage of market and colonial morality. It imposes a centralised and commercialised state monopoly over the production and sale of alcohol, and criminalises alcohol possession and public drinking.

Criminalising tradition

Adivasi and Vimukta communities have been excluded from participating in the legal alcohol economy through the Act’s centralised regulation and high licensing and deposit fees. Moreover, these communities have also been criminalised by the law’s design for possessing or manufacturing traditional alcohol that is neither harmful to human health nor a threat to commercial industries. These communities are routine police targets under the Act for baseless accusations of sale, or vague and often incorrectly invoked provisions relating to illegal possession and public drinking.

A study on the implementation of the MP Excise Act by the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project found that 10 of the 11 corporations licensed to manufacture country spirit in MP are owned and run by individuals or families who belong to upper castes and privileged communities, while at least 55% of the individuals arrested under the MP Excise Act across nine randomly selected districts belonged to Scheduled Castes (10%), Scheduled Tribes (22%), Other Backward Classes (16%) and Vimukta communities (7%). Only 4% of the individuals arrested belonged to the upper castes.

Similarly, at least 56% of the individuals implicated in First Information Reports under the Act across three randomly selected districts belonged to marginalised caste communities. Seventy four percent of such FIRs – every three of four FIRs studied – involved trivial and non-commercial quantities of desi liquor ranging between 1-10 litres.

Thus, the colonial-era state monopoly of regulation and licensing has allowed economic exploitation through alcohol trade, and the caste hierarchy determines who may profit from such exploitation. Furthermore, the deep roots of caste prejudice in policing and the colonial characterisation of Vimukta communities as ‘hereditary’ or ‘habitual’ criminals results in the routine persecution of marginalised caste communities under the Excise Act.

Excise policing

MP has the highest number of arrests under excise laws in the country at 105.6 per 1,00,000 persons.

Interviews with former undertrials belonging to Vimukta communities such as the Kanjars and the Kuchbandhiyas reveals that these communities are habitually targeted and falsely accused by the police to extort bribes. These bribes range from Rs 15,000 to Rs 1,00,000 for offences under Sections 34(2) and 49-A of the Act, both of which impose high penalties with long periods of incarceration.

When an individual is arrested under the Act, bail is expensive and often accessible only through the High Court. More importantly, the arrest or the FIR becomes etched in the individual’s permanent criminal records and lends weight to their false criminalisation as a ‘habitual offender’. Criminalisation of offences under the Act with high penalties therefore provides leverage to the police to extort large sums from marginalised caste communities.

Such targeting is aided by wide police discretion, incentives for mukhbirs (informants) and heavy reliance on a set of ‘independent’ witnesses for all cases under the Excise Act. A study by the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project found that mukhbirs’ accusations were the primary initiation for subsequent policing in 89% of the FIRs. The mukhbir is vital for the exercise of police discretion as they need not be named as a complainant in the FIR.

Similarly, excise policing relies on recurring seizure witnesses, presumably for ‘convenience’, although the law mandates that witnesses must be independent, as a check on the police’s wide powers. In the study, at least two stock witnesses were constantly present in excise-related FIRs filed in several police stations between 2018-2020.

Knee-jerk reaction

Excise policing is therefore steeped in the systemic institutionalisation of caste prejudice, manifest in the large number of unnecessary arrests and the questionable modus operandi of the police.

The amendment could have been an opportunity to decriminalise non-harmful, cultural activities related to alcohol possession and manufacture or public drinking, particularly when pertaining to desi liquor of trivial quantities. Instead, the amendment has added leverage to the police’s powers over marginalised communities by introducing the death penalty for spurious liquor. The high penalty is, to an extent, a knee-jerk reaction to recent deaths from consumption of spurious liquor in Mandsaur and Indore. However, both tragedies involved alcohol sold in government licensed shops.

The introduction of ‘heritage liquor’ is welcome. However, the rules drafted to regulate the sale of such liquor must ensure that communities’ rights are protected and that licensing fees are low so that marginalised communities, who scarcely have economic resources or access to capital, may participate.

Additionally, Vimukta communities, despite being tribal communities, are varyingly subsumed under the General, Scheduled Caste and Schedule Tribe categories. They will therefore not be able to participate in the heritage liquor economy unless they are explicitly recognised as distinct communities who must be classified as Scheduled Tribe. Only with decriminalisation and the inclusive participation of Vimukta, Adivasi and Dalit communities in the alcohol regime may we finally shed off the casteist and colonial oppressions of the MP Excise Act.