Most Mumbaiites, technically, break the law every time they grab a drink simply because they don’t have a drinking permit, a government license to consume alcohol as per the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949. If one wants to be a law-abiding tippler, one must head over to the Excise Station, where, under the watchful portraits of Hanuman, Shivaji, Ambedkar and – most relevant to this exercise – Gandhi, sub-inspector Shahji Shinde will make you one.
It’s a harmless process and takes all of 30 minutes, a limp vestige of a far stricter phase of prohibition that the city saw from the 1950s to the ‘70s. As Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet, set in Mumbai of the 1960s, hit the screens this week, here’s a look at the dark days of prohibition in the city.
Prohibition begins, as does so much else in modern India, with Gandhi. The Mahatma had some rather harsh views on alcohol consumption. In 1927, he was only being somewhat hyperbolic when he said:
“I would rather have India reduced to a state of pauperism than have thousands of drunkards in our midst. I would rather have India without education if that is the price to be paid for making it dry.”
Gandhi’s favourite piece of unsolicited advice to Dalits was to to give up the “serious defect” of liquor, after which, magically, caste distinction would disappear. In Harijan, 1934, he said:
“Many of them [manual scavengers] are given to the evil habit of drink. Drink is a bad, filthy, unclean, degrading habit. A man who drinks intoxicating liquor forgets the distinction between wife, mother and sister. I would beseech you to give up all evil habits, and you will at once find that you are accepted as honourable members of society without any stain on you.”
Following logically from this sort of paternalism, Gandhi was convinced that “innumerable human beings cannot be kept under discipline" to abstain from alcohol by themselves, therefore prohibition becomes our “duty”.
Prohibition was therefore a large part of the Congress’ ideology as it struggled for Independence. Picketing liquor shops, for example, was a major activity under the 1921 Non-Cooperation Movement.
In 1939, therefore, a Congress government in Bombay Province (consisting of modern-day Maharashtra and Gujarat) did its Gandhian duty by introducing prohibition. This didn’t last too long as the Congress soon resigned from office to protest India’s inclusion in World War II. Taking back control, the British immediately rolled back prohibition rules.
Independence came in 1947, which Mumbai’s tipplers maybe saw as a silver cloud with a dark lining: now there was no Raj to save them from the Congress’s puritanism on liquor. Sure enough, in 1949, Chief Minister Morarji Desai – about whom no easy “drinking” jokes will be made here – put in place the Bombay Prohibition Act which enforced prohibition in the state.
So strict were rules at the time that cough syrup and eau de cologne were banned since they contained alcohol. It would take a Supreme Court judgment to legalise “medicinal and toilet preparations containing alcohol”.
Soon after this act was passed, the Constitution came into force, enshrining prohibition as a Directive Principle of State Policy. Along with this, the entire country saw a support wave for prohibition develop. In 1954, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru appointed the Prohibition Enquiry Committee that was to design a plan to extend prohibition all over the country by 1958.
Back in Mumbai, things were stirring underground. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a city in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a drink – and no law was going to change that. Mumbai therefore took to more illicit forms of liquor. Bootlegging thrived and organised crime took over alcohol distribution. Since alcohol production was legal in large parts of the country, this law made very little difference to consumption other than forcing people to drink somewhat surreptitiously behind closed doors.
One interesting phenomenon that this give rise to was the aunty bar, Mumbai’s equivalent of a speakeasy. Run mostly by Goans, it consisted of informal bar, many a times in the outer room of a house, which sold locally brewed hooch. Ironically, Mumbai today has a few speakeasy-style bars, drawing on the memory of American prohibition in the 1920s, but seems to have forgotten its own aunties.
In 1960, Bombay Province was partitioned into modern-day Maharashtra and Gujarat. Inherited from Bombay Province, the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949 is still valid in Gujarat and the original rules haven’t been relaxed.
In Maharashtra, however, the 1960s saw a softening of attitudes towards alcohol. While the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949 was retained (and is still on the books today), a number of rules were tweaked to make prohibition less strict. Some of this change was driven by Gujarat going away, where social attitudes towards alcohol were harsher than in Maharashtra. Part of it was driven by Maharashtra’s all-powerful sugarcane lobby, who were looking to make extra profits by converting its molasses byproduct into alcohol.
In 1972, prohibition was abolished by introducing a permit system which allowed each person to consume a fixed amount of alcohol. The Bombay Prohibition Act, quite lyrically, allows the permit since liquor might be required for the “preservation or maintenance of health”. Who could disagree?
As a token mark of respect for Gandhi, though, prohibition was maintained in Wardha district where Gandhi’s ashram, Sevagram is located. The district still observes a complete ban on the sale, purchase, production and consumption of liquor – at least on paper.
Of course, the Bombay Prohibition Act still exists and if the state so wants, it can crack the whip. One such instance came up in 2012, as the Assistant Commissioner of Police Vasant Dhoble started to actually implement the the letter of the law, causing complete chaos since everyone had forgotten about them for four decades now.
Some of these provisions are patently absurd: for example, there is a legal requirement for a restaurant to have a segregated area to serve liquor. This is called the “permit room” where only patrons with alcohol permits should be served. Of course, very few restaurants have a segregated permit room and even fewer customers have permits.
A shocking example of this sudden zeal was that 55-year-old documentary filmmaker Priti Chandriani’s house was raided in 2012 and she was caught – red handed! – making liquor chocolates, for which, as it so happens, one needs a government license. This requirement – a permit for making and selling liquor chocolates – is laid out in Rule 6 of the Special Permits And License Rules of 1952, which Chandriani unsurprisingly skipped before setting out to cook.
Exceptions like 2012 aside, Maharashtra has let sleeping dogs lie and kept the uglier provisions of its alcohol laws dormant. Part of this reason lies in the economics of it: taxing alcohol earns a lot of money for Maharashtra. In fact, excise duty on liquor is the second highest earner for the state’s exchequer.
The economic clout of the alcohol industry was also why no Central government implemented a national prohibition law despite many platitudes to the concept right till the 1970s. But, of course, the idea of prohibition hasn’t completely gone away. Anna Hazare, star of the anti-corruption movement of 2011, had prohibition as a key part of his agenda in his model village of Ralegan Siddhi. And Kerala implemented prohibition in 2014, making sure to launch the policy on the 146th birth anniversary of the Mahatma.
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