Womaniya empowerment | How prohibition has overturned the gender dynamic in Bihar’s villages

Image credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Image credit: Shoaib Daniyal

“If we see any man drunk now, we make him do utha-baithi” or squats, said Sushma Devi belligerently as the women of her village behind her nodded approvingly. “And if he still doesn’t listen, we get together and slap him, even whack him with a jhadoo [broom]. We women are quite clear: there will be no drinking in our village.”

Sushma Devi is the head of a woman’s self-help group in Khaje Etwar Saray village, Nalanda formed under the Bihar government’s rural livelihood programme, Jeevika. The women of the village had effectively implemented prohibition two months before the state law kicked in on April 1.

“Now we have our own identity,” continued Sushma, wagging her finger. “Earlier people would address us as someone’s wife or mother. Now people call me by my own name, ‘Sushma Devi’.”

Bihar’s new prohibition law has popularly been described as “draconian” in the English-language press. A new law, passed by the Assembly on August 1, makes the penalties even harsher, imposing near-arbitrary forms of collective punishment. Yet, while the mechanics of the law have been highlighted, the social drivers behind it have been less so. On the ground, prohibition is being pushed by an unprecedented political mobilisation of Bihari women. Whatever the actual effect this law will have on the availability of alcohol, by making the state bend directly to the voice of rural women, it has fundamentally changed the gender dynamic in Bihar’s villages.

Gandhian programme

Alcohol was always seen as a social evil across large parts of north India. Mohandas Gandhi, who ensured that the Congress dominated India’s Hindi-speaking belt for most of the 20th century, did not harbour much ahimsa towards alcohol, proclaiming, “If I was appointed dictator for one hour for all India, the first thing I would do would be to close without compensation all the liquor shops”. (This was a point Nitish Kumar made sure to emphasise as his government closed all liquor shops in Bihar without any compensation.) Even at the other end of ideological spectrum, when Kanshi Ram, founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party started his movement in Uttar Pradesh in the 1980s, abstinence from alcohol was one of the first mass programmes he picked up in order to attract Dalit women.

In fact, driven by Gandhi’s ideology, Bihar did see prohibition being imposed in 1979. But ideology is often not good politics and attacked by drinkers and the powerful alcohol industry, the Bihar government hurriedly dropped its prohibition plans within a year.

What changed in 2016 vis-à-vis 1979? Gandhian morality was now backed in Bihar not only by pious intent but also a strong female vote bank.

The group of women in Khaje Etwar Saray who implemented prohibition in their village.

The group of women in Khaje Etwar Saray who implemented prohibition in their village.

The emergence of women in Bihar as a political block has been in the works for some time now. Since 2007, the Bihar government has been organising rural women into self-help groups under its rural livelihoods scheme called Jeevika. The aims of Jeevika are non-political consisting of offering micro-credit, skills training and social education to groups of women. Yet its scale means that it has mobilised women as never before. By 2015, Jeevika had connected 45 lakh households, meaning approximately one fourth of all Bihari women had been taken out of their houses and were now mobilised into groups called VOs or Village Organisations.

Nitish Kumar first announced that he would introduce prohibition on July 9, 2015, in Patna in response to a question from Sushma Devi at a Jeevika programme. “Sushma stood up and asked Nitish when he’d go beyond advising people to give up alcohol and actually put in a law,” said Santosh Kumar, social development manager of Jeevika in Nalanda district. “In response, Nitish promised that if he was voted back to power, he would introduce prohibition. It was there that prohibition as a campaign promise was first announced for the 2015 Assembly election.”

Feminist prohibition

The support for prohibition amongst Bihari women is stark. In Khaje Etwar Saray, Sushma Devi claims banning alcohol has benefited them hugely. “The environment was scary earlier. Women would face violence at home as well as in the village. Drunks would harass us if we went out into the field to relieve ourselves. We wouldn’t let girls study earlier. Our honour is everything for us. But after sharab-bandi, prohibition, there is security for women. And there is more money for food and education.”

Claimed Sushma: “Once we had organised into groups, we made sure that no one drank in the village. We went and smashed the alcohol-making equipment used by the Pasis”, a toddy-tapping Dalit caste.

With tacit support from the administration, Khaje Etwar Saray’s women implemented their own vigilante prohibition two months before the law came into effect. And even today, prohibition in the village is stricter than the law. While, legally, toddy is not covered under prohibition, the women of Khaje have made sure even that is banned in their village

Sunita Devi, also with Jeevika in Khaje, is more than pleased with turn of events: “In the next election, we will vote for Nitish babu. He has changed our lives. No one could have thought women could do so much.”

A Jeevika poster explains how the women of the village can enforce prohibition.

A Jeevika poster explains how the women of the village can enforce prohibition.

Vote bank

It seems the carrot of Sunita Devi’s vote is what has primarily driven Nitish Kumar’s calculations; much more than the stick of any ideology. Kumar’ first term actually saw him promote liquor significantly, attracted, like all states, by the impressive excise duty from it. Kumar’s government ensured that official liquor outlets in rural Bihar tripled from 2006′-07 to 2012-’13. Between 2008 and 2013, Bihar’s excise revenue went up by more than five times. By the time Bihar went to the polls in 2015, around an eighth of its revenues came from excise duty alone. Kumar’s move to, therefore, forego this chunk of money is a risky move.

This is why Kumar is putting his all behind prohibition, hoping that its social impact will help him tide over the shortfall in money – and patronage. In a law passed on August 1, various forms of collective punishment were recommended to enforce prohibition. All adults of a family could be held responsible if liquor is found in a house, the house itself could be confiscated and the collector was empowered to levy mass fines on villages.

Urban Bihar is up in arms over the law that, according to BJP legislature party leader Sushil Kumar Modi, “contravenes the fundamental right of an individual”. But its impact on Bihar’s rural women – who see the village and not the individual as the fundamental block – seems to be mostly positive. At Kalyan Bigha, Nitish Kumar’s home village, Radha Devi says it is a family’s duty to keep their house alcohol-free. “If even one house is drinking, then the whole village gets sullied,” she said. “If a woman’s husband is drinking it is her duty to the village to call the helpline and complain.”


Santosh Ram enjoyed his evening tiple but now – driven maybe by the social stigma against alcohol – publicly claims to support prohibition

While rural drinkers chafe under the new law, the social stigma against drinking the law has built up means few can oppose it with any force. In Balwapur village, Santosh Ram, admitted that he loved to drink – but then also quickly followed that up with praise for prohibition. “I would return home drunk, so my wife complained to the VO [Jeevika’s village organisation] which then chastised me,” said Ram, grinning sheepishly. “And now there is no alcohol to be bought anyway. So I am happy. There is peace in the house and we have more money.”

Supressing legitimate dissent

Men do complain about prohibition, but rarely openly. “What is wrong if I work all day and I have a quarter?” asked Ramu Prasad from Champapur village. “I don’t beat my wife or create a ruckus. I just drink and go to sleep.”

Will he put across his objection to the women’s groups in the village who enforce prohibition? “Of course, not,” he said, frowning. “They won’t listen to me. I only said it because you asked me.”

While this social stigma against drinking in rural Bihar has meant that Kumar’s prohibition drive has been surprisingly successful till now ­– it has also allowed legitimate voices against the policy to be gagged. Kumar’s government encourages women’s groups to sometimes physically smash liquor-making equipment and sales points. Of course, the structure of the Bihari village means that this is invariably the property of the most powerless Dalit castes ­– what are now known as Mahadalits. While the social impact of prohibition has empowered many Backward Caste women, giving them an unprecedented voice in village affairs, it has also meant a further weakening in the economic position of many Mahadalits for whom making and selling liquor was an important economic activity.

The next part of this ground report looks at the impact of prohibition on Bihar’s Mahadalits.

This article is by Shoaib Daniyal for Scroll.in