Now that the media has had its bellyfull of ACP Vasant Dhoble, and the dust has settled over his actions, it’s time to grab the opportunity he has given us to look at ourselves, our morality and the law governing the imbibing of spirits. Police high-handedness is an old story, but this old law is a new story.
Before us are three clear issues. One relates to the Bombay Prohibition Act that was promulgated 63 years ago, the second to the licenses pubs and individuals must possess to serve and have drinks, and the third to the rights of two sets of citizens — one whose social life begins after nightfall in the watering holes of the city, and the other whose social life ends at nightfall between the covers of its beds.
But before we even begin to juggle these issues, we must acknowledge the presence of a larger moral force that looms behind laws governing tippling in all cultures. Moral disapproval stems from a fear of substances that have the power to sever human action from a sense of responsibility, whether towards ourselves, our families or our fellow-citizens.
Driven by this moral force and prodded by people’s movements against drinking, of which women everywhere have been flag-bearers, governments have sought to rid society of the evil by introducing prohibition. But America’s experiment with it offers the most reliable template for the consequences that follow.
Prohibition, hailed as a ‘noble experiment’, was introduced in the US in 1919 through the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. During the 13 years that it remained in force, Americans continued to drink. Liquor to slake their thirst was smuggled in from Mexico and Canada by mafia syndicates.
Speakeasies mushroomed, crime rose and obliging doctors, ready to give their ‘patients’ a prescription for alcohol on health grounds, proliferated.
Finally, economics and pragmatism overrode moral judgement. The Great Depression hit America. People needed jobs and the government needed money. Alcohol brewing was capable of providing both. So in 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed and alcohol consumption made legal again.
The Americans are cut and dried about these things — study case, apply mind, see solution, act. We aren’t like that. We never focus both eyes squarely on a problem that involves the law of the land.
We use one eye to wink and the other to threaten. When the Bombay Prohibition Act came into being in 1949, the threatening eye first geared up for action. Tipplers were segregated from the rest of the janata in the permit rooms of restaurants. Citizens lined up in doctors’ clinics for a prescription to drink.
A law-abiding citizen of our acquaintance who had run out of his permitted quota of liquor, fobbed off his thirsty dinner guests with Vasaka Cough Syrup (55 per cent alcohol) served in wine glasses.
But soon, the winking eye took over from its companion. Law-breakers became a source of bonus incomes for the khaki-clad. As the years progressed, and the threatening eye snoozed peacefully, the citizenry forgot the Bombay Prohibition Act.
They forgot the liquor-serving, hafta paying aunties of Dhobi Talao. They forgot the poisonous hooch once brewed by the dons of Dharavi. Fear of the law faded giving way to a new effulgent sense of freedom. Till ACP Vasant Dhoble came along with a copy of the Prohibition Act, now restored to its original power, tucked firmly in his pocket.
So this is where we now stand. If the law has been kept alive for 63 years, there’s no reason why it will not sail into the next century as is. Of the many benefits we do not receive from our government, one is that there is no system whereby laws automatically come up for review every couple of decades or so.
After all, laws are not religious tenets carved in stone forever. They are there to guarantee the rights of citizens. If morality has changed, as everything does with time, and drinking has become an accepted way of hanging out with friends, our laws must make allowances for the new phenomenon. It cannot remain blind to the existence of disposable incomes, an inevitable product of a free economy.
But changing laws is utopic thinking. The ground reality is that tipplers and liqueur chocolate makers, home drinkers and party throwers, will henceforth need to possess liquor licenses, so that, when ACP Vasant Dhoble comes calling next, he can leave his hockey stick by the door and sit down with you to tea and permits.