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Constituent Assembly debate on alcohol consumption

The principles of liberty dictate that a man, in his capacity, without hurting the rights of other, is privileged to make his choices himself, without any outside coercion.

Consumption of alcohol was as debateable while forming the constitution as it is now. People drink to celebrate, to relax, to repress their thoughts and so on. Although it has its pros and cons, alcohol is still looked down upon in the country. The matter of whether ban of “alcohol and other drugs” should be a part of Constitution was discussed, in what can be called a rather heated debate, on November 24, 1948.

It was fascinating to note that the members disapproved of alcohol for the cause of effects it has on individuals themselves. Although Shri B. G. Kher (then Bombay General) while speaking for ban of alcohol, mentioned the gratitude of families whose members before the ban ‘used to drink them to death’, the spotlight maintained on the long term affects of alcohol on the consumer himself.

The motion was to amend Art 38 of draft Constitution which read, “shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption of intoxicating drinks and drugs which are injurious to health except for medicinal purposes”. Shri BH Khardekar (Kolhapur) introduced the motion stating that the arguments put forth to pass the ban were rather flimsy. He explained in great detail how Gandhism would treat this issue and that it’s about hating the sin and not the sinner. Khardekar was attempting to draw the distinction between the inward and outward approach of Gandhism and called prohibition as the outward approach. He said Gandhi being a Gita-student professed that although there is one truth it is of grave importance that everyone shapes their own path to it. It can be deduced that he proposed that it’s up to the will of people to decide. The government cannot spoon feed its way to public welfare.

The principles of liberty dictate that a man, in his capacity, without hurting the rights of other, is privileged to make his choices himself, without any outside coercion. In the wider sense Khardekar was pointing at the welfare nature of state and believed it created unnecessary restriction on free will and liberties. He quoted GB Shaw, “examine, test and then accept” and criticised the ban saying that citizens are not cattle to be hoarded around. The welfare state looks for an overall development of the citizens and increasing the number of restriction and limiting the scope of free will hinder that development.

No matter how strong and ‘futuristic’ his views were, Khardekar failed to make a mark on the assembly. His point was singlehandedly flogged by Shri Jaipal Singh (then Bihar General) who called alcohol to be a vicious element. He contended that alcohol is neither required for religious purpose nor is it the only mean of recreation. He further added that government sometimes, on the course to protect the welfare of individual, has to limit their rights so that the code of civil society is maintained.

A very intriguing point was that before the British invasion these so called vicious-elements were alien to the population and so it only seemed fair that with the departure of British, these things should also leave the country. Again, intriguing but futile. The argument was based on the notion that items like whiskey, beer, wine-the bottled liquour- was introduced by British; the assembly did not consider materials like bhang that prevailed in the country as “intoxicating drink which are injurious to health”.

Further, economically the country was at such a point that giving absolute liberties on certain issues will only result in the downfall of the societical order. Not to ignore the crimes that follow after indulging in such activities. Although, it was marked out that only a minuscule of the entire drinking community indulges in such activities.

It was observed that while imposing the ban might be seen to be a little authoritarian but the consequences of not taking any action appeared far abhorrent. The motion was hence passed. Presently it is part of DPSPs under article 47.

Now the fact that ban on alcohol consumption was introduced as a part of Directive Principle of State Policy speaks a lot about the intention of the legislature. Article 37 clearly states that though DPSP cannot be enforced in the court of law, they are, nonetheless, fundamental in governance. It means although the constitution imposes a ban on alcohol consumption, its implementation is such that one cannot enforce it in the court of law. Following which the government took various steps to clearly state its intention; the Karnataka Prohibition Act 1962, Bombay Prohibition Act 1949 and other such acts are individually introduced by respective state governments. These acts not only define the age limit but also the consumption limits of alcohol. They also state the procedure of acquiring liquor licence, it shall be noted that no person can sell, import or manufacture alcohol without the prior permission on concerned authority. And to show its concern on the matter, the Government via the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2000, completely prohibits cigarette and alcohol advertisements.

While few states like Gujarat, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland have a complete ban on consumption altogether, some States interpret Article 47 in the manner to not ban the but merely regulate it; The Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) is owned and operated by the Government of Tamil Nadu, which has a monopoly over wholesale and retail vending of alcoholic beverages in the state.

It appears to be a “safe-step” on the part of the legislature to incorporate these provisions. Merely to avoid handling the negative consequence that maybe created by a very small percentage, this provision ceases the right of choice altogether. And the fact that alcohol is still present in the country, available at the mercy of Government, it can very well be questioned that whether the intention of legislature was truly public good? As rightly put by Benjamin Franklin, “any society that gives up a little liberty to gain a little security deserves nothing and will end up losing both” and the more liberties are scarified, the less would be the development of society.

Ruchita Sharma is an intern at the Takshashila Institution.

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