Patna: It was a dark Diwali for the family of Suraj Ram, a landless Dalit labourer who died after allegedly consuming illicit liquor in ‘dry Bihar’. Ram’s family was not alone. There were 31 other families who spent the day in gloom and despair after the deaths of their sole breadwinners in the tragedy.
At least, 32 people, 17 in Gopalganj and 15 in West Champaran districts, have died after allegedly consuming illicit liquor since Wednesday night (November 3). Most of the victims were either landless farm labourers and small land-holding peasants belonging to lower castes in different villages.
This is the fourth such incident in the last one-and-a-half months. The incidents have exposed the Nitish Kumar-led National Democratic Alliance government’s failure to check and control the illicit liquor trade. According to reports, illicit liquor has claimed 95 lives since January. Despite Kumar declaring Bihar a dry state in 2016, country-made and foreign liquor are easily available.
“We have lost everything due to illicit liquor. There was no question of celebrating Diwali after my husband died after consuming spurious liquor a day before. It was a dark night for us. We will never be happy on Diwali,” Ram’s wife Rajmati Devi told Newsclick. A resident of Mangolpur, under Mohammadpur police station, in Gopalganj, she is worried about the future of her daughter Anita Kumari and sons Amrendar and Chuttu Kumar. “I don’t know how to manage the family because my husband was working hard as a labourer to earn livelihood. Now, I have to struggle for livelihood.”
Baliram Ram’s home in Mangolpur is clouded by sorrow. “I have lost my father due to illicit liquor. I spent Diwali in darkness. After consuming illicit liquor, my father complained of vision problems as soon as he reached home. His condition deteriorated very fast and he died before we could rush him to hospital,” Ram’s son Amar told Newsclick.
Blaming the government for not implementing prohibition and “allowing” the manufacture and supply of liquor, Amar said that his father would have been alive if Bihar was a dry state in reality. “If the police had enforced prohibition in the village and acted against the local liquor manufacturers, this tragedy could have been avoided. Thanks to the apathy of the local administration, illicit country-made liquor trade is flourishing in the area,” he said, adding, “despite knowing about the illegal liquor trade, the police haven’t acted against them.”
The scene was no different at the house of Mukesh Ram, whose son Saroj said illicit liquor had killed his father. “We have lost our breadwinner. My family was ruined by illicit liquor. Mukesh’s wife Parbhavati Devi said, “After my husband died, the local police have sealed our house claiming that they recovered liquor from a room. It is a baseless allegation. We were forced to spend the Diwali night in the open. Where will we go with small children? The local administration action has made us homeless.”
The families of Sikandar Ram and Jawahir Shahni, of Telhua panchayat, under Nautan block, in West Champaran, spent a dark Diwali as well.
Soon after the tragedy, the state government followed the customary practice of dismissing police personnel in the districts. Champaran Range DIG Parnav Kumar Parveen suspended Nautan police station officer-in-charge Manish Kumar Sharma and a constable. Gopalganj superintendent of police Anand Kumar suspended Mohammadpur police station officer-in-charge Sashi Ranjan Kumar and a constable.
The police, who have described the deaths as “mysterious” or “suspected”, are awaiting the post-mortem reports to reach a conclusion. However, the families of the hooch victims claimed that they died after consuming illicit liquor.
The angry families, who questioned the much-hyped prohibition, claimed that illicit liquor is available in the villages with some villagers openly drinking on streets and fields. There is no prohibition; “liquor is openly sold”, they alleged, adding that they are “threatened” by the powerful liquor manufacturers if they oppose.
“Prohibition is only on paper; the reality is different. Liquor is easily available and in demand. Powerful liquor traders are selling liquor and people are openly drinking and dying,” alleged villager Surendar Sahni in Gopalganj. “The local police hardly act against the powerful liquor manufacturers and traders despite repeated complaints. The police and other officials are minting money by taking bribes and allowing the manufacture and trade of liquor,” he further alleged.
Shahni is one of the thousands across the state who expressed helplessness. “Liquor is delivered at home if one has money. The sale and consumption of liquor have increased like never before. The police are behind the flourishing trade of country-made liquor in their villages and neighbouring areas,” said Ramesh Prasad Singh.
Villagers said that the tragedy could have been avoided had the police enforced prohibition and acted against the local liquor manufacturers and traders, claiming that its consumption, sale and production have increased in the last five years.
Opposition leaders have attacked Kumar with Rashtriya Janata leader Tejashwi Yadav directly blaming him for the deaths. “Five days ago in Muzaffarpur, 10 died after consuming poisonous liquor. Yesterday and today, 20 people died in Gopalganj. Today, again 13 people died in Bettiah. The police are cremating most of the bodies without conducting post-mortems. Isn’t Nitish Kumar, the chief minister-cum-home minister, beating his own drum on prohibition, responsible for the deaths?” he tweeted on Diwali.
Yadav, the Opposition’s leader in the Assembly, targeted Kumar again on Friday.
(“If you drink spurious stuff, you will die” – Nitish Kumar.
Under the rule of people who blabber about prohibition, more than 50 people gave died in the last three days. Instead of asking the administration and the police to take action against bootleggers, the chief minister continues to threaten drinkers.”)
Kumar has time and again reiterated stringent action against bootleggers and directed the state’s top police officers to identify persons engaged in the sale and consumption of liquor.