The Madhya Pradesh Excise Act, 1915 is a seemingly neutral legislation that regulates the import, export, sale and possession of alcohol in Madhya Pradesh, through a license system. Upon scraping the surface of the legislation, the colonial and casteist nature of its enforcement becomes apparent – country liquor is disproportionately targeted, marginalised communities bear the brunt of criminality, and no difference is made by the police between criminalising commercial and non-commercial quantities of alcohol. Moreover, the rent-seeking character of the legislation is conspicuous as fines are sought to be increased through amendments. The vague allegations and standard templates of the FIRs under the Excise Act also reveal the manner in which the police exercise their wide discretionary powers.
As a criminal justice research and litigation intervention representing members of Vimukta communities and other Adivasi communities, we recognised that the Excise Act exploited colonial constructions of criminality and furthered such perceptions by particularly targeting certain groups. In the enforcement of the Excise Act, Vimukta communities continue to be regarded as ‘hereditary criminals’ and the police disproportionately accuses, surveils and regulates individuals, especially women, belonging to this community. The routine nature of violence under the Excise Act even during the 2020 Covid pandemic is evident given the time period of study (2018–2020). During the coronavirus-induced lockdown, the unnecessary and irresponsible incarceration of individuals under the Excise Act likely further impoverished and marginalised these communities, given high prison overcrowding and the associated health risks, the limited functioning of the courts, and the divestment of limited financial resources for hefty fines and court fees (at a time when no daily wager had livelihood).
This study is especially relevant given the large number of excise-related arrests in MP and the casteist implications of such arrests. In August 2020, the MP Legislative Assembly passed an amendment to the Excise Act, without discussion, to include death penalty and fines of up to Rs 20 lakh for certain offences.
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As part of this study, we analysed two sets of data: 5,62,399 arrest records from 20 districts across MP; and 540 randomly selected FIRs filed under the Excise Act from three districts in MP.
We found that excise-related arrests formed over one-sixth of the total number of arrests in MP, and were second only to arrests pertaining to the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The casteist nature of criminalisation under the excise legislation was starkly evident: 56.35% of those arrested belonged to SC (9.87%), ST (21.53%), OBC (15.64%) and Vimukta communities (6.86%); among the 562 accused persons in the FIRs, the SC, ST, OBC and Vimukta communities collectively constituted a majority of the accused, at 14%, 15%, 16% and 11%, respectively.
This report finds that the Vimukta Kuchbandhiya community is especially targeted in some districts, and that among Kuchbandhiyas, women are targeted frequently more than men. Of a total of 1,094 excise-related arrests in Ghamapur police station, Jabalpur, 57% involved Kuchbandhiya individuals. Of the 509 women arrested in Ghamapur, 441 were women from the Kuchbandhiya community. Some Kuchbandhiya women had been arrested 23–28 times, demonstrating the strong hold of the myth of the ‘historical criminality’ of certain communities (previously classified as ‘criminal tribes’ by the colonial state) on the police’s modes of functioning.
The lack of details in the FIRs regarding the specific offences one is implicated under is also a cause for concern. Over 18% of the FIRs studied do not provide details of the clause/s under which the individuals were implicated, leaving the accused at the mercy of unpredictable policing. In some cases, the FIRs merely mention that the accused were found inebriated in a public place; however, the police had filed FIRs under Section 36-B for this ‘offence’. The FIRs also reveal a template form: beginning with an informant’s tip, police officers reaching the spot of the ‘crime’, and subsequently questioning the accused regarding the licence to sell alcohol. The excessive reliance on the informant (‘mukhbir’) in excise policing raises several concerns about policing and police discretion. Further, since a substantial number of the informants are from the marginalised groups themselves, their work with the police to target fellow community members is likely a cause of conflicts and tensions within the community. The popular imagination of excise-related arrests is critically examined as the study finds that excise policing is most concerned with small volumes, and smaller monetary values, of alcohol. For instance, in most cases for possession and intent to sell alcohol, accused persons were apprehended for alcohol below 5 litre and under Rs 1,000 in value.
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In some districts, such as Jabalpur, private Bahujan spaces such as individuals’ homes became sites of criminality, as arrests were made for mahua found in the house. Non-commercial public spaces such as parks and grocery stores in neighbourhoods of marginalised communities were also common sites of criminalisation. This data lends itself to an understanding that the private is forsaken to state surveillance when the space belongs to marginalised individuals.
The study of FIRs found that several marginalised accused persons had been implicated in more than one FIR, further hinting at the colonial legacy of the perception of certain communities as ‘criminal tribes’. This phenomenon also raises concerns about the rent-seeking characteristics in the implementation of the excise legislation, as police officials and the lawyers who represent the accused stand to monetarily gain from the legislation’s enforcement.
The report is an exercise in exposing the casteist nature of incarceration in seemingly neutral legislation. As mentioned above, a large proportion of individuals criminalised are from marginalised communities, the police rely heavily on informant information rather than factual evidence, and private Bahujan spaces are more likely to be considered criminal. We hope that this report offers a glimpse into the economic and social implications of incarceration under the Excise Act, which disturbingly tends to be casteist and gendered.
Shreya Gajbhiye and Kanishka are students at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. Pallavi Diwakar is a student at the National Law University, Jodhpur. All authors are research interns at the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project (CPA Project), Bhopal.
This article is an edited excerpt from the authors’ paper ‘Drunk on Power: Excise Policing in Madhya Pradesh‘, first published by the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project (CPA). Read the full report here.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)