Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh: For the last 30 years, A*, a member of the Kuchbandiya community, made a living by brewing and selling alcohol derived from the flower of the mahua (Madhuca longifolia) tree. “Aadhi zindagi toh police, court kacheri ke chakkar mein nikli ja rahi hai. (I’m spending half my life in police stations and courtrooms),” she said.
Since 2019, A* has been booked in five cases under section 34 of the Madhya Pradesh Excise Act, 1915, for unlawful manufacture, transportation, possession and sale of illegal alcohol.
The 55-year-old said her family brews alcohol from mahua in very small quantities, making just enough money to survive. “Hum koi mafia nahi hai jaisa log samajhte hain (we are not a mafia like people perceive us),” she told Article 14, sitting on a dhurrie spread on the floor of her decrepit brick and mortar house in Jabalpur city’s Kuchbandiya colony, located in Ghamapur, in the heart of the city.
The Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project (CPA Project), a Bhopal-based research and advocacy group, said in a 2021 report titled ‘Drunk On Power’ that members of the Kuchbandiya community, a vimukta jaati or denotified tribe, are especially targeted for police action in some districts of the state, and women are targeted more frequently than men.
The denotified tribes (DNTs) were categorised thus because they were ‘notified’ as ‘born criminal’ communities during the British regime under a series of laws beginning with the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. Living in mostly nomadic or semi-nomadic groups, members of the DNTs continue to face discrimination though the Indian government ‘denotified’ them in 1952.
Among the 1,094 arrests in cases related to excise between 2018 and 2020 at the Ghamapur police station in Jabalpur city, 57% involved Kuchbandiya individuals. Additionally, 441 of the 509 women arrested in Ghamapur in these cases in the same period belonged to the Kuchbandiya community.
Three years ago, in March 2019, A* and four members of her family were booked under section 34 A of the MP Excise Act even though her husband and children were not involved in the liquor brewing or sale. “The policemen asked me for Rs 3,000 as a bribe, but I did not have any money to pay,” she told Article 14. “As a result, they filed a case against us.” She said policemen physically assaulted her during the two months she spent in judicial custody. “My left leg was injured, and I still have problems walking,” she added.
Lawyer Nikita Sonavane, co-founder of the CPA Project, said denotified communities continue to be deemed 'hereditary criminals' by law enforcement agencies. “They are disproportionately accused, monitored and regulated by the police, especially women from these communities,” she told Article 14.
According to A*, every week, four or five officials sought bribes from them. “We are unable to pay everyone, that is why they file cases against us.”
She said policemen also threaten to book them in more cases if they try to contest in court the charges filed against them. “They say they will file cases under 49 A of the Madhya Pradesh Excise Act next time,” she said. This section pertains to penalties for distributing liquor that is unfit for human consumption or containing spurious ingredients, a charge that carried a maximum sentence of 10 years until this section was amended in August 2021. After the amendment, the maximum sentence, in cases involving a hooch-related fatality, was raised to capital punishment or life imprisonment.
According to members of the Kuchbandiya community, fighting a legal case is a difficult, expensive prospect for them, every case setting back a family by up to Rs 25,000 in court fees and lawyers.
In 2021, in Hoshangabad district, 80 km southeast of Bhopal, employees of a liquor shop attacked women of the Kuchbandiya community. After abusing and assaulting women for allegedly brewing illegal liquor in the Kuchbandiya locality, they went to the police station. At the Seoni Malwa police station, the men claimed that they had been assaulted by the Kuchbandiyas for trying to take action against illegal liquor with the help of excise department officials.
Amendment Of Excise Laws In Madhya Pradesh
In August 2021, the Madhya Pradesh legislature amended the Madhya Pradesh Excise Act, amending section 49 A to say that in case of a death on account of consuming spurious alcohol, the accused would face the death penalty or life imprisonment.
“Ham chhote mote case lad nahi paate, agar faasi wala kanoon laga diya toh hamara kya hoga? (We are unable to fight even small cases. What will happen to us if we are booked under a law prescribing death by hanging),” said Dayal Kol, a member of the Kol tribe and an agricultural labourer living in Sidhi district.
B*, who also lives in Jabalpur’s Kuchbandiya colony, was unnerved by the addition of the death penalty to the excise law.
Despite paying money to authorities regularly, she said, every woman in her mohalla (colony) faced at least three or four cases under section 34 A of the law. “It happens often that police target us, even if they don't get any alcohol,” she said. “The police demand Rs 5,000 not to register a case against us.”
A senior official in MP’s excise department told Article 14 that the amendments made to excise laws were done with the objective of making them more stringent, “so that no one dares to make illicit alcohol”.
MP has in recent years recorded large numbers of deaths on account of illicit alcohol. According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, the state witnessed the maximum number of such deaths in 2020, or 214 out of 947 nationwide hooch-related deaths.
Under the amended section 49 A, if a person dies due to consumption of spurious liquor, the maximum punishment could be imprisonment or the death penalty, and a minimum fine of Rs 20 lakh. Asked about the impact of the amendment on communities that have brewed small quantities of liquor for decades, he said it is the courts that would decide if an accused person is guilty or innocent. The rules were designed to prevent the spread of hooch, he said, not to punish the innocent.
But the CPA Project found that in the past, cases were frequently filed under section 34 B of the law, a non-bailable section pertaining to importing, exporting, manufacturing or possessing over 50 litres of alcohol. If the case involved more than 50 litres of alcohol, the offence became non-bailable and accused persons would have to move court for bail upon being arrested
Sonavane said, “Having passed the new amendment, they are charging people under 34 A, but blackmailing people with (the threat of) a charge section 49, claiming that the alcohol was spurious.” This means the accused have to spend on court and legal fees to seek bail.
She said as a matter of practice in Madhya Pradesh, in excise cases, magistrates and session courts did not grant bail. “Therefore, the accused must go to the high court to obtain bail,” she said. “Bail in the high court is granted after a forensic laboratory report determines whether the alcohol was spurious or not.”
The state of MP has a single such laboratory, in Sagar, about 170km from Bhopal. On average, accused in such cases wait for a month or two for the report before they may be granted bail.
In December 2021, activists and members of two vimukta jaatis, the Kuchbandiyas and the Kanjars, wrote to CM Chouhan regarding the amendment of the law and insertion of the death penalty. “The provision of capital punishment introduced under Section 49 A is worrisome for our community,” the letter said. “Given the concerns of disproportionate criminalisation, we can expect that this provision would be misused against our community.”
Cash, Jewellery Taken During Police Raid Against Liquor
In January 2021 the police in the eastern district of Sidhi launched a campaign against the liquor mafia. Under the police’s ‘Abhiyan Sanjeevini’ or the Sanjeevini mission, police filed 300 excise cases in the span of two days.
Abhiyan Sanjeevini was launched to combat illegal drugs including marijuana and illegally brewed alcohol in the district, said Anjulata Patle, additional superintendent of police, Sidhi. “We take strict actions against drugs and alcohol mafias under this mission,” she said.
According to Patle, Adivasi communities are permitted to manufacture mahua-based alcohol up to a certain limit. “If anyone manufactures above the allowed limit we take strict action against them,” she said.
Under section 61 D of the MP Excise Act, the maximum limit for possession of ‘country spirits’ in the state is 4.5 litres per individual, 15 litres per family and, in special circumstances such as social or religious functions, 45 litres per family, provided these quantities are held by members of scheduled tribes in scheduled areas.
In January 2022, Ramkali Saket’s house was raided by police, allegedly after a neighbour tipped off police about alcohol manufacturing in the 40-year-old landless labourer’s house.
Saket, who lives with her husband, two sons and two daughters in Bhatha village, about 25 km south-east of Sidhi town, said that members of her community, a scheduled caste, were engaged in manufacturing alcohol from mahua for self-consumption during festivals, but that her own family has not been involved in the manufacture or trade of the brew for decades.
“Policemen heckled my son and ordered him to leave the house,” Saket said. “They then entered the house and took Rs 25,000 in cash and some jewellery.”
Her husband and she had laboured for years to put that sum aside for their daughters’ weddings, she said. “Woh log sab loot le gaye ek ghante me. (They looted everything in an hour’s time.)”
She told Article 14 that she went to Bahri police station to lodge a case against the policemen but nobody would take her complaint.
“If they came to raid our house to seize alcohol, they should have done that,” she said. “Which law permits police to loot our house?”
In response to a question about Saket’s allegations, Additional SP Anjulata Patle said the woman should have contacted the local police station, “and if the officers were not listening, she should have complained to us.”
Patle promised to look into the matter and take action. “Anyone harassed by the police should file a complaint with us,” she said.
A study by CPA Project found that between 2018 and 2020, 56% of all arrests in the state under the MP Excise Act were against members of Adivasi, Dalit, Other Backward Classes and denotified tribes.
‘Denotified Tribe Members Educated, But Unemployed’
C*, a 29-year-old Kuchbandiya who completed his BCom degree in 2015 and lives in the Narsinghpur district of eastern Madhya Pradesh, has often been asked by prospective employers to state his caste.
“Log jaat poochte hain, agar bata diye ki Kuchbandiya hai toh kaam pe nahi lagate (People frequently enquire about our caste, if we tell them we are Kuchbandiyas they don’t employ us),” he said. “We remain unemployed even though we are educated.”
Society remained suspicious of their community and believed they were criminals, he said.
Sanjay Kuchbandiya, a Congress leader in Jabalpur, said the community remained vulnerable on account of not being given equal opportunities. “Everything we do is unlawful in the eyes of the government, which is why we have to suffer so much humiliation,” he told Article 14.
According to Deepa Pawar, an activist and director at Anubhuti, an organisation of women who have faced discrimination on the basis of caste, class, gender, language and ethnicity, the denotified tribes are historically and culturally nomadic. “Nomadic denotified communities seek healthy rehabilitation, but the government is unwilling to take action," she said. “However, neither do they own any land nor do they have money to buy land.” They should be given land by the government, she added.
‘Heritage Wine’ In Dedicated Stores In Adivasi Regions
CM Chouhan announced the formulation of a ‘heritage wine policy’ in November 2021, ostensibly to bring mahua-based liquor into the mainstream.
He said the policy would ensure that those brewing liquor from mahua in a traditional manner would not be criminalised. “It will be sold in liquor shops under the name of heritage liquor, which would be a source of employment and income for tribal people who have been making and consuming it,” Chouhan had said.
A draft of the proposed heritage liquor policy was approved by the state’s cabinet committee in March 2022. Under the draft policy, tribals would be allowed to produce and sell liquor upon obtaining a ‘heritage liquor licence’. Based on demand, micro-distilleries with a capacity to brew up to 1,000 litres per day would be set up in tribal areas and dedicated wine shops would be opened in Adivasi areas, the policy said. These would be different from country liquor vends.
Alirajpur and Dindori districts of Madhya Pradesh were selected in the pilot phase to make heritage liquor from mahua flowers in micro distilleries owned by the government.
Mahua liquor must be sold with a separate permit, under the new policy. The production and sale of this ‘heritage’ liquor will first be mainstreamed in 89 tribal blocks spread across 18 districts, where production will take place, though sale will be enabled throughout Madhya Pradesh.
“Our society only makes alcohol from mahua and does not mix anything which is harmful,” said A*. “We also want a licence from the government under the heritage wine policy.”
Dayal Kol, 56, a member of the Kol tribe in the Kusmi block of Sidhi, works as an agricultural labourer when work is available. He said he brews alcohol in small quantities for self-consumption.
Kusmi is a tribal block located 638 km east of Bhopal.
Kol’s son, aged 25, found out from others on Facebook that the state government would issue tribals licences for brewing liquor from mahua. He wanted to apply for a licence, he said.
The licence would help him supplement his income. “After I get my licence, I will sell some alcohol in order to improve my financial situation."
He added that he hoped the government would ensure that policemen and government officials do not demand payments for issuance of the licence.
Ram Gopal Soni, a former additional principal chief conservator of forests, said the heritage wine policy could greatly benefit MP’s tribals if implemented properly.
His suggestions included introduction of quality control through a system of small cooperatives. “By doing quality checks, hooch tragedies will also be stopped,” he said.
Citing the book The Highlands of Central India by Captain J Forsyth, Ram Gopal said MP’s tribes make country liquor that is similar to Irish whiskey. He said this mahua liquor could be rebranded and exported.
*Some interviewees spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by the police.
(Anil Tiwari is a freelance journalist based in Madhya Pradesh.)