A mud-filled road from Purvi Unta on the main Jehanabad town road leads to a small slum cluster of Musahars, with two rows of shanties separated by a narrow lane. Most of the men here pull thelas or work as daily wagers to make a living. About one-and-a-half months ago, Mastan Manjhi and Painter Manjhi were arrested from here, allegedly drunk. On July 10, the brothers became the first in Bihar to be convicted under its prohibition act, sentenced to five years of rigorous imprisonment and fine of Rs 1 lakh each.
When police came looking, says Siyamani Devi, wife of Mastan (39), she tried arguing with them that the two brothers had had toddy, which is not banned. Kranti Devi, wife of Painter (36), also pleaded with them but police ignored their pleas, she says. Now, scared of any visit by outsiders, the two women are still in shock over how quickly the events unfolded. The men were in jail since their arrest on May 29, 2017, when, before the family knew it, the matter was put on trial. Jehanabad-based lawyer Manoj Kumar Singh fought their case for free. With three policemen appearing as witnesses, Jehanabad Additional District Judge Triloki Nath Tripathi held Mastan and Painter guilty of drinking liquor under the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016.
The state government calls the law “a tool of social reform that would address not just domestic violence but raise nutrition level in family, that will save on liquor money to spend on milk and fruits”.
Milk and fruits are far from Siyamani and Kranti’s minds. With their small savings fast running out, the two have already borrowed about Rs 2,000 from their neighbours and brothers, and worry constantly about where their next meal will come from. They try not to think that this could last the next five years and that, if they are not able to arrange the Rs 1 lakh fine — as seems likely — Mastan and Painter will spend a sixth year in jail.
Both Mastan and Painter have three children each, between the ages of 8-14, and were the sole earning members of their families. The children only occasionally go to school, and mostly for the mid-day meal. At other times, they help out at home.
“Ye kanoon gareeb aur Mahadalit ko marne ke liye banayi gayi hai. Ameer to bade wakil kar bach jayega, mara to hamesha gareeb hi jaata hai. Do thela chalanewale ko saja dilwakar mukhyamantriji ko kya mila? Ye kaisa kanoon ki sharir ka dard door karne ke liye do ghoont piye to paas saal jail (The liquor law has been made only for the poor. The rich will hire good lawyers and escape, it is only the poor who will get punished. What did the CM achieve by putting two cart-pullers in jail? What kind of law is this that drinking two drops of toddy to relieve one’s pain can land one in jail for five years)?” says Kranti, consoling daughter Nitu, 11, who is sobbing.
Neighbourhood women gathered at Kranti’s 8 ft-by-8ft jhuggi ask if drinking is as big an offence as rape and murder. The guilty can be fined, but why jail them, they say.
The family has no money to approach the high court to challenge the conviction. Siyamani takes out the visiting card of a Patna-based high court lawyer, Krishna Prasad, who has offered to fight their case for free. Prasad says he has been studying the verdict and believes he has a strong case to defend the two brothers.
Manoj Kumar Singh, who represented them in the Jehanabad Additional District Judge’s court, says, “There were serious loopholes in the judgment as no exhibit (not even a breathalyser) was presented before the court, which based its verdict on a blood report showing presence of alcohol and testimony of three policemen. Why were there no independent witnesses? Why was no attempt made to ensure if it was toddy or not, or if the breathalyser was working?”
Prosecution lawyer Sanjay Kumar defends, “There was presence of alchohol in blood and the accused could not prove why police would malign them.”
Mastan and Painter’s mother Dematiya Devi, 68, says the family has been living on the government land where their jhuggis are for over two decades, but had not yet got “patta (title)” under the Mahadalit Vikas Yojana to raise their houses. They have ration cards on the address and voter I-cards, says Dematiya, who has four other sons, who also pull thelas and live in the same area. Her husband Rajendra Manjhi died 15 years ago.
The Mahadalit Vikas Yojana was started in 2009 with the objective of providing three decimal land to over 2.5 lakh homeless Scheduled Caste families. Nitish Kumar had carved out the category of Mahadalits from Scheduled Castes.
Over 25,000 people have been booked so far under the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, of whom 16,000 are in jail. The police and Excise Department have seized over 20 lakh litres of liquor.