ADDRESSING AN Independence Day function earlier this week, Gopalganj District Magistrate Rahul Kumar spoke about how the administration had successfully implemented the ban on liquor, and claimed they had conducted 667 raids and 157 arrests so far. But the situation on the ground tells a different story.
In Khajurbani, a settlement of Mahadalit Pasis and some OBC groups, the smell of mahua — a flower used to brew illicit liquor — is overpowering. Most of the 16 who died in the suspected hooch tragedy are said to have consumed liquor from this area on the night of August 15. After the deaths, police conducted raids and seized at least 300 litres of country liquor.
Some bottles were hidden under mud floors of the verandahs, courtyards and backyards of houses. Others were seized from near a rivulet, the spot where a group of people are suspected to have gathered to drink on Monday night.
Small bamboo pieces by the side of the rivulet served as “markers”, indicating where the liquor stock was hidden. A liquor manufacturing unit, hidden behind some shrubs, was located nearby.
At one house, police found at least 100 bottles, hidden in three trenches, each about three to four feet deep. Three brothers living in the house, Sanjay, Dhananjay and Kanhaiya, are among the six who have been arrested so far.
Many of the other Pasi families in the area have abandoned their houses since the suspected hooch deaths.
“The DM came here on Wednesday evening. We told them that about 20 people from the area were involved in the country liquor business… We leave the Pasis alone as we can be charged under the SC/ST Act,” said Manoj Sharma, a blacksmith living in Khajurbani.
While the police and excise department officials claimed to have conducted frequent raids at Khajurbani, residents said there had been no raids since the liquor ban in April. “At times, we would see police drinking with the Pasis. How can there be arrests when you are so friendly with the police,” said a resident.
Although the Nitish Kumar government has issued notices to half-a-dozen villages for not following prohibition orders, Khajurbani is not among them. In fact, there are other areas in Gopalganj, like Ekdebra, another Mahadalit settlement, which continue to defy the liquor ban.
With Gopalganj district sharing an 85-kilometre border with Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL) is also available in the area. On August 3, police at the Jalalpur post in the district seized 9,000 bottles of IMFL from a truck, which was shown as carrying sacks of rice. “This shows how liquor is brought in on the basis of receipts which show fake consignments,” said a police source.
There are also reports of liquor flowing in from Haryana, through the UP border. At least three people involved in smuggling IMFL into the area are reported to have political connections.
In Harkhua and Nonia Toli, which reported five deaths each, the anger is evident. Accusing the police of “shielding liquor traders”, Rajesh Kumar, a resident, said: “Did the police have to wait for the deaths to conduct raids? Nitish Kumar must not preach lessons on the liquor ban. He should first try to implement it in Bihar, or let people drink”.
Meanwhile, Nitish said today that “irrespective of post-mortem reports, nobody will be shielded.” All the 25 police personnel, including 15 officers, of the local police station have been suspended for dereliction of duty.
“The state government has to take serious note of the incident… People have to be vigilant as police checking is not possible everywhere,” said RJD chief Lalu Prasad.