Mumbai based documentary filmmaker Preeti Chandrayani was arrested and jailed because she was accused of possessing alcohol without a permit. I know Preeti through her films and am friends with her brother. And from all that I know of her this arrest makes no sense what so ever. The Mumbai Mirror aptly titles it’s story Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid.

Briefly, this is what happened: Preeti makes chocolates as a hobby, and some of these contain alcohol. It seems the authorities were “tipped off” that Preeti was hiding 20 litres of alcohol in her apartment, and she did not possess a permit for it. She was arrested and had to spend a night in jail.

As a friend rightly pointed out, some people have more alcohol than that in their mini-bars at home, this over reach by the authorities is difficult to comprehend, even if they seem slightly apologetic about the arrest:

The Excise officials this newspaper spoke to said they “sympathised” with the ‘accused’. An Excise Inspector said, “Obviously we realise the person in question is educated, and the family is honourable. But there was a tip-off… we don’t go around raiding people’s houses. It’s a case of ignorance of law, but we have to do our job.”

What is this law, they are referring to? Turns out it’s a law enacted in 1926 which says one may not possess alcohol without a permit. So the context for this puzzlingly over-zealous action by the authorities lies in the 1920s.

The twenties was a time when prohibition movements came to the fore. Usually started by nationalist leaders like Gandhi and Gokhale, and social groups like the Kayastha Conference. They saw alcohol as a “foreign imposition” that sullied Indian culture. (Go here for an account of alcohol consumption and more)

The twenties was also a time when the colonial government created labor camps for the so-called“Criminal Tribes.” Alcohol plays an important cultural role in many of these communities. The case that I am most familiar with because of a recent film project is that of the Chharas. Weddings were one of the things we witnessed in Chharanagar, Ahmedabad, where the film is set. Chhara weddings cannot be solemnized without alcohol. It’s an important part of their cultural practice.

In the Chhara case, the prohibition movements and colonial policies found a happy convergence. Alcohol was criminalized in society, and concurrently, the government incarcerated huge numbers of people for belonging to a “Criminal Tribe” who were now also criminal for a cultural practice, among other things. There is very little recourse to justice for a community that is oppressed by both the colonial government AND the national elite.

Using alcohol as a tool of oppression has a long history in India, as most DNTs (De-notified Tribe) will tell you. What is new is how it is being used in 2012 on non DNTs. What are we to make of this new development other than the fact that the oppression of DNTs affects us all.