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Indian institutions, as I have said before in this column, have long been criticised for their failure to achieve important tasks: schooling, sanitation, law and order, that sort of thing. But they excel, puzzlingly, in announcing prohibitions.
The country is suffering an epidemic of regional or national bans that are often controversial and rarely enforceable: on alcohol, beef-eating, certain books on Hinduism, spitting, passionate kisses in James Bond films, beach picnics, sex in hotels, and now — judging by the arrest of a student leader for sedition — free speech.
Some bans are merely misguided responses to tragic accidents. After 14 students from Pune drowned on a beach outing, local education officials told schools and colleges not to organise picnics at dangerous beaches, rivers, lakes, wells — or hillocks.
Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar, says he is responding to the pleas of the state’s long-suffering women by banning the alcohol consumed by their drunken menfolk.
Yet such prohibitions have a poor record in India, depriving states of tax revenue and driving consumers to dangerous home-brewed hooch. Smuggled booze is easily obtainable in Gujarat, the prohibition-bound state of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In Nagaland, another supposedly dry state, drinkers publicly quaff beer diverted by army officers from military supplies.
Legal prohibitions are typically accompanied by complex and sometimes comical exemptions for the wealthy that increase the opportunities for corruption. Madhya Pradesh in Central India is planning to allow the rich to keep 100 bottles of alcohol at home (up from just two at present), provided they earn more than Rs1m a year (£10,300), pay an annual fee of Rs10,000, and each bottle costs at least Rs1,000. Enforcement, clearly, will be difficult. In Bihar, a minister lamented that it would hard to ban so-called “English liquor” because “elite people” such as lawyers needed to drink expensive wine to get a good night’s sleep.
Occasionally, however, there is a more sinister aspect to the bans announced since Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party swept to power in the 2014 general election.
Just as the Islamist, Pashtun-led Taliban in the Afghanistan of the 1990s banned everything from drinking and music to kite-flying, pigeon-fancying and cockfighting — making themselves thoroughly unpopular in multi-ethnic Kabul — so a minority of Hindu fundamentalists have sought to impose their puritanical vision of society on a secular nation of 1.3bn people.
Taken individually, these illiberal acts do not so far amount to much in such a large and diverse country: a ban on beef here, a police raid on hotels frequented by unmarried couples there. In a village in Gujarat, the local headman has prohibited single women from having mobile phones on pain of a fine, saying that girls would be better off studying than surfing the internet.
But the official assault on free speech at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University — where student union president Kanhaiya Kumar has been detained under a colonial-era sedition law after a demonstration against the death penalty and the chanting of “antinational” slogans — has prompted outraged protests from liberals who say they fear the dictatorial tendencies of Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.
Everyone has ideas of what they would like to ban. Indira Gandhi, as prime minister for the Congress party, banned elections, civil liberties and the constitution when she proclaimed a state of emergency in the 1970s. For my part, after seeing fields, rivers and towns across the country littered with discarded plastic tea cups and polystyrene plates, I would like India to ban disposable tableware. All disposable plastic, in fact.
Still, I know it is difficult, and I urge Indian governments, local or national, to follow three simple rules the next time they contemplate another round of implausible prohibitions.
First, do not try to ban something for political or communal reasons when it makes no sense for society at large. Second, enforce properly any ban you do announce. And third, do not announce any ban you cannot enforce. Obey these, and some of those bans might actually work.