The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Coming down like a ton of bricks on adult beer-drinkers at a college social is only another form of unhealthy excess

Not being allowed to grow up, or refusing to grow up, could produce very peculiar people. Some senior students at a local engineering college had organized recently something as harmless as beer in their canteen to welcome freshers. This sent off some of their virtuous peers to complain to the authorities. Heads of colleges usually rule from a very high moral ground. So, there followed a probe into the matter. The catering agency’s licence was terminated and the canteen sealed, although the reasons behind this are disputed. In any case, outrage against the consumption of alcohol in campus was duly expressed. But this left a number of students — all of them adults — feeling indignant. Young prudes and elder prohibitionists are not pleasant people to have to deal with, particularly if one takes one’s right to be treated as an adult seriously.

This incident raises larger questions about prohibition and middle-class morality in Indian society, and how these affect the disciplining and behaviour of young adults of a certain class. First, selling alcohol to students who are older than 18 is perfectly within the limits of the law in West Bengal. Most sensible countries also make a distinction between fermented beverages and stronger distilled spirits when fixing the legal minimum age for buying or drinking alcohol. Beer belongs to the first category, and countries like Germany and Switzerland allow its purchase from the age of 16. So, these students have actually been held up for something that is not at all illegal. The only rules that they have broken are of the college, and it is perhaps time these were looked at again.

Alcohol elicits an automatic moral shudder in most respectable Indians. Drinking is a “vice”, like gambling and prostitution. Alcohol, it is believed, can only be consumed in secret and in immoderate quantities, leading to unruly behaviour (usually of a sexual nature), general ruin and cirrhosis of the liver. The villain in popular Indian cinema is forever reaching out for his Johnny Walker or Vat 69, usually before setting out to molest the heroine. This taboo, and the frisson which every taboo generates, creates a peculiar culture of furtiveness and sleaze around the consumption of alcohol in middle India. Liquor shops look like little prisons from which men carry away swiftly-wrapped-up bottles; most ordinary city bars are taken to be dens of vice in which it could be difficult for women to relax with a drink on their way home from work.

And this is precisely the point. Drinking could be a perfectly harmless and civilized social activity, free of the taint and menace normally associated with it. It is also possible for a sensibly non-prohibitionist society to maintain checks on excess and unruliness among young drinkers — by testing drivers and severely punishing the drunken ones, for instance. Coming down like a ton of bricks on beer-drinkers at a college social is only another form of unhealthy excess.

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