GOPALGANJ, Bihar -- For a few days after burying Rahman Mian, his entire family would leave their house upon hearing an approaching car, and run into the fields as fast as they could. "The police and administration had told us the entire family could be arrested and our house confiscated under the new prohibition law," says his brother Haider Ali. "That is why they asked us to not go in for a post-mortem."
The new prohibition law, recently passed by the Bihar assembly, has not come into force as the Governor is yet to sign it. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has promised the law won't be misused. But in Gopalganj, families of victims in the 16 August hooch tragedy say they were threatened with the new law.
Neighbours and time helped the family get over their fear. Rahman Mian, a tailor, has left behind five children. Their education, his wife says, is now under threat. Not being listed as someone who died in the hooch tragedy denies his family the Rs4 lakhs in compensation that the Bihar government has promised.
Keeping the numbers low
"Rahman Mian was referred to a hospital in Gorakhpur but died on the way. In the brief time that I was there at the Gopalganj district hospital, at least 3-4 people came with similar conditions. One man collapsed before my eyes. If 3-4 people came in the span of a few minutes, you can imagine how many must have died. The real number must be 60-70 but by threatening us with the new law they are saying these deaths were not caused by hooch," says his brother Ali.
The Bihar government says 16 people died in the incident, but families of victims and in fact nearly everybody in Gopalganj, says the actual number could be much higher. Local newspapers in Gopalganj have managed to verify 21 deaths. Everyone speculates what the number could be, as many families are still not speaking up.
A well-placed government source close to the investigations into the case confirmed that the number of deaths is much higher. But he wouldn't say how much, and asked not to be named, for fear of getting on the wrong side of the state government.
In the Islamiya mohalla of Gopalganj town, the family of Zahiruddin insists he died of an epileptic attack, and never had alcohol in his life. Since when did he have epilepsy? "Forever." Did the police come here? "Why would they?" Did you take him to a doctor? "He died at home before we could do that," says his wife.
Most neighbours say they don't know how Zahiruddin died, but sotto voce, some are willing to talk. "Of course he died of alcohol. He used to drink, yes, but he was the best tailor in town." Did he have epilepsy? "Not at all," says a neighbor and an old friend.
Bury him now, or else...
This reporter similarly went to the houses of Battees Mahto, Jhanjhat Manjhi and Sobrati Miyan, and they repeated the same story. Headache, blindness, blood in the eyes, hospital, referred to Gorakhpur or Kushinagar, returned to Gopalganj with the dead body, and then the threat of the district administration to jail all families and confiscate their houses if they demanded post-mortem or told anyone that it was alcohol that caused their deaths. These are some families that have decided to speak up in the hope of getting compensation, but we may never know how many have quietly given in to the administration's threat of arresting the whole family.
"We brought home the body at 1 am and two police cars arrived at 2 am. They told us to bury him within an hour otherwise they'd put us all in jail and confiscate our house," says the wife of Sobrati Miyan, a 40-year-old daily wage labourer.
In one case, the administration got a family to put the dead body of one Ramaji Sharma over the pillion of a motorcycle so that the media waiting outside may think he's alive. When the media realized they had been fooled and the administration's attempt was exposed, they recalled the body for a post-mortem.
Death by prohibition
The Bihar government has been saying only post-mortems can confirm if these were hooch deaths, but at the same time it did its best to not conduct post-mortems. The civil surgeon at the district hospital has gone on record to say he is under pressure, and will not divulge any details to the media.
It is not difficult to see why the Nitish Kumar government wanted to understate the figures. Had the headlines said 60 dead rather than 16, the criticism of his prohibition drive would have been much greater. On day one, he didn't even concede they were hooch deaths. The next day, he said they might have been caused by illicit alcohol.
It is clear how Nitish Kumar's prohibition policy caused these deaths. Families of most victims say the deceased used to drink pouches of country made liquor obtained from government-regulated shops, but began to go to Khajurbani village after prohibition.
In Khajurbani village, nine houses of the Pasi community, who were toddy tappers, used to make and sell country liquor. They didn't start doing so after prohibition, but had been doing it for decades, neighbours say. Their liquor never caused death, but what changed after prohibition is that spirit, a key ingredient, was no longer easily available. That is why, locals say, they were using harmful chemicals that made the liquor poisonous.
The Bihar chief minister's office did not respond to a request for comment.
District magistrate Rahul Kumar denies these charges. "Far from telling victims to not do a post-mortem, we went to them and prevented them from cremating the dead. We told them the bodies first need post-mortem, but some had already cremated. We have even included them in our count of 16," he says. A total of seven dead bodies underwent post-mortems.
"Those who say 40-50 have died, please give me the names and we will investigate," he says. He claims he has included as hooch death even those names who have given written or video testimonials saying their family member died of snake-bite or tuberculosis. Families of victims, however, say they have such testimonials under duress, threatened with the new prohibition law.
As for the families complaining, such as those of Rahman Mian, Kumar says there would be an investigation. "Even without a post-mortem, we will give them compensation if they died due to drinking at Khajurbani," he says.
Four survivors, three of who have lost eyesight, are undergoing treatment as the Patna Medical College and Hospital. Their families, too, say they fear arrest for the victim and their families under the new law, once they are discharged. "Human life is most important. We have been appealing to the people to come forward for treatment, help and compensation. No victim or their family one will be arrested," he says.