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Ed. Note: In June, the Indian state of Maharashtra passed a new law raising the legal drinking age to 25. Critics, including Bollywood actor Imran Khan, argue the decision infringes on the rights of state residents. NAM contributor Sandip Roy says the new law marks a definitive shift toward what he calls the “Mommy State,” in which the government is the final arbiter of public behavior and private morality.

We can’t have it both ways.

We can’t tell the world, “We are all grown up now. Stop lecturing us about how to live our lives. My GDP is bigger than yours” and then turn around and treat our own citizens like infants who can’t be trusted for two minutes on their own.

Bollywood actor Imran Khan put a high-minded gloss on his public Interest Litigation (PIL) about raising the drinking age to 25 in Maharashtra. It’s not about drinking, he said. Of course, everyone knows you shouldn’t drink irresponsibly. Of course, everyone knows alcohol can be dangerous. He’s fighting for “the youth’s freedom of choice.”

But mommy state thinks otherwise. The youth, especially in the big cities, are too free. Too much choice, not enough mommy.

Forget that these bans, these arbitrary age limits can backfire and lead to bootlegging and black-marketeering.

Don’t drink till you are 25 in Mumbai. Don’t dance in bars in Bangalore. Do drag women out of pubs in Mangalore. (Of course, political parties have no problem pulling teenagers out of school and dragging them off to rallies and then to make things worse, not giving them a ride back.)

Forget that these bans, these arbitrary age limits can backfire and lead to bootlegging and black-marketeering. Forget that it will be one more way for crooked cops to get a little extra to look the other way. Forget that the autonomous International Institute of Population Sciences survey of youth in Maharashtra found only 3% of the boys who were interviewed drank more than once a week. And the figure for girls was zero. (I am not sure exactly who they were interviewing but that’s another story.)

What’s next? A ban on tight clothes for women? On cell phones since that’s how young couples get in touch with each other for a clandestine rendezvous? Oh, we already have those bans. We just call them the khap panchayat.

The larger issue here is as a country we just refuse to grow up. It’s natural to want to protect your children. But at some point they need to learn how to make choices responsibly. And to live with the consequences if they don’t. You can’t do that by just taking away their choices. There is life outside the shelter of the pallu. And 21 is not too young to live it.

The fuss over the drinking age limit is a bit of a storm in a beer bottle. In the end it probably won’t amount to much. In his press conference while filing the PIL, the Times of India reported Imran Khan was asked about his opinion “on the totally unrelated but hotly debated issue of homosexuality.”

Actually the two are quite related. The law about homosexuality was about the state meddling in what people did in private. Until the Delhi High Court struck down the ban on consensual gay sex, this too was a law that was on the books, rarely enforced in reality. It didn’t stop gay sex. It was just the handy bogeyman that cops could invoke to crack down on gay men. It was the excuse Kiran Bedi used to stop NGOs from distributing condoms in Tihar Jail.

The mommy state will always say “Chhi chhi, good children don’t drink, smoke, or do nasty sex things with each other.” But they do.

Iran is learning that the hard way. What they have is the disastrous combo of a resentful young urban generation and a state that’s breathing down their necks. No parties. No rock music. Islamic Revolution by intravenous drip. But as Roxanne Varzi showed in her book Warring Souls what they have gotten are rising rates of suicide, drug use and sex outside of marriage. Lack of sex-ed in class didn’t create an abstemious society. However it did mean more back-alley abortions. Iran has created an urban generation obsessed with materialism. In a country steeped with the rhetoric of martyrdom, a Luis Vuitton bag has acquired the halo of a resistance fighter.

In India, where the mother is sacrosanct, the Mommy state is even more invidious. It lays down the law but wraps it in Nirupa Roy-style sanctimoniousness. It’s anxious to control what you drink, when you drink, who you talk to, whose hand you hold in the mall, who you dance with, how long you dance. All in the name of your own good.

Somewhere alongside the hand wringing about the evils of alcohol and traffic accidents there is the veiled warning. If you don’t listen to us now, don’t blame us when big bad Daddy comes along and pulls you out of the pub by your hair and beats you up in public and drags you home. Why don’t you understand? This is for your own good, baba.

The final message boils down to the same thing — you are not old enough to be trusted. So Big Amma is watching. She says she is watching over you. But she’s watching nonetheless.
This drinking ban is just another baby step towards that Mommy state.

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