Prohibition debate missing out on larger picture

| M.R. VENKATESH
Published Jul 23, 2015, 11:37 am IST
Updated Jan 10, 2016, 8:38 am IST
For Rajaji, fighting the ‘liquor demon’ was a life-long passion
Rajaji
 Rajaji

Chennai: While DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi’s surprising announcement of intent that his party, if re-elected to power, would strive to enforce the dry law in toto has fired the ‘prohibition debate’ in Tamil Nadu to a new argumentative level, political parties in their hurry to score brownie points in a pre-election year seem to have missed the wood for the trees. Everybody is agreed on the evils of drinking and how it could ruin family structures. But visibly, the lack of a larger narrative threatens to reduce this debate on a vital social and livelihood issue to a mere blame game. Much of the blame has been laid on the DMK’s doors on the prohibition issue, as Karunanidhi, the then Chief Minister in August 1971, “suspended” the about quarter century of strict enforcement of the prohibition policy, despite elder statesman Rajaji’s fervent pleas to him against the move.

Rajaji’s biographer Rajmohan Gandhi vividly captures those days leading to a major policy shift in his two-volume The Rajaji Story thus: “On a day when uncommonly heavy rains pelted Madras and made movement hazardous, the aged soldier  the author of the (Tamil Nadu) Prohibition Act of 1937, — asked to be driven to Karunanidhi’s residence, where he pleaded ‘on behalf of the people’ that the drink ban may continue.” But with a big Assembly majority, Karunanidhi simply went ahead.

The rest is history. But for Rajaji, fighting the ‘liquor demon’ was a life-long passion. It had its beginnings even before 1937, when he first became premier of the then composite Madras state as Congress formed ministries in several provinces in the first elections held under the Government of India Act, 1935. First, Rajaji’s home district of Salem went dry on October 1, 1937, and later it was introduced in Chittoor and Cuddappah districts, followed by North Arcot, after the Salem experiment was largely successful.

Nonetheless, it was the outcome of a well-thought out, long-drawn process for Rajaji, since the late 1920s  that began in his Tiruchengode ashram. As pointed out by Rajmohan, he vitally engaged with the ‘Prohibition League of India’, the ‘Temperance movement’, preparing a ‘National scheme for Prohibition’ by April 1929 that was adopted by the Congress executive committee, with a detailed action plan including an “anti-drink organiser in each taluk’. It was part of the larger constructive programme under Mahatma Gandhi’s inspiration to promote Khadi and remove untouchability.

Rajaji’s enthusiasm knew no bounds then, that “he drafted pledges, composed lyrics, designed a flag and arranged demonstrations; he trained a team and countered objectorshe gave a number of talks on prohibition, even welcomed ‘Pussyfoot’ Johnson, the romantic American crusader against liquor, to Madras,” though he did not favour emulating Johnson’s “strong arm tactics” of nocturnal raids on liquor joints, writes his biographer.

When prohibition was first officially introduced in Salem district, Rajaji as premier ensured a “sense of proportion was retained,” writes Gandhi. “Clubs could apply for licenses to keep liquor for sale to permit-holding members, bishops and priests were authorised to keep and obtain wine for religious purposes and hospitals could keep brandy.” Traditional toddy tappers in the districts were gradually absorbed in other tasks like jaggery-making.

The measure was also “part of a bigger programme of influencing the countryside in which CR hoped to include the popularsing of games, ballad and bhajan singing, street dramas, the cinema, and tea and coffee.” “The vision was interesting, but he was not able to forge instruments for achieving it,” observes Rajmohan Gandhi.

Yet all these carefully thought out elements made up a coherent narrative, anchoring prohibition implementation. In the absence of such a vision, mere token annual allocations for anti-liquor awareness campaigns could only reduce the current prohibition debate to another rhetorical war of words.

Location: Tamil Nadu

 




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