Nothing Gandhian about prohibition in Gujarat; it’s a British legacy

Rajiv Shah
I lived in Moscow for seven long years from 1986 to 1993 as Patriot correspondent, and travelled almost all corners of the ex-Soviet Union – from its Far-Eastern cities to its northern most port Arkhangelsk, many of the Central Asian towns which were later ravaged by internecine ethnic clashes and, of course, the cultural capital, St Petersburg. Yet, what surprises many of my acquaintances and friends is, how couldn’t I “learn” to give up my essentially teetotal characteristic?
Even the doyen of Indian diplomats, TN Kaul, couldn’t change me during his ambassadorship in Moscow. At embassy parties, not once, but several times over he would approach me, saying, “This is bad, Rajiv! You must at least hold a glass of wine!” I would obey, hold the glass till the toast was over, and abandon it immediately thereafter.
Not that I haven’t ever sipped alcohol. During informal gatherings in Moscow, I did indeed taste home-made wine, as also Georgian and Moldavian wine, rated pretty high. I have also “tasted” koniak, scotch whisky, rum, and of course vodka… However, strangely, I couldn’t ever develop a liking for any of them. I’d rather prefer fruit juice. And there wasn’t anything moral about it either. For, I didn’t disdain those who would drink.
Once I tried discussing this with a Russian scholar, political scientist and Indologist, known for his non-conformist views, Prof Eric Komarov. And he gave me an interesting explanation. He said, drinking in Russia is part of one’s cultural habit, a way of life. I still can’t forget what he told me once when I visited his house, situated on way to the Sheremetyevo International Airport: “Voda in Russian means water… We affectionately call daughter (devushka in Russian) as dochka, similarly mother mamuchka, and father papuchka. So, when we call it vodka, we are just giving a special word for voda or water… It’s just an expression of our sheer love to drink.”
I am reminded of this view of Komarov, who became an excellent source of information of Soviet affairs during those turbulent days, as and when someone talks of prohibition in Gujarat. Ever since he told this to me, I have, ironically, tried explaining my refusal to drink liquor as a matter of habit, something which I got from my “Gandhian” parents. But with the fever of prohibition now traveling far and wide from Gujarat to Kerala, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, I am left wondering if this explanation has received a setback.
Yet I have, willy nilly clung to the view that habit is part of culture, a way of life. Imposing prohibition cannot erase it; it would remain in one’s subconscious. This is as much true of beef, sought to be banned under religious pretext.
Recently, when I was talking about this to a well-known Gujarat-based sociologist, Prof Vidyut Joshi, I recalled two studies which, I was told by a senior official in Gandhinagar, were authored by him in 1978. These studies are on the impact of prohibition in Surat’s rural and urban areas. The studies, I was told, were “classified”, possibly because it pointed towards why going tipsy in the South Gujarat region was historically more a way of life, a part of culture, which shouldn’t have been abandoned.
Refusing to part with the studies, what Prof Joshi, however, told me was revealing: Prohibition, he told me, was “not imposed” by Gujarat rulers, even though they may claim it to be a Gandhian legacy initiated after the state became independent of the Bombay State in 1960. “It is a legacy we have received from the British rulers since 1888”, he said, adding, “More as a desire to control the liquor market, the British allowed only that liquor to be sold which was manufactured by the government. It gave license to sell liquor to those whom it trusted, many of whom happened to be Parsis. Descendants of those who had these licenses have surnames like Batliwala, Daruwala, Tadiwala.”
He further said, “Before this happened, the tribals in South Gujarat were used to drinking mahua, extracted from flowers of mahua trees, found aplenty in eastern hilly region of Gujarat. They would mix mahua in chapati and sweets. Mahua flowers would be used to incense water. Tribals formed 50 per cent of the South Gujarat population.”
“Similarly”, he said, “Tadi was extracted from palm trees along the sea shore, where 15 to 20 per cent of of the South Gujarat population lived. They are mainly fisherfolk – Khervas, Machchis, Tandels, Naviks and Kolis. Fishermen would have to remain in the sea for several days, often weeks, and tadi used to be their only pastime during the highly unorganized life they lived. Other communities which had a strong tendency to drink, as part of their way of life, were Ranas, Kshatriyas, Ghanchis and Parsis.”
Pointing out that the problem illicit liquor replaced as an affordable means to “release” tension after the British banned mahua and tadi, Prof Joshi said, “Slurry would arrive from sugar mills in far off Uttar Pradesh in railway wagons. It was needed for quick fermentation. Similarly, the denatured spirit used in dyes in cotton mills began being used to make hooch.”
“Highly dangerous for health”, Prof Joshi said, “I asked a worker in Surat city why did he drink such liquor which would shorten his life span. And his reply was: ‘Even otherwise we live in a hell… It is better to die in five years by enjoying this drink’.”
While Prof Joshi didn’t elaborate on the studies he had carried out on prohibition in South Gujarat, saying these remain “classified”, I vividly remember what the government official, who saw it as part of his effort to understand how liquor would or would not affect people’s life, had told me. The studies are based on more than 200 interviews of the poorer sections in six villages of Surat district and Surat city.
Carried out during Prof Joshi’s stint at the South Gujarat University, the studies – titled ‘Benefits of Prohibition – A Comparative Study of Drinkers and Non-Drinkers in Rural South Gujarat’ and ‘Benefits of Prohibition – A Comparative Study of Drinkers and Non-Drinkers in Surat City’, sponsored by the Department of Prohibition and Excise, Government of Gujarat – found no significant difference in the economic life between drinkers and non-drinkers in both rural and urban areas, and recommended temperance – lifting of the ban on mahua and tadi.
While this was the first attempt to recommend lifting prohibition, albeit partially, during my nearly 14 years’ interaction with Gujarat government officials in Gandhinagar, I haven’t come across even one bureaucrat, including some of those who serve in the Prime Minister’s Office today, who favour prohibition. Taking an elitist view of prohibition, the thinking has been strong that it has been a major hurdle in “developed” Gujarat’s movement towards cosmopolitanism. Frequent attempts were made, albeit unsuccessful, to have a tourism policy, which allowed liquor to be allowed at sea resorts.
There was even a recommendation of a casino near the Harappan site of Dholavira in Kutch district in the state-sponsored “Blueprint for Infrastructure in Gujarat: Vision 2020”, as part of the effort to develop entertainment industry in Gujarat. The entire portion was withdrawn soon after I wrote a story on it. A senior Modi aide explained to me, “The chief minister is aware of the need to lift prohibition. But he is helpless. He cannot lift prohibition, even partially, otherwise there would be political backlash.”
Strange though it may seem, no policy maker in Gujarat has sought to find out what could the social reasons behind poor people consuming spurious liquor, which has become a norm, whether it is semi-urban areas off Ahmedabad or Gandhi’s birthplace Porbandar. It has led to major hooch tragedies, such as the one in Ahmedabad in 2009, in which 139 people died. Prof Joshi’s studies are not the only ones which suggest need to allow drinking as a matter of choice. A similar study was carried out, with almost the same conclusions, by the Sardar Patel Institute for Social and Economic Research, Ahmedabad, which once was a major seat of learning, founded by top academic Prof TD Lakdawala in 1965.
Studies in US on prohibition imposed in 1920s replicate what’s true of Gujarat today. Pointing towards negative impact of prohibition, they point towards how “alcohol became more dangerous to consume; organized crime blossomed; courts and prisons systems became overloaded; and endemic corruption of police and public officials occurred.”
However, who cares for such studies, even if these may help one arrive at a reasonable solution?

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