The state of Tamil Nadu is now witness to a raging debate on alcohol prohibition, with the latest victim of the politics around the campaign being a professor from the Madras University.
But the prohibition debate is not new to the state, and has a long history. Here is all you need to know about the history and politics of prohibition in TN, and the present controversy around it.
Tamil Nadu’s untreated alcohol problem has a long, tumultuous history.
Documented, relatable history started way back before Indian independence.
In 1937, Madras Presidency’s Chief Minister C Rajagopalachari introduced prohibition in Salem, a rule which was later spread to include other districts.
As of today, the DMK has been portrayed by some political parties as the villains in the alcohol situation because total prohibition which continued for decades was then lifted under its rule in the year 1971. Why? It was reportedly because other neighbouring states had a much relaxed liquor rule
Following election failure faced with the opposing AIADMK, three years later in 1974, Karunanidhi’s government once again put a seal to alcohol sale.
A state known for innumerable hooch tragedies one that occurred as recent as in 2002, after the prohibition period set in , two major liquor tragedies occurred in 1975 and 1976 .
The next AIADMK government which formed in 1977 interestingly had first advocated a strong prohibition rule pre-elections, and even imposed strict punishment on offenders reportedly even considering their expulsion from their localities. But soon in 1981, MGR went against his own promise and lifted the ban, allowing the sale of arrack and toddy.
In 1981, came the birth of two corporations. While one, Tamil Nadu Spirit Corporation created to manufacture liquor was closed down years later, the other marketing arm, Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation, became a revolutionary success and brought in the moolah for the state government.
In 1987, the ban was introduced once again, followed by deaths caused by illicit liquor consumption.
When the DMK returned to power, the DMK brought back legal sale of arrack and toddy in 1990. It was believed that TASMAC wasn’t raking in quite as much for the state during the previous regime, there were allegations of corruption and tax evasion. Karunanidhi put an end to it and levied various taxes which filled the coffers of the state. He also introduced liquor in sachets, called ‘maluvu vilai madhu’ meaning low-cost liquor.
But this was overturned when AIADMK leader Jayalalithaa came to power in 1991 as the AIADMK supreme.
An election promise, the decision to ban arrack/toddy sale and the sachets of alcohol, which had now come to be called ‘pocket saarayam’, was taken by her. But this again resulted in a number of deaths across the state.
This continued for almost a decade during which methanol was substituted and consumed under the illegal liquor trade. The liquid had been removed from under the TN Prohibition Act in 1984 which allowed for its spurious use for drinking purposes. Reportedly, at least two tragedies involving methanol consumption occurred each year, leaving many dead. In 2001, at least 100 people died in three separate incidents involving methanol consumption.
2002-03 changed everything in Tamil Nadu.
At least 7000 shops were forcibly brought under the TASMAC control after CM Jayalalithaa’s decision to only allow alcohol sale through the state.
Then TN CM O Panneerselvam said in 2002, "As IMFL(Indian Made Foreign Liquor) is beyond the reach of the poor people, they drank spurious liquor and these tragedies took place. So the government has decided to introduce cheap liquor."
And thus, TN’s state revenue from alcohol sale began to climb a steep hill.
Fast-forward to 2015. The alcohol consumption topic kept under tight wraps, never discussed considering stakes that various party leaders allegedly had with manufacturers, started getting noticed.
When videos of toddlers and young school children in an inebriated state began making the rounds on social media, established prohibition campaigners like Sasi Perumal and others began to fight for a renewed cause.
Others like the PMK who have advocated prohibition for a long time, started admonishing the government stating that the drinking age had reduced from 40 to 13 in Tamil Nadu.
On July 21, 2015, however, it was déjà vu for some as DMK leader Karunanidhi promised to work towards alcohol prohibition if elected to power in the 2016 assembly elections. The statement came even as the spotlight turned towards the AIADMK and DMK who were the only ones mum while other parties resounded the prohibition bell.
But what added fuel to calls for prohibition was the sudden death of 59 year-old Gandhian Sasi Perumal who was in the midst of protest calling for the shutdown of a TASMAC shop in Kanyakumari. The protest was considering that the shop was near a educational establishment in the vicinity.
Even as pictures of his body being brought down from atop a mobile phone tower spread, soon enough there was no turning back.
On August 3, students of the infamous Pachaiyappa’s college turned their eyes towards TASMAC shops in the city. In a protest at least 200 of them protested, with some damaging a Tasmac shop by hurling stones at it. Lathi-charging ensued and about 20 students were taken away and jailed.
Other districts saw similar protests. In Coimbatore at least, 82 people from different parties as well as college students were arrested, reported Times of India on August 5.
Public let out their anger on neighbouring Tasmac shops. In Salem, a shop was set on fire by miscreants, and in Tirunelveli, agitated villagers in Kalingapatti led by MDMK’s Vaiko, began ransacking a Tasmac shop.
Even as college students from other districts joined in, Vijayakanth and his party members were picked up for forming a human chain without police permission on August 6.
Last week Tamil Nadu saw some interesting scenes. While protestors calling for prohibition in various cities were herded away by the police, a number of Tasmac shop visitors got some privileged police protection considering attacks over recent days.