22/04/2016 10:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

How Prohibition Suddenly Became The Holy Cow In Tamil Nadu Polls


Gomathy Lakshmanan, weary of face and scrawny of body, opens her conversation with a startling admission. “I have seven children,” she says, as boys and girls of varying ages run around her. One young boy, not more than 10 years old, sits silently beside her.

“How old are you?” asks this reporter.

“I am 37 years old,” comes the reply.

Gomathy is a construction labourer in Vinobaji Nagar, an urban slum near Uraiyur in Trichy district. At 37, she is already wasted, unwell she says, from an unknown but plaguing ailment. She is the sole breadwinner of the family.

“What about your husband?” I ask.

“That’s him,” she points to a man drawing water from a well, unsteady on his feet. As we watch him totter and slosh water around him, Gomathy offers apologetically – “He doesn’t drink so much nowadays.”

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The little boy beside her pipes up – “He is a drunkard. He gets drunk and beats all of us every day.” Gomathy simply holds her tongue.

Kallaanaalum kanavan, pullaanaalum purushan,” goes a Tamil saying, meaning whether he is made of stone (stone-hearted) or of grass (soft-hearted), he is still the husband. Gomathy bears no ill will towards her equally frail husband who turns into a monster after a few drinks, beating her and her children up almost every day. “It is all due to TASMAC,” she explains. TASMAC is the acronym for the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation, the government’s liquor retail arm. “When he doesn’t drink he is like ‘thangam’ (gold). It is liquor which is making him do all this,” she says. Not only does her husband Lakshmanan sit around at home without working, he also demands money from Gomathy for his peg. If she refuses, beatings follow. With an average income of Rs 4,500 a month, the family is in deep penury and deeper debt, with no way out of the vicious cycle.

Fury Against TASMAC

A little over a year ago, the murmurings of women like Gomathy began to get louder and social activists in Tamil Nadu responded to this cry. Isolated protests began break out in different pockets of the state – residents laid siege to TASMAC outlets in their neighbourhood, demanding its closure, some took to the streets shouting slogans against liquor, many undertook state-wide cycle rallies in small groups to demand an end to alcohol.

Congress Workers and Activists sitting on Dharna against Wine shop in Chennai

Things came to a head in July 2015 when a little-known Gandhian anti-liquor activist Sasi Perumal climbed atop a telephone pole in Kanyakumari while protesting – he and a handful of others were demanding the closure of a TASMAC shop in the area which residents did not want. Sasi Perumal sat atop the pole and shouted slogans, refusing to come down, despite entreaties by the local police.

As the policemen began to climb up the pole to bring him down, Sasi Perumal fell silent and slumped. He was already dead due to a coronary attack when the police reached him.

“We usually run away on seeing policemen when we are drunk and now they are protecting us while we drink."

Public fury boiled over – TASMAC had claimed yet another life, the life of a good man - was the sentiment at the time. Anti-liquor groups all over the state came together to announce a date for a statewide protest. August 04 was D-Day. The state government, headed by Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), geared up to control the situation. On the morning of August 04, residents of Tamil Nadu were greeted by an incredulous sight – heavy police protection at all TASMAC outlets, which remained open. Tipplers chuckled in glee as they downed their pegs with the police standing guard. “We usually run away on seeing policemen when we are drunk and now they are protecting us while we drink,” chuckled one TASMAC customer at the time.

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Protests though refused to abate. An ultra-left wing group suddenly shot into the limelight in October 2015 with the arrest of little known folk singer Kovan. He was charged with sedition for the crime of criticising Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in a song composed and sung by him, which went viral on YouTube. “Moodu TASMAC” (Close TASMAC) and “Oorukkooru Saaraayam” (liquor in every village) were the offending songs. He was jailed and subsequently released on bail, with even the prosecution admitting in court that there was nothing seditious in his songs. Another 6 members of the group Makkal Adhigaram (People’s Right) were slapped with sedition charges in March 2016, a month after holding a public meeting in Trichy demanding immediate imposition of Prohibition.

“All politicians are now saying they will impose Prohibition, yes,” said P Dharmaraj of Makkal Adhigaram in Trichy. “But the reality is that they don’t care. Why do you need to become a Chief Minister to shut down TASMAC shops? When all of us were protesting, did the cadre of these parties come out to shut TASMAC shops along with us? We have no faith in politicians. They are trying to gain advantage by exploiting the miseries of the people. The anti-liquor protests will continue,” he stated.

A state which likes to call itself a ‘welfare state’ doling out all sorts of freebies – colour TVs, mixers, grinders, fans and laptops - needs this TASMAC money.

Soon enough, the Opposition, sniffing an election issue, jumped into the ring, with all parties promising to implement Prohibition if voted into power. Only the ruling party remained steadfast in its refusal to bow down to public pressure. “Government policy cannot be dictated by violent protests,” said Natham Viswanathan, state minister for Prohibition & Excise. “It is impossible to impose Prohibition at present,” he reiterated in January this year.

The Monopoly of TASMAC

What Viswanathan actually meant was the state of Tamil Nadu was too dependent on revenues from the sales of alcohol. While Tamil Nadu has been flirting on and off with Prohibition in the past, it was in 2003 that then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa removed liquor sales from the hands of private parties and gave it to government. Only TASMAC can sell liquor currently. Even bars, pubs and the five-star hotels have to buy their booze from TASMAC. This department is a cash cow for the state – revenues are over Rs 27,000 crores in 2015 and expected to cross Rs 30,000 crores in this fiscal. This constitutes one-third of the state’s entire revenues.

A state which likes to call itself a ‘welfare state’ doling out all sorts of freebies – colour TVs, mixers, grinders, fans and laptops - needs this TASMAC money. Populism once displayed cannot be countered with rationalism.

Apart from the legitimate income from TASMAC, politicians cutting across party lines have vested interests in keeping the liquor flowing. Many leaders of both the AIADMK and rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have breweries being run in their and their families’ names. A ‘live and let live’ code ensures that the businesses of these otherwise bitter political rivals flourish.

But with the cry from the urban and rural poor women, political parties have been forced to buckle. “Breweries owned by members of the DMK will be shut down once Prohibition is imposed,” said DMK Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi, daughter of its leader M Karunanidhi at a recent election rally. Coming from a party which had always denied affiliations of its leaders with any brewery businesses, this comment was revealing – it was an acknowledgement that it was time for plainspeak by the politicians.

On April 09, anti-liquor protesters would have pumped their fists into the air in exultation. They had forced even Jayalalithaa to announce Prohibition in the state if voted back to power. “Many leaders are promising that they will impose Prohibition with one signature,” she said at a public rally in Island Grounds in Chennai. “It is not something that can be done in one go. I will implement Prohibition in phases when I come back as Chief Minister,” she promised. Up until then the ruling party had staunchly and vehemently opposed Prohibition.

The cries of women like Gomathy Lakshmanan of Vinobaji Nagar may have finally been heard, thanks to the nature of electoral politics where every vote counts. Prohibition in Tamil Nadu is now only a matter of time. But the road ahead for recovery and rehabilitation of lakhs of addicts in the state will be a rough one.

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