Updated: Aug 29
by Kawal Deep Kour (PhD, Indian Institute of Technology)
As part of M.K. Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation with Indian colonial authority in 1921, abhorrence of drink and drugs were included on the agenda of the constructive programme of the movement. His promotion of temperance and adherence to the principle of non-violence were unique in Indian political culture and appreciated throughout the country. With Gandhi’s call to shun all intoxicants, including opium, ganja and liquor, prohibition as a policy initiative became a major plank of nationalist politics. The act of renouncing and liquor and drugs represented a sobering symbol of freedom from colonial bondage.
Under Gandhi’s direction, the self-purification movement implied that abstinence in regard of drink and drugs was to be the starting point in unshackling the country from imperial slavery. He said, “I hold drink to be more damnable than thieving and perhaps prostitution. If I was appointed dictator for one hour for all India, the first thing I would do would be to close without compensation all the liquor shops.”
This relentless campaign led to the introduction of legal prohibition in April 1937 with the inauguration of provincial autonomy. The national movement towards prohibition gained momentum after negotiation of the Montford Reforms the prior decade. Subsequently, legislative councils in several provinces passed resolutions declaring that prohibition should be the ultimate goal of excise policy. Upon assuming provincial autonomy, congress ministries in seven provinces began implementing prohibition in selected areas.
The Provincial Governments were empowered to legislate with respect to “intoxicating drugs and liquor.” Prohibition Committees were set up and they were instructed to strictly enforce the regulations regarding prohibition. But prohibition was not absolute. It included both complete prohibitions and some exemptions. The Bombay Prohibition Act exempted the Defence Forces from its operations and gave permits for the legal consumption of “foreign liquor” on medical certificates, though toddy and arrack (a local moonshine-like brew) were not exempted. Between 1937 and 1939, five provinces including Madras, Central Provinces and Berar, Bihar, Orissa and the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) passed comprehensive legislation enacting prohibition. However, the outbreak of World War II in Europe in September 1939 diminished prohibition as a national priority.
Signing the Indian Constitution, January 24, 1950
After the war and post-independence, the Indian constitution listed several Directives of State Policy to set the parameters of government authority. Article 47 of these described the duty of the state being “to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.” But, wise to the challenges of establishing a national prohibitive framework, Indian constitutional framers left that responsibility to the provincial governments. Each state had varying approaches – and levels of enthusiasm – in enacting and enforcing prohibition. Financial considerations along with the cultural differences played a major role in the lack of unanimity among the states regarding implementation of the policy. The states of Andhra, Bombay, Madras and Saurashtra were under total prohibition. In the nine states of Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Bharat, Mysore, Orissa, Punjab, Travancore- Cochin, Uttar Pradesh, partial prohibition was in vogue. There was no prohibition policy in force, total or partial, in the states of Bihar, Bhopal, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kutch, Manipur, PEPSU, Rajasthan, Tripura, Vindhya Pradesh and West Bengal. Comprehensive prohibition legislation was in force in eight states including Assam, Bombay, Central Provinces, Madras, Mysore and Travancore-Cochin.
This inconsistency rallied prohibitionists nationwide. By the early 1950s, vociferous support by the All India Women’s Conference, the Indian National Trade Union Congress, and the Gandhian group Sarwa Seva Sangh culminated in a national prohibition resolution passed in 1954 by the Working Committee of the Indian National Congress. The resolution demanded the inclusion of Prohibition as a national development goal in the interest of public health and welfare, and led to the appointment of the Prohibition Enquiry Committee by the Planning Commission, chaired by Sriman Narayan. It laid out a detailed scheme for total prohibition of alcoholic liquor in India by 1958. All “visible drinking” was to cease immediately. Liquor was banned in hotels, bars, restaurants, messes, and clubs and at social gatherings. Tourists and foreign residents were to get their supply of liquor in separate drinking rooms in hotels. Embassies were expected to co-operate by not serving alcoholic drinks at public receptions attended by Indians. Abstinence was made a rule of conduct for Government employees.
The policy did not succeed. As per a report published in The Evening Independent (March 1964), in New Delhi, the “headquarters of the Prohibition Movement had legally consumed 118,507 gallons of domestic liquor in 1959 in homes and hotels.” Uttar Pradesh ceased the dry policy in 1963. In 1964, Maharashtra state also repealed the policy of prohibition which was gradually followed by the other states.
But the prohibition cause was not dead, even if it chose to not learn from its history. In 1977, Prime Minister Moraji Desai launched a campaign of moral policing. Desai’s principles stemmed from his admiration for Gandhi-esque self-discipline. The campaign included reviving the prohibition policy and doing away with all other “fountains of evil” which included also a ban on late night movie shows.
Newspapers decried the draconian measures and pointed out how enforcement efforts had actually backfired. Moonshining (illegal home distillation that produced the kacchi beverage) emerged as a cottage industry in many parts of the country with bootleggers raking in huge profit and, by one line of argument, robbing government coffers of tax revenue. Wood, varnish, dry battery cells, chicken droppings, old shoes, ammonia chloride, and other unsavory and unsafe materials were some ingredients found in unregulated stills. A report carried in The Illustrated weekly of India (1976) mentioned, “on an average of 3,000 persons have died yearly for the past 25 years drinking such corrosive stuff… thousand others have gone blind and otherwise physically handicapped.” Apart from the loss in excise revenue, the expenses incurred in upkeep of the prohibition committees and the large army of excise officials to deal with smuggling and sale of illicit liquor seemed to many a fruitless venture. Today, different states retain different prohibition policies, reflecting the issue’s fraught history in Indian politics.