Prohibition, TASMAC & Floods in Tamil Nadu

There was minor kerfuffle in an irrelevant and petty corner of the internet, betraying a general inability to parse sentences. That in itself is irrelevant to progress of thought. But its underlying assumptions and motivations are interesting.

Groups that are generally associated with progressivism, such as women’s rights groups, are often at the forefront of demanding prohibition. This was true in India a generation ago, it’s true to some extent now and it was true in bringing the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Suffragists and abolitionists were the core groups that demanded prohibition in America.

In Tamil Nadu, the distribution of alcohol is a state monopoly. It’s also the highest revenue earner for the state. This complicates the political climate in many ways. The state has seen several phases of total prohibition in the last century; it was lifted after a large number of deaths owing to consumption of illicit, unsafe liquor each time. The repeated lesson learnt was that illicit and unsafe liquor will replace the legitimate one when there’s a ban. This was sadly re-learnt over and over again in the 70s, 80s and 90s at the cost of many lives. The formula was depressing: a complete prohibition followed by deaths in hooch tragedies which resulted in relaxing the prohibition. And a subsequent election where prohibition became a campaign issue.

Almost to the word, the tropes used by those bemoaning TASMAC in Tamil Nadu follow the script of  of those in America a century ago: the illiterate poor don’t know better; they drink to their own ruin and are a threat to women and society. That alcoholism was considered a threat to the white race and clan members were recruited to enforce prohibition is startling in its similarity to the caste dynamic at play in Tamil Nadu. Kalefah Sanneh, citing Lisa McGirr, writes,

Lisa McGirr believes that this is a mistake. She is a historian who studies grassroots political movements in twentieth-century America, and she has concluded that our fascination with the boozy, semi-clandestine world that Prohibition created has led us to ignore its more lasting effects. In her view, Prohibition was not a farce but a tragedy, and one that has made a substantial contribution to our current miseries. In “The War on Alcohol” (Norton), she urges us to put aside our interest in the many ways involuntarily temperate citizens sought relief, so that we can consider the federal government’s strenuous attempts to stop them. Her book’s subtitle is “Prohibition and the Rise of the American State,” and by “state” she means in particular what she calls the “penal state”: the Prohibition Bureau and its many enforcers, some of them drawn from the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan; the laws and prisons required by a federal government newly alarmed about crime; the reality of a country in which addicts were treated not as victims but as perpetrators. Prohibition was patchily enforced, and certain groups were more likely to find themselves tossed into the rough patches: “Mexicans, poor European immigrants, African-Americans, poor whites in the South.” Nearly a century later, she argues, the legacy of Prohibition can be seen in our prisons, teeming with people convicted of violating neo-Prohibitionary drug laws. Many at the time viewed Prohibition as an outrage, and, in McGirr’s view, we are missing its true meaning if we are not outraged, too—and ready to resist its equally oppressive descendants.

There are many arguments against alcohol. Research elsewhere points to about 10% of all people who ever tasted alcohol becoming dependent on it at some level. Addiction to and abuse of substances or alcohol is as old as civilization. But so is the basic knowledge of making a fermented drink; almost anyone who knows how to boil rice will know how to ferment a sugary beverage into an intoxicant. No ban can be effective. And alcohol probably results in fewer deaths and chronic ailments than refined sugar.

In 1981 when MGR went back on his campaign promise to lift prohibition, the following years were the state’s longest spell without mass causalities from hooch tragedies in a long time. The ban not only affects the poor in terms of making them more susceptible to poisonous and unsafe alcohol, it also taxes Dalits/others by enforcing a certain version of ritual brahminism. The assumption that others don’t know better gets even worse when its couched in caste hegemony.

Though TASMAC has been a creation of the state, it still carries out a business. It’s not a utility. To demand that this particular business be subject to sudden and temporary requests for shut down, especially by the elite, is what it is: an imposition of social order. When floods cause disruption in essential services, that’s understandable. Soup kitchens and hospitals need hygienic places, power and a large workforce. Storing bottled alcohol needs nothing. It functions even when there’s flooding inside the store. To construe this as somehow a reflection of government priority is to miss the point entirely. Worse, to attribute sexual violence in flood times to alcohol because the elite go there on relief work is the kind of prism that’s its own parody.

The one criticism of TASMAC and prohibition that’s indisputable is that it has shifted the burden of taxation, as a relative measure, from the rich to the poor. MSS Pandian’s Marxist critique thus of MGR’s policy is perhaps the most well argued case for prohibition in Tamil Nadu. Absent a strong state with an ability to implement progressive taxation, an excise duty on consumption that’s skewed toward the lower end of the economic spectrum is unfair. That critique has now become a reality, however much it pays for other services of the state.

The Sixteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution was a necessary condition for the Eighteenth to even happen when it did. The opposite, that is an ability to raise local and state level taxes, is a pre-condition for arguing towards prohibition in Tamil Nadu. That still is merely addressing economic viability.