The anti-Arrack movement was a mass uprising of women against the production and sale of country liquor – arrack. Stemming out of recognition of the effects of liquor consumption among rural women in Andhra Pradesh, the movement became one of the biggest agitations lead by women as a collective against the state and its agencies, leading to the total prohibition of production of illicit liquor in the state.
The National Literacy Movement
In January 1990, the national literacy movement was launched in Nellore district, Andhra Pradesh. The state-organised mass-literacy campaigns led to women getting together and discussing their problems. The awareness brought on by these group discussions resulted in the women discovering that the consumption of locally made, cheap liquor-Arrack- was the source of their unsettled domestic life. The anti-Arrack movement was a consequence of these meetings and stemmed as a spontaneous movement in the small village of Dubagunta in Andhra Pradesh.
Formation of the Crime-Politics Nexus
In Andhra Pradesh, the political structure in the state at the time was determined by the sale of Arrack, as liquor contractors earned so much and had enough resources and political patronage to rise to the level of politicians themselves. They spent the money from liquor sales to maintain gangs, which would, in turn, help maintain their monopoly in the Arrack business. Despite the bribes given to excise officials, between 1970-71, the government made Rs 390 million from excise duty from the liquor sale, which rose to Rs 8.12 billion in 1991-92. With the money the contractors saved by not paying excise duty, they invested in real estate, films, finance and construction projects, and made donations to cultural and religious institutions thus further strengthening their political tout.
The Personal is the Political, the Anti-Arrack movement established the connection between personal experiences and socio-political structures.
Additionally, the Varun Vahini Program, run by the state ensured that consumers of alcohol got sachets of alcohol on their doorstep instead of travelling long distances to the Arrack shops after their workday was over. The money earned from the production and consumption of this rectified liquor ensured that the government never took measures against its production or sale. In 1991-92, the average annual family income in the state of Andhra Pradesh was Rs 1840 of which Rs 830 was spent on liquor. In this scenario, the rural women of the state, who had no autonomy in any sphere of life, took it in their hands to fight against not just the production, but also the sale of Arrack, which they realised through their interactions, was the root cause of their subversion in the home, which not only included lack of resources to run the house, but also violence at the hands of the men in their homes, who consumed the liquor.
What started as an agitation at the village level, with the support of the District Collector and the village Sarpanch, soon turned into a state-wide movement involving going against not just the liquor contractors but against the local bureaucracy, police officials and even the Chief Minister. When it started, the agitation simply involved destroying ingredients used for the production of liquor in houses, and with the help of the local police, seizing the ration cards of some of the hooch makers. Women also started policing the men in their individual households against consuming Arrack.
However, at the village level, this was difficult to control as the men would find ways to procure Arrack from shops outside villages. The women also started questioning the government on the availability of basic amenities like water, schools etc, which were in a dearth, as opposed to Arrack, which was always easily available. When the government insisted that the excise collected from the production of Arrack was used for welfare programmes like the subsidy of rice, the women even agreed to contribute a day’s wages to help in the welfare. Figures, however, show that only a small percentage of the money made from the sale of Arrack was used in welfare programmes, but the government and the contractors tried to bribe the village women into reopening the shops, in the form of temples, water schemes and schools for the temples.
Politicisation of the Movement
The movement was politicised when the opposition, which was made up of the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), held rallies in support of the procession of the Progressive Organisation of Women (POW) and other Marxist-Leninist organisations, protesting against Arrack auctions in 1992. About 50000 people, 80% of whom were women, partook in the procession, with the BJP activists breaking police cordons, leading to the police attacking the agitators. In opposition, the liquor contractors demanded protection from the government, allowing them to continue their business and paying excise duty. The agitation only ended when the district magistrate agreed to send his proposal to the government.
In addition to the involvement of the BJP and the POW, several Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) like Jagruti, based in Nellore, and Jana Vignana Vedika from Chittoor, also got involved, with the former filing a Public Interest Litigation, citing violation of fundamental rights- since majority of the people, especially women were against the case. The latter, called for a meeting in Tirupati, involving women, youth and voluntary organisations, leading to the formation of the district anti-Arrack movement committee, with 24 members from different voluntary and women’s organisations. The eventual objective for the committee was the complete prohibition of Arrack, led in a peaceful and progressive manner, and letters were sent to the chief minister and prime minister, with a request to do the same.
The campaign for prohibition, at its height, had mobilised 10000 people from around 300 villages, who had all signed a memorandum to the district magistrate asking for the cancellation of the Arrack auction for the year.
Although the movement had no prominent leadership- since most of the work was carried out through local initiatives, assistance was offered by NGOs, Women’s associations and individual women. It was also able to mobilise women from different socio-economic backgrounds, because what started as a primarily low-class agitation, soon included women from upper classes, all of who collectively devised plans on the punishments and organised street plays and dramas to spread awareness about the ill effects of Arrack consumption. Finally, on 1st October, when the movement had gained momentum in three districts, the government had to buckle under the pressure and ban Arrack in the state.
The Excise department was asked to ensure that liquor was not smuggled from neighbouring states and a larger public campaign was launched by the Information Department to create awareness against the consumption of liquor. Although Arrack was soon replaced by toddy, with the intervention of the then opposition party, Telegu Desam Party, and the consequent support of all political parties including BJP, CPI, and CPI(M) (all of who focused on the Arrack ban during their election campaigns); total prohibition on the manufacture of liquor was declared. Thus, the ultimate aim of prohibition was achieved.
In the aftermath of the anti-Arrack movement, the state of Kerela also banned liquor within the state. However, due to financial losses, the government soon had to modify the policy, to allow the purchase and sale of Indian made foreign liquor.
The anti-Arrack movement is a testimony to the accomplishment of women who worked tirelessly towards a cause in solidarity- to include women from different classes, castes and urban as well as rural populations. It also throws light on how government after government uses the problems of the masses to politicise agitations and create vote banks for themselves.
Featured Image: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism in India