New Internationalist

Adivasis and alcohol

Historically, ‘pioneers’ of ‘civilized’ dominant (‘mainstream’ is politically incorrect) society have used alcohol to enslave and destroy the indigenous communities they invaded. Like exploitative marauders, they credited themselves with finding ‘new’ lands, sweepingly declaring them Terra Nullis (occasionally even classifying indigenous people as ‘fauna’, making it legal to hunt them).

I recently read that genetically, indigenous people cannot tolerate potent, distilled liquor. The marauders were well aware of this and over centuries, systematically used alcohol to take over their lands and trap indigenous communities into submission and slavery. That they cannot tolerate alcohol genetically may be difficult to prove. But I’m not interested in scoring debating points.

In India, adivasis brewed their own liquor. But that was part of a social and religious tradition. There was an elaborate cultural ritual to the drinking. And for the most part, the alcohol content was not high.

Deong or handia in Jharkhand state was a rice beer of sorts, a highly nutritious, fermented brew, drunk with ceremony by the community, given to children, women and old people. Drinking this brew alone was unthinkable, culturally taboo. Significantly, it was not a distilled liquor. Another fermented brew made from the mahua flower was consumed in enormous quantities. It provided nutrients at the peak of summer, at a time when the grain stocks were low and no other food was available to food gatherers. It was a cooling drink, bringing relief in midsummer when temperatures soared to 40+ degrees centigrade, and it probably helped keep many people alive during the annual starvation cycle.

I’ve listened to adivasi women from Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh and Orissa cry out in despair that alcohol is decimating their families and the adivasi community in their regions. Women in the North East are veterans of anti-alcohol campaigns. When I told them prohibition has never stopped alcoholism, they said: ‘True, but if it’s banned, we can close the illicit shops near us. We have a weapon to fight with.’

In the Nilgiri mountains, a group of irate villagers forced a liquor shop to close. They were sick of their men paying all their wages to the bar keeper while the family starved. A few days later, the bar owner returned, armed with a court order and police protection. The shop was back in business.

In several villages in the Gudalur area, alcohol vendors brought enormous plastic jerry cans of vodka-potency alcohol to the fields where the men were working and offered it to them on credit. The men could pay on wage day, Saturday, the liquor vendors kindly suggested. Now, the men stagger back drunk every evening and on Saturday, add insult to injury, they return home drunk and penniless. The families literally starve. Arguments turn ugly and women are resigned to the weekly Saturday night violence.

So the women of India who’ve fought for prohibition have no time for elitist arguments about free choices and the rights of the men to drink themselves silly. For them, it’s a matter of life and death. Quite literally. And not merely because men die of alcohol-related diseases. Because the entire family of an alcoholic often starves and is faced with stark poverty and malnutrition.

In Delhi last week, I met Dr BD Sharma, civil servant extraordinaire, former Commissioner of the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes Commission. This is a man who has devoted his entire life to the adivasi cause. He is a walking encyclopedia on adivasi issues, having worked on them for over four decades now.

Sharmaji told me something I had never heard before. In the 1970s, he informed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that alcohol was being used by exploitative traders and money lenders to create indebtedness and enslave adivasi men. Alcohol, he explained, was part of tribal culture in most areas. So knee-jerk policies would not work. He suggested the government create and implement an official Excise policy to be designed by the Tribal Affairs Ministry.

He suggested four important clauses. One, no commercial vending of liquor, thus eliminating the exploitative outsiders. Two, adivasis to be allowed to brew their own liquor only for community and personal use, not for sale. Three, in non-tribal enclaves within adivasi territory, sale of liquor would only be permitted through government shops. Four, excise matters in tribal areas should be handed over to the community, not to outsiders. Alcohol contractors were completely banished from these areas. Indira Gandhi passed the ordinance on 19 June 1974 and for a short time, excessive consumption of alcohol was curbed. It was not prohibition, and it worked. But the government changed, and the law was allowed to lapse into disuse.

We have suggested this to the government’s Planning Commission. Adivasi activists, enthused by the fact that a precedent was set in 1974, hope to revive this in central Indian adivasi areas. Let’s hope they succeed.

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