News APP

NewsApp (Free)

Read news as it happens
Download NewsApp

Available on  gplay  » News » Hooch Tragedy: Will TN Go Dry?

Hooch Tragedy: Will TN Go Dry?

June 21, 2024 15:53 IST
Get Rediff News in your Inbox:

Rival governments in Tamil Nadu expend the most on social welfare schemes, especially targeting women and youth and children, but that money comes only by selling more liquor.

There is always the specious plea, which has been peddled very many times in the past, that without licensed liquor, drinkers would go after hooch and there could be more hooch tragedies and hooch deaths.

No one is convinced, but no one can dispute it either, comments N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin meets with a victim hospitalised at the Mundyambakkam Government Medical College after consuming spurious liquor in Villupuram, May 15, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

A noticeable aspect of this week's hooch tragedy at Karunapuram and neighbourhood villages in the hilly terrain of central north-west Kallakurichchi district is that no critic of Chief Minister M K Stalin's DMK government has demanded total prohibition.

Their demands and the government's response to the tragedy have followed the template model that is not unique to the southern state.

A sample: The state government suspended the district police superintendent and a few other police officers down the line and also transferred the district collector, when their presence on the spot might have helped in coordinating relief and response measures.

Then it ordered the transfer of the ADGP and SP, prohibition wing, without assigning them alternate posts.

Stalin has ordered a judicial probe, by retired high court Judge B Gokuldas, with the predictable three-month period for him to submit his report.

Any future extension for the probe under the Commissions of Inquiry Act will also depend on the mood of the media and the masses, the people's readiness to forget the tragedy early on, and move on to other spicy developments.

For their part, the political Opposition too has reacted on equally predictable lines.

Opposition AIADMK Leader of the Opposition and predecessor CM, Edappadi K Palaniswami, after visiting the affected families, has demanded Stalin's immediate resignation, taking up moral responsibility for the failure of the civil administration in general and the police force in particular.

IMAGE: Tamil Nadu Youth Welfare Minister Udhayanidhi Stalin pays his respects to victims of the Kallakurichi hooch tragedy in Kallakurichi, June 20, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Since the exit of the Congress regime as far as 1967, successive Dravidian chief ministers, starting with the late C N Annadurai, have retained the home portfolio.

Stalin, like his late father and chief minister M Karunanidhi, is no exception.

The state government has moved the mandatory criminal investigations into the incident from the local police to the Crime Branch-CID operating across the state.

The AIADMK Opposition has joined some individuals and has moved the Madras high court for ordering a CBI probe, claiming that the local police and CB-CID were manned by personnel from the same force under the same uniformed leadership, too.

Maintaining the same line but making it even more political, state BJP President K Annamalai has written to Union Home Minister Amit A Shah, demanding a CBI probe.

It is not that Annamalai, a former IPS officer, did not know that under the law, CBI probe into crimes unconnected with the Union government requires request from or consent of the state government concerned.

Alternatively, only the high court of the Supreme Court could order one.

Not the one to miss an opportunity when one presented itself, Annamalai has also called for a state-wide protest against the Stalin dispensation and focused on the hooch tragedy.

Any AIADMK announcement, or those by other non-INDIA/anti-INDIA political parties or combines, too will be on similar lines, for similar purposes.

Among the current crop in the Opposition just now, the PMK alone has been demanding total prohibition across the state, every now and again.

The party is taking on the ruling DMK in the Vikravandi by-election in neighbouring Viluppuram district for the BJP-NDA, and is sure to use the hooch tragedy in the adjoining district as a major campaign point.

So will actor-politician Seeman's NTK, with the mainline AIADMK Opposition having announced a by-poll boycott this time.

IMAGE: Udhayanidhi Stalin pays homage to victims of the spurious liquor tragedy in Tamil Nadu's Karunapuram locality in Kallakurichi. Photograph: ANI Photo

If the ruling party/combine thought that they could effectively use the revived budget session of the state assembly to snub the divided Opposition over the Lok Sabha poll drubbing of theirs, it is not to be.

The hooch tragedy is going to dominate the daily discourse in the House through the short session.

If at the end of it all, the divided Opposition had found common cause in the hooch tragedy to bring them closer way ahead of the state assembly polls due in 2026 summer, the DMK has only itself to blame.

Yet, it can breathe easy in the fact that no critic of the government has laid the blame for the tragedy at the doorstep of any specific DMK leader or minister, at least so far.

All that the AIADMK has said thus far is that their local MLA had repeatedly written to the government authorities, cautioning them of an impending calamity of the kind, but to no avail.

A section of the local media, not seen as friendly to the present day rulers, has also attributed the previous SP seeking voluntary retirement to alleged political pressure brought upon him while dealing with hooch-makers, distributors and sellers.

IMAGE: Udhayanidhi Stalin meets a victim of the hooch tragedy at the Kallakurichi Government Medical College and Hospital, June 20, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

Non-political and apolitical critics of the government system as a whole and the DMK dispensation in particular have asked why Stalin did not visit the tragedy scene, as is customary, but despatched only his minister-son Udayanidhi, in the company of a few senior colleagues, to pay condolences to the dead and offer solace to the affected families.

Some cheeky social media posts lacking taste claimed that Stalin had used the tragedy to promote his son further in the political administration of the state.

But it is another criticism against the state government that matters the most.

Significantly, no political party or leader has spelt out those lines but social media posts have questioned the morality and propriety of the chief minister announcing Rs 10 lakh compensation to the families of every dead victim of hooch.

The question is being asked is how and why the government thought it fit to pay for the hooch dead from the tax and other revenue collections that go mostly from non-drinkers.

There is also a sociological anxiety that the continued act of the state government paying high compensation to hooch victims while depriving more needy victims of other social evils can have a deleterious effect on community-living.

Comparisons too will be made of governmental compensation for flood and cyclone victims, and those in fire tragedies, especially in match and cracker factories.

In extreme cases, there is the temptation to believe in the abuse and misuse of governmental grace and generosity.

IMAGE: M K Stalin chairs a review meeting at the Mundiambakkam Government Medical College Hospital over the death of people in the hooch tragedy in the state in Villupuram, June 15, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

It is in this midst that mild voices have begun to be heard about the need for total prohibition in the state.

It may or may not pick up momentum, and a lot of it may also depend on the Madras high court observations, at times obiter dicta that have no binding force on the government, especially.

Already, social media has begun addressing questions at social activists, political commentators and film actors who had posted views and demands critical of the previous AIADMK government on a host of issues -- but are supposedly stone-deaf and colour-blind to the incumbent regime.

It is also such voices that in particular have questioned the high compensation for hooch victims.

This societal double play is unquestionable, yes. But that applies to everyone, big and small, then as now.

The late journalist, satirist and moralistic political commentator, Cho S Ramaswamy, was once known to have been a director of a liquor-manufacturing company identified with the AIADMK under J Jayalalithaa.

He supposedly quit the post only after his association became public knowledge.

In the same vein, social media activists this time round have specifically begun questioning the so-called left-extreme social groups that launched long and relay-like protests across liquor shops across the state through the long run-up to the 2016 assembly elections when Jayalalithaa was chief minister.

These groups, mostly with women activists in the frontline, co-opted local women in their protests, which at times turned violent, especially if the local police acted in defence of the liquor shops all of which were/are owned by the state government, then as now.

During the state-wide protest, 60-year-old Sasi Perumal, a Gandhian and prohibition activist from Salem, died while carrying the message atop of a mobile tower in Kanyakumari district.

That did not deter either the protestors or the government, which however promised the Madras high court to cut down on the number of shops in a gradual manner.

This has not happened after a purportedly promising start.

IMAGE: BJP MPs demand compensation for families of Bihar hooch tragedy victims, December 23, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

It is against this background that every liquor tragedy, hooch or otherwise, in the state has triggered a host of public demands for total prohibition -- only to die a natural death until the next one.

The Kallakurichi tragedy is no different. The reasons are many but two of them need special mention and attention.

One, it was in present day Tamil Nadu, C Rajagopalachari as the short-serving premier of the Madras Presidency (1937 to 1939) in the pre-Independence British Raj, introduced prohibition on a trial basis in his native, undivided, Salem district, and also parts of present day Andhra Pradesh that were then part of the presidency.

It was the policy of the Indian National Congress to which he then belonged and also the personal wish of Gandhiji.

The situation changed only after the DMK came to power, especially under the post-Annadurai regime of Karunanidhi.

The government claimed that lifting of prohibition became necessary in the early 1970s as a short-term measure to shore up the state's revenues and also to check against hooch tragedies of the kind.

Between then and now, the alternating governments of the DMK and breakaway AIADMK have kept blaming the other for the easing the liquor/prohibition policy, and for hooch tragedies, depending on whoever was in power at the time.

This time round, it is the bane of the DMK and Stalin, so to say -- but none of them has found an alternative to 'liquor revenues' that have been mounting over the years and decades, and whose contributions to the state budgets too have been shooting up, year after year.

IMAGE: A liquor shop at Raniganj village in Barabanki district, Uttar Pradesh, May 28, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

The second and more important reason for the common man's desire for a liquor-free environment is the embarrassingly unique record of Tamil Nadu being the only state where the government runs liquor stops -- and the government alone runs liquor shops and bars -- other than those licensed in star-hotels.

At least the AIADMK cannot escape the blame for Jayalalithaa as chief minister for 'nationalising' liquor procurement and sales through public sector TASMAC (the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation).

For the past two decades, all liquor shops in the state are owned by TASMAC and all serious and pun-intended writing on drinks and the drunk refer to liquor shops only as 'Tasmac', whether in Tamil or English.

Even while criticising Jaya for the nationalisation policy and the corruption it had led to -- like with sand-mining, also under her care -- successive DMK governments, including the present one, has done precious little to reverse or even alter the course.

The question of total prohibition does not arise, as all political parties have come to believe that there is no alternative to revenue building.

Ironically, rival state governments expend the most on social welfare schemes, especially targeting women and youth and children, but that money comes only by selling more liquor, especially to their own men-folk.

There is always the specious plea, which has been peddled very many times in the past, that without licensed liquor, drinkers would go after hooch and there could be more hooch tragedies and hooch deaths.

No one is convinced, but no one can dispute it either.

Today, the situation is such that actor-politician Vijay, who launched the Tamizhaga Vetri Kazhagam earlier this year, with the promise to contest all 234 assembly seats in the 2026 elections, too has not talked prohibition, after visiting the Kallakurichi tragedy victims.

Whether he will do it in the coming months, especially in his manifesto for the 2026 polls, too is a remote question.

This despite the fact that many of his fans and expected voters are young to middle-aged women, whose livelihood and lifestyle is what hooch tragedies and liquor-flows, legal or otherwise, end up hurting, and beyond redemption and recovery.

And thereby hangs a tale!

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

Get Rediff News in your Inbox:
India Votes 2024

India Votes 2024