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Intoxicated India July 7, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Doron, Assa, India , trackback

Assa Doron

A recent article  in The Lancet expresses alarm at the influx of alcohol consumption in India. It observes that over the past decade a new segment of the population, including women and youths, have been consuming alcoholic drinks. The article identifies this rise as a major public health concern, emerging out of an unsavoury process of middle-upper class indulgence and consumption. As the author writes: “The country, which has seen a rapid proliferation of city bars and nightclubs in recent years, is fast shedding its inhibitions about alcohol as a lifestyle choice.”

India is an emerging giant of consumption, and alcohol is one of the major signifiers of that change. For a subcontinent considered ‘dry’ for centuries, and where prohibition was written into the nation’s constitution, such conspicuous consumption of alcohol is indeed alarming for many. A recent policy paper, aptly titled the Alcohol Atlas of India (2008) warns of the impending dangers of an intoxicated nation.

India has a long and uneasy relationship with alcohol which can be traced to cultural concerns, principles of commensality (e.g., eating and drinking together) and status considerations that have long underpinned India’s caste system. According to Brahminical orthodoxy, alcohol is a polluting substance that defiles those who consume or even touch it. As such, those at the apex of the caste hierarchy, Brahmins, who must maintain their purity at all cost, have largely abstained from alcohol. Moreover, alcohol is also considered haram (forbidden) by India’s substantial Muslim population. However, amongst other groups, including Christians, the warrior castes (kashatriyas), and lower orders of society, alcohol has long played an important role in their everyday lives and festivals. These groups have indulged in the forbidden elixir for many generations, much to the chagrin of their upper caste brethren. The disapproval surrounding alcohol consumption received a boost during the colonial era when  the Indian temperance movement, spearheaded by M.K Gandhi and other leading members of the Indian National Congress, used it as an effective vehicle for advocating their social, economic and moral designs. The disapproval of alcohol emerged as a strategy to undermine British rule and the substantial revenue derived from the production and sale of alcohol. In fact,  preconditions for aspiring Congress party members included the commitment to wearing khadi (homespun weave) and abstinence from alcohol. There was, moreover, another powerful moral imperative propelling Gandhi and his supporters in dubbing alcohol as the most evil of substances. For Gandhi, alcohol was a primary factor in preventing the development and uplift of the poor and dispossessed.

Since independence, various states have sought to apply the prohibition policy with limited success. This is because alcohol sales generate considerable revenue. Moreover, enforcing a ban of alcohol production and consumption is both difficult and dangerous, with illicit trade prospering. Those poor classes who often consume the illicit brew are at risk of severe poisoning, sometimes leading to violent deaths, and in many cases, severe crippling and blindness. The cultural baggage that alcohol carries, its association with crime and poverty, meant that in the past the middle classes largely avoided the ‘demon’ rum, with the upper classes indulging in the much pricier range of foreign brands. The poor’s alcohol consumption was thus frequently dismissed as being related to their moral depravity and criminal inclinations.

Two decades on and the burgeoning Great Indian Middle-Class is seeking new thrills, with drinking alcohol an important mark of status for this consumer savvy group. Not surprisingly, India has been dubbed as the most promising market for alcohol production and distribution around the globe. 

India is changing. No longer is alcohol consumption the preserve of the poor, a substance consumed clandestinely, concealed from the gaze of the state, one’s peers and environment. Now it is celebrated, a mark of youthful emancipation of a country coming to terms with the changing nature of its population and cultural moorings. Such change in drinking patterns, especially amongst women, has been vehemently and aggressively challenged by right wing Hindus and sanctimonious politicians taking it upon themselves to operate as India’s moral police: evident in the recent Mangalore pub attacks and the overall aversion to pub culture in Hyderabad. While assaults on women have led to the famous Pink Underwear (chaddi) campaign and police arrests against fundamentalist outfits, the threat of violence and castigation remains.

Alcohol continues to stimulate debate in India. But the question remains: if the cultural moorings informing social structures are dissolving in favour of a consumption buzz characteristic of the urban middle-classes, does this mean that the poor and other socially marginalised groups will no longer be subjected to the past moral blanket disapproval of their drinking practices? One can only hope.


1. Lawrence Niewójt - July 11, 2009

Doron’s article is particularly timely. Illicit brew has been responsible for a large number of deaths in Gujarat this past week.


2. Sadan Jha - July 17, 2009

Recently in Gujarat a large number of people have died due to the consumption of adulterated hooch, locally made spirit. A previous commentator to this post has also drawn attention to the issue.
However, what connects the Gujarat case and Doron’s essay is the centrality of moral vocabulary shaping the practice of consumption.
The hooch tragedy has intensified a long debate in the dry state of Gujarat. It is called dry as the consumption, sale and manufacture of liquor is officially prohibited in Gujarat. However, unofficially all three practices are quite prevalent. The debate is around the question of whether Gujarat should lift the prohibition or not? Now, the Gujarat government is coming up with a draconian law by which persons responsible for the keeping, distributing or manufacturing of hooch which leads to the death of a human being after its consumption will invite the death penalty. There are far reaching implications for this.
a. in an age when there is so much debate going on about the abolition of death penalty, why impliment any such law?
b. the use of a draconian law always comes with the fear of its misuse by the state and by people with vested interests.
c.In a state with a long culture of alcohol drinking and a deep politics of prohibition (Historian David Hardiman has written a brilliant article on the issue) another set of extreme measures will only encourage the mushrooming of underground activities and will discriminate against small distillers compared to more organised players in the sector.
There are many more fears but in the passage meant for comment this will suffice.