In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes.
In the first Madras legislative assembly election in February 1937, Congress won majority winning 159 of 215 seats — its most impressive electoral performance in all the provinces. Rajaji became the first Congress Chief Minister of Madras. The Government of India Act, 1935, had accorded provincial autonomy, with prohibition becoming a State subject. Accordingly, provinces could control the liquor usage with no prior sanction required from Delhi.
Rajaji had not shown keen ambitions in the run up to the election; it was S Satyamurti and K Kamaraj who did the initial spade work. But Rajaji evinced interest at the last minute and took over the leadership (and also Satyamurti graduate’s constituency). Historians consider his quest to enforce prohibition as the prime reason for this. Rajaji had perhaps understood that this was a godsend opportunity to implement his ideas on prohibition in Madras Presidency.
Prohibition was not mentioned in the Congress manifesto for the election. But after assuming power, it took only two months for the Congress ministry to pass the legislation, Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act, 1937, enforcing a ban on alcohol. “Look at the glory that would be ours. If prohibition succeeds, we can be an example to the whole world. Do you not want India to succeed where America has failed,” Rajaji had remarked. People were surprised at the speed at which the Prohibition Act was passed in the assembly, and newspapers even commented on the ineffectualness of the opposition.
Prohibition came to force on an experimental basis at Salem, Rajaji’s home district, and slowly spread to few other districts as well. Strict measures were taken to enforce the scheme. All liquor shops were closed and liquor advertisements were banned.
What worried everybody was the loss of revenue. It was not comforting to most when Rajaji said, “The rich would have to be taxed if the poor were to be saved.” Soon, the government went on an overdrive with new taxes. Other than the sales tax, the electricity duty, entertainment tax, tobacco tax and increase in registration fees were brought in to compensate the loss. In a way, the origin of revenue changed from rural to urban after this move.
However, taking care not to step on the ruler’s toes, Rajaji exempted British officers from prohibition through a system of permits. The Governor gave an order that any European applying for a permit was to be immediately granted one. Interestingly, the collector and the district superintendent of police of Salem, both Europeans, opted not to take a permit. Instead, both turned teetotallers. The Collector remarked that it would be very awkward to enforce laws which the officials themselves did not obey. Churches were given special permission by way of an amendment to store and distribute wine for religious purposes. Possession of brandy was permitted in hospitals.
Rajaji government decided to keep a watchful eye upon bootleggers who brewed or smuggled liquor. The police were given extensive powers to enforce the ban on alcohol, and police personnel known to be addicted to liquor were transferred out of the district. Unmindful of the fact that a bootlegger whom they were chasing had entered Mysore kingdom, policemen shot him to death. Mysore had no exaggerated opinion about the value of human life, but that its territory had been insulted. The litigation went on for long and Rajaji supported the Madras police to the hilt to acquit the officer.
During this time, Governor Lord Erskine wrote to the King that prohibition had succeeded far better than expected. The King’s secretary wrote back that the news of prohibition had ‘particularly interested’ the king and added, “Your Prime Minister (Rajaji) seems to have plenty of character.” However, war broke out in Europe and India was enlisted as one of the participants without her consent. This troubled the Congress, and its provincial governments resigned in protest. But the concept of prohibition as an implementable project would last till 1971, when the then DMK government led by the late M Karunanidhi lifted it.
—The author is a historian