The Congress government in Karnataka is set to launch a campaign to make people drink more liquor, or so it seems. An additional 1,000 liquor shops may come up in the State if the Excise Department has its way. Excise Minister Satish Jharkiholi told reporters that there was a demand for opening five or six new liquor shops in each of the 176 taluks. The government may not rush into implementing this idea. They missed the October 2 opportunity, maybe they are waiting for January 30.

It may be useful to know what happened in Andhra Pradesh.  After a sizeable victory for the Congress in the Assembly elections in 2004, Y.S.Rajasekhara Reddy became Chief Minister. A few days later, about 30 people died after consuming illicit liquor. On seeing the heart-rending scenes, Reddy said that he could imagine how much pain Gandhiji would have suffered had he seen the tragedy.

Within days, Reddy announced that government liquor shops would be opened in villages and unadulterated liquor sold there so that poor people would not die of drinking spurious liquor. Everyone was happy, especially the poor village women. They did not mind their husbands drinking so long as they continued to live! It is estimated that the government got about Rs.14,000-crore revenue last year from liquor sales.

Atheists and believers

The Karnataka government is now caught in what can be called a bizarre situation — conceding the demand of some people, it has agreed to enact a law outlawing superstitious practices. Meanwhile, several prominent legislators have told the government not to rush in the matter because such a law will go against even normal religious beliefs of people risking unpopularity, but some religious leaders themselves have welcomed the proposal.

The Chief Minister, Siddharamiah, has clarified that he is not opposed to the belief in God but only to superstitious practices.

The issue has assumed serious proportions because while religious people, who form a vast majority, think that atheists are just lunatics, most atheists say the boot is on the other foot. Somebody has written that if both groups are correct, then, logically, all human beings are lunatics!

Atheism is not new to India. Hundreds of years ago there was a group of people called Charavakas who preached atheism. Charvakam means asking difficult questions. This group was well informed about the Vedas and other scriptural lore and would ask inconvenient questions that the believers found it difficult to answer.

One of the cardinal teachings of the Charavakas was: Beg, borrow or steal, make yourself happy and enjoy today whatever you want because you may not be alive tomorrow. Some people asked them: What about loans, should they not be repaid? The Charvaka reply was: “If you are dead, why bother about the loans.”

This type of teaching won the Charavakas many adherents and they became powerful. Even kings were afraid of them. The group started telling kings how to run their governments. One point on which the Charavakas almost gained supreme power was in determining the legitimacy of the heir to the throne. The group started with ordering solitary confinement of the queen and later supervised the birth of the child so that no other child was substituted in the place of the legitimate baby.

After some days, the Charavakas became bold enough to demand that they be allowed to watch the king and the queen copulating, so that they could certify the legitimacy of the child. Now, they clearly overreached their own legitimacy. An angry king chopped off the heads of these busybodies, and other kings also picked up courage and followed suit. That ultimately led to the extinction of the Charvaka line.

Not all atheists were like these Charavakas. Some of them were noble-hearted and led exemplary lives. One such person was the late Dr.H.Narasimhiah. A teacher by profession, he became principal of the National College, Bangalore, and later Vice-Chancellor of Bangalore University.  A bachelor, he never tried to inculcate atheist ideas in his students and led a frugal life. Whatever he earned he spent on helping poor children who could not afford school and college fees and such other expenditure. In effect, he was an atheist who was doing work that would have pleased God.

(The writer is a former News Editor of The Hindu. Email: gdwarki@yahoo.com)

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