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Another end to Prohibition

THE GOVERNMENT'S recent announcement that licences will be given to liquor shops to run bars — not that they do not run them anyway nowadays — is as formal an end to Prohibition in the State as could be announced. No doubt, restaurants will be given similar facilities before long, making public drinking an acceptable way of life in the State, and that could well be the end of a dream that began in the 1930s.

After campaigning throughout the 1930s for the necessity to introduce Prohibition in India and urging that the Madras Presidency take the lead, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari was given the opportunity in July 1937 to put into practice what he had preached when the Congress swept into power in the Presidency and he was invited to become its Premier. Three months later, on October 1, 1937, the Prohibition Act he had introduced came into force, with district after district going dry. It was a path-breaking legislation in Asia.

The first dry district was his native Salem and a year later, Chittoor and Cuddapah followed. In 1939, North Arcot went dry. But not long afterwards, following the outbreak of World War II, Rajaji's ministry resigned. Prohibition, however, continued to gradually expand its spread, so that by February 1948, Chief Minister, O.V. Ramasamy Reddiar was able to inform him that Prohibition had successfully been extended to the whole of Madras Province. The news made Rajaji, at that time Governor of Bengal, ``feel a sense of achievement; completing the edifice of Prohibition in Madras was my dream''. But the dream was to sour when, in 1971, the Karunanidhi regime scrapped Prohibition.

When his pleas ``on behalf of the people'' fell on deaf ears, an agitated Rajaji thought of legally challenging the decision. When it was pointed out that he didn't have much of a case, he pleaded with President V.V. Giri not to give his assent. And when the President merely replied, ``I have noted your views'', and endorsed the repeal, Rajaji was deeply depressed. That subsequent governments tightened up things a bit, made little difference to a State that had tasted liquor with comparative freedom for the first time in nearly 25 years. When I came to Madras in 1968, from a particularly `wet' area, what struck me most was that a generation had grown up in the State with almost no taste of liquor. I was to see how 1971 changed that and 2002 has taken it further, making the State virtually a `wet' one.

But whenever the experiment with Prohibition is discussed, there's one story I'll never forget, a reflection of the moral standards of Rajaji's times. To implement his directive in 1937, Rajaji appointed not an Indian official but a British I.C.S man, A.F.W. Dixon. The tall Collector and his Prohibition Officer, Thompson, also British, neither of them teetotallers, agreed to abide by Rajaji's request that they would not drink while in the district nor apply for a permit. Both were scrupulously fair in enforcing the law and their example created the image the wily Rajaji had hoped for: ``White officials implementing a very un-British policy without fear or favour''.

Dixon was indeed a model civilian with a deep commitment to improvement of conditions in India. He was a Cambridge Rowing Blue but he loved cricket, even if he was not very good at it. As Secretary of Education in the 1930s, he was determined to improve the standard of Indian cricket in colleges and clubs. And so he raised `Dixon's XI's' that included some of the best European and Indian cricketers in the Presidency, to play against college and club teams. Dixon's team was the first in which Europeans and Indians played together on the same team in Madras. No wonder, when Dixon moved to Salem and the irrepressible Denniston of Best's took over, the I Zingari type teams were formally named the Eccentrics!


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