The Anti-arrack movement, Nellore although a fight against alcoholism and its prohibition, is a brilliant example of women’s ongoing struggle against the existing patriarchal system and its articulation in the society. The movement provides an excellent illustration of how literacy can empower people to help bring about a revolution, ultimately resulting in an improvement in the social conditions of people residing in the country. In addition, the Anti-Arrack movement through its struggles also motivates us to have faith in our power as individuals. It inspires us to contribute our bit towards bringing about a change in the society by attacking the root cause of the existing issues.
Going through the various events and incidents that led to the Anti-Arrack movement, in this article, we intend to understand the situations that triggered the movement, the motivation of people behind bringing about the movement, note our observations on how women went about in spreading the movement to other parts of the country and how they brought out the much needed change in the system. We also find out the after-effects of the movement simultaneously exploring the learnings we can derive from the movement.
What is Arrack?
Arrack, pronounced as Arak, is a rectified spirit typically produced in South and Southeast Asia. It is generated by distilling fermented molasses, grains or fruits depending on the country where it is being produced. With the green revolution blanketing the country, there was an increase in production of sugarcane (hence, increased production of sugar), leading to an increase in the byproduct of sugar production process, i.e. the molasses which were ultimately used for the production of arrack. Due to its low cost and easy availability, arrack was the most widely consumed drink by poor people.
When did the movement start? What triggered it? What was the role of media in it?
The anti-arrack movement first began during the early August, 1992 in a remote village Dubangata of Nellore district of southern state Andhra Pradesh, India and slowly spread to other parts of the state. It was a result of the social, political and economic condition existing in the state during that time.
It was primarily a woman’s movement, which left a huge impression in the history of the nation. Initiated by the poor rural women of the district, the movement was started against the issues like family violence and political apathy towards the suffering masses of the village. It also questioned the inability of the women to drive any initiative without any support from their male counterparts.
The movement was majorly led by the backward class, dalits and muslim women with the backhand support by women from the upper-caste. One of the key reasons behind the movement was the spread of awareness among the villagers brought about the National Literacy Mission, officially launched In Nellore during the start of 1990s. With the spread of literacy and increased popularization of mass literacy campaigns among the villagers, the women often met and shared their problems. This awakened the women to the evils of alcoholism and made them aware of the intensity of their physical, emotional and psychological suffering. They all suffered from the same problem of alcoholism, physical abuse and male-domination. Some were even abused to the point that they committed suicide. They refused to be treated as unequal and as sex objects by men and took it up as a means for assertion of their identity and their right to peaceful family life and equal partnership at home. They used literacy to strengthen their stand. They realized that they had reached a breaking point and that they cannot bear the hardships anymore. To find a way out, they analyzed the situation and identified the traders, retailers and wholesalers of arrack as the main culprits who were responsible for ruining their family lives. They together decided to stand up against them and against everyone else who was involved with selling of liquor in any form. The fight slowly turned out to a revolt against the local politicians, police officials and the local bureaucracy with a simple demand of ban on sale of arrack.
The movement is said to have been triggered by two major events that took place in the village around that time. One incident relates to a preparatory session meeting held by the employees of the adult literacy program, where a few villagers in inebriated form abused the employees and a few important officials present during the meeting. This was followed by requests from the women of the village to close down the nearby arrack shop, to ensure the smooth conduct of the classes held, which ultimately led to closing down of nearby arrack shops. The second incident relates to the death of two men by falling into the well, which happened due to excessive consumption of arrack. The two incidents outraged the women who were a part of the literacy program and inspired the widespread story of the wife of an alcoholic who committed suicide after she repeatedly failed in her attempts to reform her husband. The story was in one way or another related to every woman’s life in the village and it touched the hearts of many women across villages.
The story encouraged the women to initiate a fight against alcoholism. Women from different villages across Nellore came together and tried to close down the arrack shops in their villages. Some women armed themselves with sticks, chili powder and broomsticks and forced the nearby arrack shops to shut down.
The next major incident happened at Saipet, where a man stabbed his father to death in the inebriated state. The women of the village staged a rally against selling of Arrack in Kavali, another town of Nellore district. This soon spread in the news like wildfire.
The struggle of the villagers was treated as unimportant, hence, easily ignored as another local uprising by the politicians as well as the media at the initial stages of its inception. They thought the movement will subside, but it soon turned out to be the movement they couldn’t choose to ignore. The uprising soon found its way into media as well as local discussions and print media like newspapers, etc. The Telugu newspaper Eenadu played an instrumental role in spreading the news about the movement by providing daily coverage to the day to day agitations.
Role of Government and Liquor Contractors
The people who benefited the most out of sale of liquor were the liquor contractors. They could easily bribe the police officials, excise officers and politicians with the earnings from sale of arrack. They also maintained a gang of strong people who could suppress any rising against any agitation launched against them. The money earned was also spent on construction of new buildings, donations and investment in real estate. Soon they emerged to be the most powerful and resourceful people with an advantage of close political contacts, providing stage for simultaneous development of both crime and politics. This allowed them to grab the liquor contracts at low rates, hence allowing them to earn more and bribe more. With political backing, these contractors soon started becoming politicians, hence, increasing the power in their hands.
Government played a crucial role in supporting the sale of arrack. This was primarily due to the amount of revenues earned from the sale of arrack in the villages. The revenues had nearly doubled in a matter of few years reaching a mark of 16.8 million and formed almost 34% of the revenues for the state government. This important contribution of sale of arrack towards state government’s earnings led to an increase in resistance from government’s end to curb the Anti-arrack movement. It even went to the extent that arrack was sold under police protection and at the police stations to provide more safety and security for sale of arrack. The government backed its resistance with a reason saying the revenues are utilized for the betterment of people. However, the statistics spoke otherwise. Exploring the statistics further, we note that 341,000 families were entitled access to rice at subsidized price of Rs. 16 kg per month. With subsidy of Rs. 1.5 per kg rice, the amount worked out to be Rs 8.2 million against the Rs. 20 million which the government earned from the sale of arrack. In addition to the toddy shops, there were shops that sold IMFL liquor. Thus, we conclude that for every Rs 3.5 the government earned from sale of liquor, they spend a meager Rs. 1.5 on subsidy.
The most surprising action of the government was the introduction of official program of Varun Vahini which allowed the people to bring liquor to their home in sachets. It even went to the extent that some of the men were paid their wages in terms of arrack sachets. This had a negative impact on the economic conditions of the family and resulted in further neglect of the family’s well-being. In short, it earned them nothing more than drunken men.
The high expenditure on arrack is also apparent from the fact that during 1991-92, when the average income of a family was approximately Rs. 1840 per annum, nearly 75% of that was spent on obtaining liquor.
How did the movement progress
The struggle continued as the women together formed committees within their villages to stop the consumption of arrack at the local level. They began the onerous task of bringing about the reforms right from their doorstep, restricting their husbands and male relatives from consuming liquor. Even though the women tried very hard, they could restrict the consumption only till a certain level. As long as the liquor shops existed in the villages, the men usually found out a way to consume alcohol and come back home. The fight reached a larger level involving all those involved in direct or indirect selling of arrack, ranging from contractor to excise department to politicians.
The women raised questions against politicians who could not work towards providing basic amenities to the villagers but provided regular supply of arrack to every arrack shop in the village. The villages lacked even the basic of amenities like drinking water, primary schools and suitable wages for laborers which angered the villagers even further. The government justified the sale of arrack by showing its use for the betterment of people of the village. The agitation spread to other nearby villages like Chittoor and Kurnool. The women strictly insisted in closing down of all arrack shops and proposed the contribution of a day’s wages to cover up for the money spent by the government on welfare activities. In addition, they firmly asserted the closing down of all arrack shops and decided to contribute a rupee each to cover up for contractor’s financial loss, which soon led to complete shutdown of approximately 200 shops and partial close down of 300 others. These shops remains closed as long as the agitation existed.
Women bravely faced the police force and the contractors without a hint of fear. They burnt sachets and forced local vendors to close down their shops simultaneously resisting all pressures from contractors, police officials and political parties. Some contractors went to the extent of offering bribes to villagers ranging from monetary amount varying from Rs. 20 to Rs. 2000 to bribes in form of schools, temples and water schemes in exchange of their assistance in reopening of arrack shops. It was shattering to see people from the movement switch sides for the sake of a few monetary benefits, however, majority of women continued to support the movement.
Even though the women received complete support from district magistrate in their struggle, the contractors resisted any changes by yielding their political power to restrict the movement. The contractors together filed a case against the village women. In addition to the case they filed in the High court for the loss of livelihood, they also issued a memorandum to the government to pursue them to reduce the costs payable by them on the sale of arrack. This was answered by a circular to the magistrate which ordered the reopening of all arrack shops.
The movement continued as many NGOs and opposition parties joined in to support the women of these villages. They together launched a procession to protest against the scheduled arrack auctions. The movement was launched against the arrack auctions as without auctions, all arrack transactions became officially illegal. With the support of 50, 000 people consisting of more than 80% women, the movement caught fire. The procession witnessed agitation from both ends, and ended only with assurance from district magistrate for sending their revived proposal to the government. However, the contractors continued to demand protection from government to be able to continue their businesses as usual.
Jagruti, an NGO based in Nellore assisted the movement by filing a public-interest litigation which contended promotion of arrack auctions. They stated that the auctions violated the fundamental rights of people, as majority of the people of the state were against the sale of arrack. In their support, they also highlighted the involvement of more than 100,000 people and 300 villages in the prohibition campaign. Any attempts of auctioning arrack in any of the villages were openly thwarted by the women of the villages.
Jana Vignana Vedika, an NGO in Chittoor organized meetings in order to form anti-liquor committees aimed at spreading awareness about the issue of alcoholism and the necessary steps towards preventing such an act. The first meeting was prearranged in Tirupati on 27th September, 1992. The meeting witnessed a large gathering of women and other supporting organizations. The meeting discussed the action plan to implement a complete prohibition of sale of arrack. District level anti-arrack committees were formed consisting of 24 members belonging to different organizations. The committees continued to work, also scheduling regular meetings and discussions to find out solutions to the small hurdles which they faced during their struggle. They even wrote letters to the prime minister and the chief minister with special request on ban of arrack. They ensured that the struggles continued in a peaceful and progressive manner.
The most intriguing aspect of the movement is the lack of a single central leadership under which the movement worked. The movement was executed as local level fights and local initiatives with involvement of political parties only at the final stage of the movement. Most of the initiatives were from the local women, with back-end support from NGO’s and women organizations. In the initial phases, the movement observed participation only from women belonging to the lower sections of the society, but they were soon joined by the women from the upper sections of the society leading to further strengthening of the movement. The women ensured their involvement in the activities planned during the movement which included activities like patrolling in the night, organizing rallies and processions or stopping men from consumption of liquor and ensuring the arrack sachets were destroyed. They also devised some unique methods to support their movement. These methods included imposition of fines, punishment of violators, organizing street plays and dramas to spread awareness about the ill effects of arrack.
With the increasing momentum of the movement, it slowly spread to all nearby districts and the government finally gave in to the pressure and imposed a ban on arrack from 1st October,1993. The Excise department was assigned the job to ensure that no arrack is smuggled in the villages in any form. In addition, the Information department launched a huge publicity campaign to spread awareness against the consumption of liquor.
However, this happiness was short lived, as the consumption of toddy increased with the ban of arrack. The root of the evil still existed, and necessary actions were required to ensure that complete prohibition on sale of any kind of liquor is imposed strictly. To take the movement forward, Renuka Chowdary of the opposition’s Telugu Desam Party organized meetings and provided a common platform for all women to come together and fight against arrack. They together formed a Joint Action Forum (JAF) for women which aimed at seeking complete ban on sale of arrack. The JAF sent a memorandum to the Chief Minister, which demanded complete prohibition on sale of arrack. However, the response of the Chief Minister wasn’t satisfactory enough. The women together adopted a different approach to this action. They collected signatures from the suffering women of other villages, organized rallies and arranged meetings in the slum to raise their voice against the issue. This was met with a positive response from N.T. Rama Rao of Telugu Desam Party who declared that he would ensure complete prohibition on sale of liquor if he was elected to power in the next term. Next term, he was elected the Chief Minister with a huge majority votes.
The other political parties were skeptical about N.T. Rao’s commitment as he was the one who introduced Varun Vahini Program (which made liquor available to the people in form of sachets right at their doorsteps). However, he cleared everyone’s doubts, as he slowly emerged out to be a strong force in demanding prohibition of arrack. The other parties also joined in with their support and the movement became the issue of debate all through the state. All organizations finally came together under a single umbrella to form the A.P. Anti-Arrack Struggle committee under the guidance and leadership of Ms. Renuka Chowdhary who served as the chairperson of the committee. The women had successfully achieved triumph over the evils of the society.
The prohibition of arrack was the successful completion of the first phase of the movement which was soon followed with a complete ban on liquor. Huge fines were imposed and strict actions were taken to ensure the rules were properly implemented.
ü The movement started small, and attacked the roots of the evil. It is a brilliant example of a social movement.
ü This movement serves as an inspiration to men and women all through the country to fight for their rights. It has gone a long way in encouraging and supporting the self-confidence and sense of power, especially in women.
ü This movement serves as a motivation for all to spread education through the country, as only education can lead towards a better development of the country.