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Introduction: Indian anomalies? – Drink and drugs in the land of Gandhi


A few days before Christmas 2011 an incident that occurred in the Indian province of West Bengal made it to the breaking news of the national news-chains. From there it circulated to the bulletins of international television chains like BBC and Al Jazeera and reached a global audience within a few hours. 1 The events reported from a rural district in the densely populated Indian region bordering Bangladesh were most dreadful: more than 160  people had died following the consumption of adulterated cholai , a local variety of desı daru or bootlegged Indian ‘country liquor’. Some of the foreign commentators expressed their astonishment about the obvious popularity of strong drink among India’s rural population. Their bewilderment must have grown when they learned that this mass poisoning was by no means a singular event: 107 people were listed as victims of bad moonshine in the southern state of Karnataka three years previously and more than 130 deaths from the same cause were recorded in July 2009 in Gujarat, the last of the Indian states to still be offi cially ‘dry’ today. 2

What makes the event in West Bengal so intriguing is, then, not only the scale of the tragedy but also that it reminded a world-wide audience of a fact that is hardly part of the public image of India projected to the outside world, although well-known in the region itself. Contrary to popular perceptions, alcohol consumption is (and has been for centuries) a regular if problematic feature of the country’s social life. The relative absence of alcohol and drinking in popular western imaginings of India is not least the result of the legacy of the powerful attempt at editing out the role of drink, initiated by a diverse range of historical actors from the late nineteenth century onwards. At the height of India’s independence movement during the 1920s and 1930s, M.K. Gandhi and other spokesmen of the Indian National Congress (INC) were at pains to present India as a country of teetotallers, the positive antithesis of a debauched ‘western civilization’. 3 Implicitly or explicitly, the increased consumption of alcohol among Indians and the problems resulting thereof were often cast by nationalists advocates of abstinence as mere consequences of pernicious European infl uence and the ensuing ‘westernization’ of the Indian educated classes in particular. 4 This interpretation was also compatible

as 1887, a worker of the US-American Woman’s Christian Temperance Union commented upon the prospects of expanding the organization’s work in India that ‘it is the Anglo-Indian rather than the native Hindu who needs reformation’. 5 Needless to say, such reductionist representations of India’s ‘alcohol problem’ were ideally suited to lend credibility to the Indian nationalists’ own temperance agitation. It is curious to note also that a similar rhetoric is revived in recent debates about India’s ‘new’ middle class that has rapidly grown in the last two decades as a result of the politics of economic liberalization adopted in the late 1980s. In the vein of the earlier nationalist propaganda, it is often deplored nowadays that alcohol abuse is no longer predominantly a problem of the poor, as was assumed even in the medical literature until fairly recently, 6 and that the drinking habits of the country’s well-heeled middling sorts damage ‘India’s reputation as a country with a culture of abstinence especially in matters regarding alcohol’. 7

Having said that, it is important to mention that in portraying drink as alien to Indian society, the INC activists of the interwar period and today’s admonishers of westernization had powerful allies. They could draw on a religious rhetoric that was popularized even earlier by a rather unlikely coalition of adherents to reformed Hinduism in India, Christian missionaries, as well as devotees of various esoteric groups and sects in the West. For very different reasons, representatives of all these groups had an interest in presenting alcohol consumption in general and excessive drinking in particular as part of the ‘shallow materialism’ that allegedly prevailed in the rapidly modernizing and secularizing countries of the West and had no moorings in ‘spiritual’ India.