‘Judging’ the Drink of the Workers

hooch tragedy

Alcohol has many connotations amongst its consumers. Some see it as a medium of intoxication that heightens pleasure, others consume it to celebrate on festive occasions, and for many others it is a commodity that allows them to forget their everyday woes. Quite opposed to these connotations, the medical experts hold the view that excessive consumption of alcohol leads to deterioration of health. ‘Drunkenness’ has often been linked to cases of rash driving, cases of domestic violence, indiscipline and low productivity in industry, and also cases of fit and rage. The impact of alcohol on the individual, family, and society is such that most of us tend to hold a position against its consumption.

Deaths of people after they consume spurious liquor are time and again reported by the newspapers. One such outburst against the consumption of alcohol was witnessed in the fourth week of February 2019, when we saw, read, and heard about the deaths of more than 150 tea garden workers. They had reportedly consumed ‘illicit’ liquor. In the media houses, the workers were criticised for their habit of drinking, and the brewers of this liquor were declared as ‘criminals.’ The pain and suffering on those who died and those who survived were recounted time and again.

No sooner did this happen, one of the branches of the state namely- the excise department registered several cases against the ‘illegal’ brewers of liquor. It conducted raids, arrested some ‘illegal brewers’, and seized as well as destroyed thousands of litres of ‘illicit’ liquor. In the civil society too, there was uproar over the deaths of the workers. Several non-governmental organisations, women, student, and youth organisations, and trade unions took to streets. Almost all of them blamed the workers for their habit of drinking. They promised to raise the consciousness of the ‘ignorant’ workers, and vowed to end its manufacture. In a similar vein, the politicians did not lag behind. They debated and discussed about the ways of ending the sale and manufacture of ‘illicit’ liquor. Those sitting in the opposition accused the government of failing in its duty. Others wanted Assam to be declared a ‘dry state’.

The unfolding of these events reminded me about the story of how alcohol primarily- the country liquor was introduced in the tea gardens of Assam. It is a story of what the workers drank, and how, why, and when the colonial state made attempts to infringe upon their rights of drinking. It reminds us of how policies are framed and how the people at the margins are judged, and also how the blame of failure is outsourced to them when the policies of the state do not yield the desired result.

The story of introduction of alcohol dates back to 1870s. During this decade, the colonial state mapped and branded the liquor brewed by the workers in the tea gardens for home consumption as ‘illegal.’ It did so, on the ground that the brewing of liquor by the workers impacted the sale of country liquor which was manufactured and sold from the licensed liquor shops. The excise officials as well as the Chief Commissioner of Assam were of the opinion that as there was a natural demand for liquor- this demand had to be capitalised by opening licensed liquor shops in the tea gardens. To implement this plan, the state categorised the liquor manufactured by the workers namely: haria (a form of rice beer), and pachwai (drink made of molasses, jaggery along with other substances) as ‘illegal.’ The workers who brewed and sold such liquor were branded as ‘criminals.’

Thus one can clearly see that with the coming of the modern state, alcohol was turned into a taxable commodity. Now, liquor had to be served and consumed under the umbrella of the modern state and any liquor which was manufactured and consumed outside the legal framework of state was categorised as ‘illegal.’

To sell country liquor, the excise officials granted licenses to the distributors. These distributors opened liquor shops and sold liquor to the workers. No sooner had this initiative been taken, the tea planters resisted the sale of liquor to their workers. Most of the tea planters held the position that consumption of alcohol led to drunkenness amongst the workers which also created conditions for absenteeism, indiscipline, as well as animosity. Very soon, these allegations were put to rest. The colonial state persuaded the planters about the utility of supplying licensed liquor to the coolies. The excise officials as well as the Chief Commissioner of Assam were of the opinion that as the workers drank, it was necessary for the state to serve them ‘good liquor’ or else the workers would resort to ‘illicit’ manufacture. Furthermore, they also argued that as opposed to the country liquor, the ‘illicit’ manufacture and drink created complications in the health of the workers (mostly bowel complaints), and also impacted the discipline as well as attendance of the industry. Some of the medical officials carried out chemical examination of country liquor and found out that these liquors were ‘good’ and fit for consumption with very little after-effects. As opposed to the country liquor, they argued that the consumption of home-brewed liquor led to drunkenness and bowel complaints amongst the workers.

The persuasive skills of the government officials yielded result. Some of the managers agreed to run canteens in the tea gardens to sell licensed liquor to the workers. In the canteens, the workers came to purchase liquors, cigarettes, snacks etc. However, there were also managers who were reluctant to run liquor canteens. They expressed that it would erode their ‘moral paternal hegemony’ over their workers. To take these managers on board, the excise officials continued to press for innovative measures. In the meanwhile, a central distillery house was established at Jorhat with several distributive ware-houses across the province. In the 1930s, the colonial state devised a new scheme which was known as lessee manager scheme. Under this scheme, a manager was required to grant land on lease to the licensee for opening a licensed liquor shops. Very soon, this scheme gained popularity.

These measures as expected resulted in the enhancement of excise revenue. But none of these efforts could curb the manufacture, sale, and drinking of the home brewed liquor. It was reported by the excise officials that the ex-tea garden workers, as well as some Nepali settlers who were settled in the villages brewed liquor and supplied it to the workers in the tea gardens. There were also cases of some workers brewing liquor and selling it either in the evening or at night, mostly during paydays, and on holidays. Now, the excise officials resorted to coercive strategies. They conducted raids in and around the vicinity of the tea gardens. Almost every year, there were reports of raids carried out by excise officials. They rewarded the informers who used to report about the ‘illicit’ brewing of liquor. They also seized hundreds of litres of ‘illicit’ liquor, and at times also arrested brewers of ‘illicit’ liquor. On some occasions, the raids conducted by the excise officials turned violent leading to death of the workers. Despite these measures, most of the workers continued to brew and consume liquor. Throughout the colonial rule, the ‘illicit’ brewing of liquor by workers remained a perennial problem for the colonial state.

This brings us to the question: Why did the workers brew liquor? To answer this we will have to ask and answer: Who were these workers?

The workers were recruited from diverse geographical terrains. It includes the present day Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Orissa, Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Nepal. Before migrating to Assam, these workers were agricultural labourers, artisans, and tribal’s who were depended on land, crafts, and jungles for their livelihood. Faced by economic, social, and political distress they had migrated to Assam. Coming to Assam meant that they were required to adjust to a new work regime and a new industrial time. This was indeed a challenge. For most of the workers, working in Assam was accompanied by loneliness, and alienation. Although most of them had family, but they lacked a locality- a neighbourhood where they could gather, interact, and share their joys and sorrows. Back in their home districts most of these workers were reported to have some relationship with drink of one kind or the other. In birth, marriages, religious festivals and other ceremonies, they congregated and celebrated by drinking home brewed liquor. Thus, brewing of liquors by the workers in the tea gardens of Assam meant that they tried to recreate a miniature world of their own in their new found home. Brewing and sale of liquor also meant that the workers wanted to drink. After all, drink had many social and cultural connotations in the lives of the people. Sitting, discussing, and drinking in a company of known friends and family is not an unknown to human beings. However, the colonial state chose to ignore these connotations. It prioritised on the economics of liquor and made effort to maximise the revenue earned from country liquor. Thus by criminalising the brewers, and by declaring the drink of the workers as ‘illicit’, the colonial state was able to create a market for the country liquor.

Looking at the wages of the workers one can surely argue that most of the workers could not purchase the liquor from licensed liquor shops. Purchasing liquor from these shops was indeed an aspiration, but this aspiration had a higher price. The workers brewed because there a natural demand for liquor among them. Moreover, these liquors were easily accessible, cheap, and it allowed many of the brewers to earn extra cash. As is known to all of us that during the colonial period and even now, the workers receive nominal wages. Thus for some workers brewing and selling liquor was a way of survival that helped them to earn some extra cash.

While the colonial state wanted to capitalize on the demand of liquor, the nationalists were quite opposed to it. Ban on liquor was one of the primary demands of the Gandhian movement. In Assam too, the temperance movement generated pressures for the colonial administration. The temperance movement of the nationalists was like a ‘purification’ drive. They tried to invoke and impose a Brahmanical moralist ‘high culture’ on the subalterns who in their imagination were ‘ignorant’ and ‘backward’.

In the days to come the temperance movement acquired a new moral meaning. After independence, the civil society and the political leaders in Assam carried forward the sentiments of temperance movement. They have been consistently taking positions against the brewing, sale, and consumption of liquor by the workers. Almost all the student unions, the women fronts, and the trade unions have made it a part of their manifesto to fight and oppose the sale and consumption of ‘illicit’ liquor. Their rallying call has been to make the workers ‘modern’ and ‘civilised’, because in their vision, the habit of the workers of brewing and consuming ‘illicit’ liquor is seen as a sign of ‘low culture.’

Drinking of liquor as known to all of us is not something new. People spend thousands on drinking, depending on their income. They drink in comfortable spaces, in bars, in their homes, in parties, in gatherings, in marriages, and in various other occasions. These drinks never earn the wrath of civil society because they are somehow more acceptable and are seen as part of a more sober ‘high culture.’ Unfortunately, it is the drink of the subalterns, their behaviour, and their habits that always become a subject of reform. I hope that the consumption or non-consumption of home-brewed liquor does not become the benchmark for measuring the progress of the workers. Moreover, one should understand that the workers did not die because they drink. They died because the manufacturers of liquor failed to supply the liquor of the desired standard. It shows the loopholes within the state and hints of a nexus between the state officials and the liquor manufacturers. Therefore, before banning and ‘judging’ the drink of the workers- it is important to ask- Why people drink? The answer I believe is more complex than taking black and white positions.

Raj Kumar Thakur

I work on the relationship between state, capital, and the workers. My thesis titled: Rethinking Planter Raj: Stories of Conflict between the State and Planters in Assam, 1860s-1950s will be submitted in July 2019 to the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Presently, I am working as a Junior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi on a monograph titled: Exploring the Contemporary World of the ‘Coolies’, 1951 to 2015.


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