Sharab, Shabab aur Kebab -1


Morality in Political Discourse in India

This is a three part article and each part is complete in itself. Therefore each part is being published with the same title. The Introduction will be repeated in each part for the sake of making it complete in itself.


‘We are, therefore, largely a drinking, smoking and meat-eating people’!

Dr. Kumar Suresh Singh (1935 – 2006), Director General of the Anthropological Survey of India. He initiated and completed a massive project called ‘People of India’. Published in 43 volumes, it remains the biggest anthropological survey of the Indian people.


Morality in political discourse is not unique to India. It exists all over the world. In this essay, we shall stick to India because we do not know enough about rest of the world. The three moralities that we want to discuss are:  1) Sharab (alcohol/prohibition), the best known instance of which is the prohibition experience in the US in the 1920s; 2) Shabab (youth/sexuality/celibacy) – the control of sexuality has always been an important discourse in the Indian freedom movement; 3) Kebab (meat/vegetarianism) – One may think that vegetarianism has an Indian origin. It is true that Jainism, which originated in India and is still largely practised mainly in India, talks about vegetarian practice, the only religion to do so. But they never propagated it and there is no word for vegetarianism in the Indian tradition. It is a modern-day ideology created by the ‘vegetarian societies’ in England in the 19th century, and which was brought to India by Gandhi.

It is easy to vilify Gandhi about these discourses because it was he who combined all three and made it central to his political discourse. But as we will show in the rest of this article, the origin and impetus for this morality is rooted in capitalism and the struggle against this morality is the struggle for the liberation for mankind from the oppressive structures of class society. However, nor can we avoid referring to Gandhi. So we want to make it clear that this article is not an overall assessment of Gandhi nor is there any intention of targeting him.


Prohibition is the act or practice of forbidding something by law; more particularly the term refers to the banning of the manufacture, storage (whether in barrels or in bottles), transportation, sale, possession, and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The word is also used to refer to a period of time during which such bans are enforced.1

In the early twentieth century, much of the impetus for the prohibition movement in the Nordic countries and North America came from the moralistic convictions of pietistic Protestants. Prohibition movements in the West coincided with the advent of Women’s suffrage with newly empowered women as part of the political process strongly supporting policies that curbed alcohol consumption. The first half of the 20th century saw periods of prohibition of alcoholic beverages in several countries. In the USA, this lasted from 1920 to 1933.

After several years, it was widely agreed that prohibition had failed in North America and elsewhere. What happened was that organized crime took control of the distribution of alcohol. Distilleries and breweries in Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean flourished as their products were either consumed by visiting Americans or illegally exported to the United States. Chicago became notorious as a haven for prohibition dodgers during the time known as the Roaring Twenties. Prohibition generally came to an end in the late 1920s or early 1930s in most of North America and Europe, although a few locations continued prohibition for many more years.

Generally, prohibition has been found to be not completely effective, and only tends to drive the market underground.1


Till Independence, India had no policy of prohibition. Gradually, the production of alcohol was licensed. There are two categories – Indian local brews and IMFL –Indian made Foreign Liquor. Most of the poor drank local brews. Industrialisation was sporadic and alcoholism was not a big problem. As we have said, alcoholism is primarily a product of industrialisation.

The first organised effort to curb alcohol use started with the temperance movement in the 19th century, which found support in India too. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the movement in India was well connected with the temperance movement in Great Britain and the missionary organisations of the United States which advanced a similar cause. The World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WWCTU) began organizing local unions there as early as August of 1887. When Pandita Ramabai opened her school for young Hindu widows in Mumbai in the spring of 1889, the WWCTU supported her work and commissioned her as a WCTU National Lecturer. In August 1893, the WCTU of India was officially organized and based in Lucknow with Jeannette Hauser appointed in a paid position as president.

The temperance movement in India became closely tied with the Indian independence movement as Mahatma Gandhi viewed alcohol as being a foreign import. He viewed foreign rule as the reason that national prohibition was not yet established at his time. 2

Today in India alcohol is a state subject. While individual states can legislate prohibition, currently most states have chosen not to and sale/consumption of alcohol is freely allowed in 25 out of 29 states. Prohibition is in force in the states of Gujarat, Bihar and Nagaland, parts of Manipur, and the union territory of Lakshadweep. All other states and union territories of India permit the sale of alcohol.1

So, by and large prohibition has failed in India too, as it has elsewhere in the world. However it still persists in the political discourse because it is difficult to shake off the Gandhian legacy in politics. But there are other factors also.

The biggest moral pressure for temperance/prohibition has come from the women’s movement. As we have seen above, it was the ‘The World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WWCTU)’ that was the starting point for the temperance movement in India. With the active participation of contemporary social reformers, like Keshab Chandra Sen, the temperance movement in India started to gain strength.3 In 1980s in Chhattisgarh, the legendary trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi had led an anti liquor movement in support of women workers. In the early 1990s, Andhra Pradesh also had an anti liquor movement led by women. These pressures still remain and continue to affect the political stance of the populist parties when it comes to alcohol.

An ancient vintage

Alcohol has been known to mankind for thousands of years. It has been used on special occasions to relax and celebrate. It was also used as a sacrament in religious rituals, as it continues to be used in many tribal cultures. Occasionally some drank excessively but it was generally tolerated. Alcoholism as a ‘social evil’ is a 20th century working class phenomenon and so is its ‘solution’: prohibition. It is a case of alienated labour where workers try to escape their horrible working and living conditions thorough drinking. Prohibition is a response of the capitalist class which wants a ‘committed’ working class.

However there are other players as well. The three pro-prohibition factors have been religious groups, women’s movement, and a class of capitalists who want to regulate drinking to get a committed work force, apart from populist political parties who act on these pressures. The forces against prohibition, however, are far more formidable and therefore prohibition has always failed.

First and foremost ‘anti-prohibition’ force is the fact that, as we saw above, alcohol has been known to mankind for thousands of years. It is impossible to stop its use. Therefore, once prohibited, the alcohol trade immediately goes underground and becomes, ’criminal’. Alcohol in India is very heavily taxed and therefore instead of making money for the state, prohibition policies cost the exchequer a heavy loss in tax money to implement it. The alcohol industry is a very lucrative one, and has influential lobbies advancing its interests in every state. Finally, once prohibition stays in place for a long time, it begins to look hypocritical if not absurd because alcohol continues to available easily and openly, as one sees in Gujarat or Bihar today. So, sooner or later, the pro-alcohol lobby within the state wins and prohibition is lifted.

What the pro-prohibition groups have always failed to see is that alcoholism is an effect and not a cause. The cause is, we have said above, the oppressive and alienating working and living conditions of the working class under capitalism. Once these conditions are removed, alcohol use will naturally become moderate for relaxation and celebration, as it had been through most of history. Till then, prohibition and similar attempts to curb alcohol use will always be made by governments, serving as textbook examples of political hypocrisy.


  1. Women and anti-liquor movement in colonial Bengal, 1880-1908

T. Vijayendra (1943- ) was born in Mysore, grew in Indore and went to IIT Kharagpur to get a B. Tech. in Electronics (1966). After a year’s stint at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, he got drawn into the whirlwind times of the late 60s. Since then, he has always been some kind of political-social activist. His brief for himself is the education of Left wing cadres and so he almost exclusively publishes in the Left wing journal Frontier, published from Kolkata. For the last nine years, he has been active in the field of ‘Peak Oil’ and is a founder member of Peak Oil India and Ecologise. Since 2015 he has been involved in Ecologise! Camps and in 2016 he initiated Ecologise Hyderabad. He divides his time between an organic farm at the foothills of Western Ghats, watching birds, writing fiction and Hyderabad. He has published a book dealing with resource depletions, three books of essays, two collections of short stories, a novella and an autobiography. Vijayendra has been a ‘dedicated’ cyclist all his life, meaning, he neither took a driving licence nor did he ever drive a fossil fuel based vehicle. Email: [email protected]

Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Sharab, Shabab aur Kebab -II

Morality in Political Discourse in India This is a three part article and each part is complete in itself. Therefore each part is being published with the same title. The…

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News