Alcohol & Indian Nationalism


A Review of A World Without Drink: Temperance in Modern India, 1880-1940 by Robert Eric Colvard

Between 1880 and 1940, the association between alcohol and the Indian nation shifted dramatically. Eric Colvard’s work examines the lesser-studied role of temperance within Indian nationalism, exploring the history of nationalism (and nation-construction) through the lens of drink. The dissertation argues that there was a close connection between the two. Temperance organizations not only contributed to nascent nationalist protests, the concept of drink came to be defined as something “foreign” and inherently anti-Indian by elite nationalists themselves.

Chapter 1 sets out the main arguments and methodology of the dissertation as well as making clear the limitations of such a piece. The author is well aware of the inherent biases of the archives, and the ways in which archives reflect normative patterns of domination in their construction. The case of temperance and drink is no exception. Temperance activists and nationalists were more likely than not to be higher status men who attempted to frame drink as “immoral,” using the language of pollution to do so. The records available to historians are shaped by this world-view. While the dynamics, demands, and participants of early alcohol protests were almost polar opposites to those of later nationalist temperance activists, attempts were made to re-frame early protests, in a sense “domesticating” them within an imagined continuum of temperance activism in India.

Colvard takes as a starting point the fact that anti-alcohol agitation was an important presence in each of three critical phases of the freedom struggle: the Swadeshi; Non-Cooperation; and Civil Disobedience movements. The dissertation examines each of these phases in turn, comparing participants, goals, and methods. It concludes with the era of the Congress Ministries and the pilot schemes in prohibition, before finally considering the long-arm of this activism and how it has shaped ideas of drink in India today.

Chapter 2 focuses on the 1878 Abkari Act in Bombay Presidency. The drinking habits of Indians changed under colonial rule, in part due to the fact that the colonial tax policy favored the consumption of “foreign” liquors over more traditional drinks such as toddy and “country” liquors. The Government of Bombay introduced the 1878 Act partly in response to criticisms of government alcohol policy by temperance advocates. These activists argued that colonial excise policy had prompted an increase in alcohol production (akbari) and that constitutional reform was needed to curb this. However, the dilemma (if it could be understood as such) for the colonial state was that excise revenues from the sale of liquor production and sale licenses represented a significant part of the revenues of each of the presidencies. Although inimical to the ideas of the temperance activists, the Bombay Act provided the presidency another way to increase its revenue. The Act placed alcoholic beverages in one of three categories: toddy; imported, or “foreign” liquor; and “country” liquor.  Prior to the Act’s implementation in 1879, liquor in all forms could be sold by anyone upon payment of a license fee. The new law not only increased the tax payable on toddy trees themselves and required that tappers maintain a minimum of twenty-five trees, but fixed the price of toddy at a very low rate.  The effect of these actions was to exclude the small-scale producers who had previously composed the majority of drink manufacturers. As such, the Act significantly disrupted the small-scale village economies previously dependent on the production of local liquors, shifting the contracts to wealthy monopolists who not only adulterated their liquor, but charged the public much more for it.

Colvard argues that responses to the Act, such as the Bhandari strike of 1885-86, represented the first large-scale, organized public opposition to drinking, but he also stresses that the reasons behind it were antithetical to the rationale behind the later temperance movement. Prior to the Act, the Bhandari community was active in the toddy-tapping trade, though mostly on a small-scale. The new regulations meant that Bhandaris could not afford to remain in business; many were forced to cut down their palm trees to avoid incurring the wrath of the over-zealous Abkari police. In protest, the Bombay Bhandari community collectively refused to participate in the trade. In Panvel, drinkers organized a strike to abstain from drinking until the Abkari tax was relaxed. The abstention movement spread among a number of low-status groups across western India.

Reactions to the Act, particularly those like the Bhandari strike, differed significantly from the protests that would follow. The Bombay drink activists in the 1880s sought a reduction on the duty on country liquor and toddy as well as in government regulation of small-scale producers more generally. Critics of the Abkari Act were many, ranging from wealthy Indian critics who held a significant financial stake in alcohol production, to poorer drink producers and consumers, who argued that the new taxation system was grossly unfair. The temperance protests that followed called for a return to less-expensive, unadulterated liquors.

Chapter 3 examines the changing relationship between British temperance activists and early nationalists in the period from 1890 to the early 1920s. This period saw real growth in temperance agitation across India, with liquor store pickets spreading across the country. Colvard argues that the temperance associations that blossomed in the early twentieth century created a significant space for Indian nationalism, a space within which criticism of colonial rule on moral grounds was possible. The chapter suggests the ways in which the temperance component of early Indian nationalism influenced the social character of the Indian National Congress.

Two temperance organizations, the Anglo-Indian Temperance Association (AITA) and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), were particularly active during this period.  However, the two had markedly different attitudes towards political questions and Indian nationalism more broadly. While WCTU was explicitly in favor of empire, AITA’s membership and philosophy was sympathetic to nationalist demands. Much like the early Congress, AITA’s early days were spent petitioning parliament in Britain. However, AITA quickly developed and, as Colvard shows, helped provide an additional communication network that drew together Indian activists across different locations.

Following the 1907 Congress meeting at Surat, Congress was cleaved in two, divided between so-called extremists and moderates, two groups with opposing tactics and philosophies. The chapter examines how these divided stances shaped temperance organizations such as AITA and the Poona Temperance Association (PTA), which provided a unique space for the mitigation of nationalist factionalism. The PTA membership included Congressmen on both sides of the moderate/extremist split, most notably in the persons of Gokhale and Tilak. The idea that drink—and immorality—was of foreign import to India was more firmly linked to the idea that British rule itself was immoral, and corruption increasingly ran through nationalist debates.

Chapter 4 focuses on the ways in which the earlier pickets of liquor shops intensified as the Non-Cooperation movement absorbed these protests. The violence that often accompanied liquor store pickets followed a grimly predictable pattern.  Colvard shows that violence during these pickets was often inflicted on lower status drinkers as a way of “policing” public morality. Violence was also directed at those groups who were portrayed as traitors (or outsiders), such as the Parsi community, members of which operated a significant number of the liquor shops in Bombay.

This chapter also addresses the shift in temperance leadership during the 1920s, when the mantle of leadership passed from British reformers to Indian activists. Colvard argues that AITA’s unwillingness to make a political commitment to the nationalist cause proved a fatal flaw for the organization, which was frequently side-lined by “home-grown” agitation. Increasingly, it was Indian temperance activists who represented the movement at international conferences. The global temperance audiences that Indian activists addressed heard pointed criticisms of the colonial state. Further, Indian temperance advocates repeatedly cast India’s alcohol problem as a direct result of British rule, an argument to which American audiences were more sympathetic.

Chapter 5 addresses the Civil Disobedience movement (1930-31) and the rule of the Congress Ministries (1938-39). Despite years of anti-alcohol agitation, drinking culture remained widespread. As Ambedkar, among others, pointed out, over a fifth of the population continued to drink. Excise revenue from Madras Presidency accounted for as much as 38% of its total revenue, much to the dismay of temperance advocates. Civil Disobedience saw increased tensions between nationalists devoted to prohibition and the liquor men against whom they were pitted; at times the conflict resulted in outbreaks of violence. Drinkers increasingly found themselves threatened with bodily harm and commanded to conform to the social mores of the upper castes. For many elite nationalists, the association between drink and low social status was seen as a threat to the nation as a whole. Colvard examines this dilemma in the context of agency, highlighting the irony that as the colonial state denied the Indian public political agency, Congress denied the agency of would-be drinkers, casting them instead as “victims” who needed to be protected from liquor for their own good.

In 1937, following changes brought in by the 1935 Government of India Act, Congress won majorities in five provinces (Madras, Bombay, United Provinces, Central Provinces, and Bihar). Congress subsequently agreed to form ministries in those provinces. Under the changes to the government and representation, the administration of abkari was a “transferred,” or provincial, department. As such, those in power at the provincial level could determine decisions on abkari. This provided Congress with an opportunity to make good on its promise to work for prohibition in the provinces under its control. Pilot prohibition programs were launched in Madras, Bombay, and United Provinces. However, the issue of prohibition quickly presented a problem for Congress. As a large percentage of state revenue came directly from the excise taxes on intoxicants, Congress was forced to make decisions that balanced the desire to implement prohibition with the funding demands of other public programs. Colvard argues that Congress not only gained valuable skills in governance at this point, but was later able to use the structural bureaucracy it had established to deal with the issue of drink. As a “practice” in shadow government, this period allowed Congress to establish the bureaucratic networks and state functions that it would use for future rule in independent India.

This dissertation makes a number of valuable contributions to the study of both Indian nationalism and the history of drink.  Perhaps most critically, it draws our attention to the many links between the two movements.

Erica Wald
Department of History
Goldsmiths, University of London

Primary Sources
Vernacular newspapers, private government correspondence, private temperance archives, petitions, and government reports
Maharashtra State Archive
British Library’s Oriental Office
National Archives of India

Dissertation Information
University of Iowa. 2013. 306pp. Primary Advisor: Paul Greenough.

Image: Barrels outside Chateau Indage Vineyards, Narayangaon – Pune, Wikimedia Commons.