Mahatma Gandhi’s Views on Liquor Prohibition

Mahatma Gandhi’s Views on Liquor Prohibition

Prohibition has a pride of place in the Gandhian vision of the world. To Gandhi “drink is more a disease than a vice” (Young India). “I would hold drink to be more damnable than thieving and perhaps even prostitution.” (M.K. Gandhi, Prohibition At Any Cost).

Gandhi recalls that many empires were destroyed through the drink habit of their rulers. This monstrous evil was undoubtedly one of the contributory factors in the fall of the Roman Empire (M.K.Gandhi, Young India). Gandhi cites the case of his eldest son who became an addict despite the fact that he was intelligent, brave, patriotic and capable of sacrifice.

Drink and drugs sap the moral well-being of those who are given to the habit. Only those women who have drunkards as their husbands know what have the drink evil works in homes that once were orderly and peace-giving. (M.K. Gandhi, Young India)

“Liquor … is an invention of the devil. Liquor not only robs the drinkers of their money, but also of their reason”, asserts Gandhi. He further observes that when they are in a conscious state, most addicts are ashamed of their habit. Gandhi narrates the harrowing experiences of drunkards in South Africa, Britain and other countries and how they led lives without grace. The situation is equally pathetic in India, he observes, from princes and rich people to labourers who are addicts.

Gandhi became a staunch opponent of alcohol because of the bitter episodes associated with alcoholics. “In a nutshell, alcohol ruins one physically, morally, intellectually and economically.” (M.K. Gandhi, Key to Health).

Gandhi states:

“If I was appointed dictator for one hour for all India, the first thing I would do would be to close without compensation all the liquor shops, destroy all the toddy palms…” (Prohibition At Any Cost, 1960). To him total prohibition is prohibition of sale of intoxicating drinks and drugs, except under medical prescription by a medical practitioner licensed for the purpose and to be purchasable only at government depots maintained for this purpose.

While recommending legislation in favour of prohibition, he attempts to demolish the arguments against it based on accrual of revenue. Gandhi attacks the argument connected with loss of revenue in the following words:

Revenue from liquor is a form of extremely degrading taxation. All taxation to be healthy must return ten-fold to the tax-payer in the form of necessary services. Excise makes people pay for their own corruption, moral, mental and physical. It falls like a dead- weight on those who are least likely to bear it. The loss of revenue is only apparent. Removal of the degrading tax enables the drinker, i.e., the tax-payer to earn and spend better… it means a substantial economic gain to the nation. (Harijan)

To compensate for loss of revenue due to prohibition, Gandhi suggested exploration of alternative sources of income, as also cutting down defence expenditure. When governments talk of the revenue deficits, they are driven by the ‘bania’ spirit, Gandhi observes. According to Gandhi nothing short of total prohibition can save the people from the drink evil. The policy should begin by preventing any new shop from being licensed; closing some that cause nuisance to the public; and licenses that lapse should not be renewed. He rules out partial prohibition since innumerable human beings cannot be kept under discipline. Gandhi made a fervent plea to congressmen in authority in provinces to have the courage and resolute determination to impose total prohibition, both on moral and pragmatic grounds. Prohibition, he observes, adds to the moral and material strength by bringing a new life to millions. “Our freedom will be the freedom of slaves if we continue to be victims of the drink and drug habit.” (Prohibition At Any Cost). He cites the success of the Salem experiment in the erstwhile Madras Presidency in support of his contention for total prohibition.

Illicit distillation would weaken the chances of prohibition, Gandhi argues, and that its prevention would not cost more than the control of other crimes. No soft and easy-going policy can tackle this tremendous evil, he observes. Drink should be made a heavily punishable offence backed by the enforcement of tough measures. Stringent penal action against those who manufacture liquor and those who are addicts to it would have salutary results, he notes. The people, especially the poor, would not think of liquor if it is not within their reach.

Gandhi opts for supplementing legislation on prohibition with the constructive programme initiated by him. Indeed, he made abolition of drink an integral part of the constructive programme. Gandhi also gave a clarion call that the articulate public, especially voluntary organisations, with the support of women and students, should consider temperance as the greatest moral movement and launch comprehensive educational campaigns against liquor. The causes behind the drink habit in areas prone to heavy consumption of liquor should be carefully analysed and dealt with. In their crusade against liquor the voluntary organisations and prominent individuals should undertake peaceful, silent and educative picketing with the object of establishing personal rapport with the addicts and they should make every conceivable effort to educate them to give up liquor and to convert the liquor traders to move into other trades to earn money. Gandhi concludes that mere voluntary effort at education will be doomed to failure if it is not preceded by total prohibition. Legislation and voluntary effort, in his view, should play mutually supportive roles. By implementing the series of pro-active and punishment-centric measures suggested by him, Gandhi felt that we could create a win-win situation for the society as well as the victims of the drink habit (Prohibition At Any Cost).

Though Gandhi was passionate about his opposition to intoxicating drinks, he was sensitive to the fact that people of various cultures differ considerably in their attitudes toward drinking as well as the response patterns of the lawmakers toward anti-liquor legislation. Some cultures may show high acceptance of drinking as a social custom with the norm of moderation. Referring to the American experiment, Gandhi does not think of the experiment as a failure. It would be far easier to have prohibition in India because it is only a small minority that drinks. Moreover, drinking is generally considered disrespectable in the Indian culture.

Gandhi’s views on prohibition found an echo in the Indian Constitution. One of its Directive Principles (Article 47) envisages that the State would pursue prohibition as a policy.