The Politics of Alcohol in Colonial Tamil Nadu, 1886-1947


Darinee Alagirisamy

PhD defended at: 

University of Cambridge


The Politics of Alcohol in Colonial Tamil Nadu, 1886-1947 examines the contestations that arose over temperance reform in the southernmost province of the Madras Presidency between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. In spite of prohibition's enduring relevance in contemporary India, its colonial-era origins have yet to form the focus of a detailed study. This thesis is an attempt to address this critical gap in the political and social history of modern India. Whereas historians have previously approached the study of alcohol in colonial India from the perspective of narrowly-defined political competition between the state and the Indian national movement, the thesis takes the stand that tacit compromise between Congress leaders and the British actually enabled prohibition's introduction in Madras, the first province to implement the dry law in India. Taking its inspiration from the work of the Subaltern Studies collective, this study proposes a de-centered approach to the subject in two ways. Firstly, by focussing on the contestations that arose over the 'country' liquor industry, it emphasizes the extent to which local liquor varieties were enmeshed in working-class cultures and livelihoods as well as minority religious traditions. Relatedly, the thesis emphasizes the extent to which prohibition's fate was determined by non-elite resistance to elite attempts at dictating their drinking habits and customs. In the process, they found allies among the Dalit organizations that were ranged against the Congress in the political context of non-Brahmanism. Secondly, the thesis contends that the elite bias stems from the official English-language sources that have almost exclusively informed histories of alcohol in colonial India. The thesis advances the field by incorporating perspectives from the specific vernacular contexts in which debates pertaining to prohibition played out. By probing the rich body of writings in the Tamil and Telugu languages and the vivid representations of reform - textual and otherwise - that temperance politics inspired, the thesis presents a history of social reform in late colonial India from the bottom up.