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Hooch tragedy: Dravidian movement needs a voice that does not fear itself

Hooch tragedy: Dravidian movement needs a voice that does not fear itself

A few weeks ago, some 65 people died because they consumed illicit liquor. Many of them came from social and economic vulnerability. It is obvious that those involved in the making and trading of hooch could not have done so without the support of the administration and the police.

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Last Updated : 06 July 2024, 22:11 IST
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Every time I drive from my home city of Chennai to Coimbatore, I pass through the district of Kallakurichi, which was carved out of the district of Villupuram. As we drive, I have always noticed the hills on the side of the highway. Little did I expect that its district headquarters would become the epicentre of a horrible tragedy. A few weeks ago, some 65 people died because they consumed illicit liquor. Many of them came from social and economic vulnerability. It is obvious that those involved in the making and trading of hooch could not have done so without the support of the administration and the police. Now, the CB-CID has been asked to investigate the tragedy, the police have made arrests, and compensation has been given to the kin of those who died.

But the incident itself should never have happened. Individuals were allowed to make methanol-laced illicit liquor for years with impunity. No one bothered about the people who became victims. If this tragedy had not happened, the hooch business would have gone on forever. Through a period of time, many would have died because of the constant consumption of this noxious intoxicant. But this would have been written off as alcoholism, only stigmatising the individual and the community.

The number of times the vulnerable are exploited and lose their lives — whether due to the consumption of illicit alcohol or honour killings — in a state like Tamil Nadu that has a history of progressive social movements is telling. To treat these incidents as isolated acts perpetrated by local criminals is unacceptable. These are a result of an oppressive and violent social order perpetrated by dominant castes that continue to exercise hegemony. Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian movement has been unable to change the cultural mindset of these dominant communities. One look at the caste spread among those who have been elected to the Legislative Assembly over the years validates my point. Dalits still struggle for political representation though they constitute about 20 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s population. As I pen this piece, the terrible news that the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Tamil Nadu chief K Armstrong has been hacked to death in the city of Chennai is coming in. All this is toxic casteism at play.

The knee-jerk reaction to such hooch tragedies is a call for prohibition. But anyone who has studied the efficacy of prohibition knows that liquor is quite easily available in all prohibited states. It also makes illicit liquor that much more ‘wanted’ and spikes corruption. It is the government watchdogs who benefit most from prohibition. What we require administratively is vigilance, tracking, and that illusive quality of incorruptibility!

On a larger canvas, it is about caring for all. This is anti-casteism. Every member of society who belongs to a caste that dominates has a responsibility to address casteism perpetrated by their community members. Political leaders from dominant communities have done little to confront the casteism prevalent within their own castes. Either they themselves are not really anti-caste or are pandering to their community in order to stay in power. This is as true of many who occupy positions of influence in various sections of government. Within the caste hierarchy, traditionally privileged castes are least affected by caste oppression because the social structure insulates them. Social networks will also ensure their survival. This has been, and needs to be, consistently critiqued, even by commentators from within these communities. But this does not absolve dominant caste members from their own casteist nature and their leaders from keeping mum about it. This is exactly what has been going on in Tamil Nadu.

A friend of mine pointed out that Dravidian intellectuals have been muted, careful, or silent about the Kallakurichi incident. This inability to distance oneself from political loyalty yet remain consistent in one’s philosophical, political and social point of view is a failure of many public intellectuals. If this very incident had happened under any other regime, their response would have been very different. These are the kinds of double standards that trivialise the larger intent of the Dravidian movement. I am not expecting intellectuals to write, speak or comment on every issue, but isn’t the Kallakurichi tragedy grave enough for brutally honest and reflective commentary? Politicians are bound by party lines, not public intellectuals. If anything, I would have expected Dravidian intellectuals to show courage and the way forward in self-critique and change. This needs to come from within the Dravidian ecosystem.

Tamil Nadu is, without doubt, a very special state. A land where social discrimination is unabashedly part of public discourse, be it roadside chatter or the large cinematic screen. Most Tamilians are socio-politically aware and will vigorously fight for what is right in the public domain. Yet, Tamil Nadu is also a place where the fear of caste looms over a considerable section of society. This worrisome contradiction needs to be addressed with great urgency because lives are at stake. The social justice awakening that Tamil Nadu triggered was a cardinal moment in Indian history, but it cannot remain fossilised in the past. Its foundational framework must be used to address the more complex and nuanced social weaves that allow for caste to be perpetrated. Dravidian thought is urgently in need of a contemporary philosophical, political and social voice. A voice that does not fear itself.

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