THE public meeting was held on a wintry morning. "When the shops were closed, there was peace in our homes. We want that quietness in our ooru (tribal hamlet)," said Shanti, the tribal woman who addressed the meeting. More than 200 villagers had assembled for the January 2nd dharna before two illegal arrack and toddy shops at Kallamala near Agali, 80 km north of Palghat in the Western Ghats. Before the crowd melted into the darkness discerned only by their flickering lanterns, the meeting had decided to hold chain fasting before the liquor shops until they shut down for good.
Such meetings and dharnas are now a familiar sight in the tribal heartland of Attappady. Leaving behind their animosities, tribals and settlers have joined hands under the banner of the Attappady Prohibition Samithi to challenge the all powerful local liqour lobby. "Almost every ooru has an arrack shop, and even the tribal women are addicted to drinking. Tribals lack the habit of saving. Unless the free flow of liquor in Attappady is stopped, the tribals will be impoverished further," said Father Mani Parampett, the "rebel" priest fighting a lone battle for the rights of the tribals. His stand is contrary to the stand of the official church, which reserves its concern for the welfare of the 10,000 Christian settlers.
Attappady means "field of leeches"; and it is human leeches who prey on the 35,000 adivasi community belonging to the Irula, Muduga and Kurumba tribes which constitute 50 per cent of Attappady's population. The gullible hill people lost their lands to settlers from southern Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Today, most adivasis have been reduced to working as coolies in the lands which were rightfully theirs.
The attempt to make the tribal heartland free from the liquor menace, is staunchly being resisted by the liquor lobby with the tacit support of the powers that be. When the Palghat District Collector ordered the closure of 150 illegal liqour shops in August, under pressure from the Prohibition Committee, the abkari (excise) lobby received stay orders against the closure from the High Court. The excise department officials supported the liquor barons' plea that the closure order was illegal.
Armoured with the court stay, nine illegal shops were reopened with police assistance. This forced the activists to resume dharnas before the shops. But when the court upheld the closure order on December 13, the police as well as the government departments hardly bothered to enforce it.
According to P S Vijayakumar, a minor politico of Kallamala, the police has registered false cases against the activists at the instance of the liquor contractors. "The police is more enthusiastic in enquiring about framed cases than in enforcing the closure of illegal arrack shops," deplored Vijayakmar who faces two such charges for participating in the agitation for prohibition.
"Many settlers too have turned drunkards due to the easy availability of arrack," said Jose Puthenpurackal, a settler farmer, who stopped drinking after joining the campaign. The existence of more than 1,000 liquor shops in Attappady proves the scant respect for the law that prevails in the region. "It's the abkari-police mafia that lays down the norms," Jose lamented.
"Our immediate target is to ensure that the illegal arrack shops do not open again," added K Chandran, a school teacher. "If the authorities are reluctant to enforce the court order, the people will make sure that all illegal arrack shops are closed. It's not an easy task. But we will not compromise." Chandran's words echo the determination of the people.
The campaigners were preparing for a show-down with the liquor lobby, when the 1,000-odd arrack and toddy shops in Attappady will be auctioned for the year 1995-96. The activists were determined to stall the auction in their bid to make Attappady completely sober.
They have printed and distributed in Malayalam, the Central government directive dated March 1993, calling for a ban on state licensing of liqour sales in tribal majority areas. The circular of the Tribal Development Division of the Welfare ministry asks the state and the Union territory governments to amend their excise laws to make the ban effective. The 500-odd campaigners see in this directive a most potent weapon to plead their case. Even if the government refuses to oblige, the activists are confident the court will come to their rescue to liberate Attappady from the vicious grip of abkari contractors.