The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Malt March
- A toast in Bapu’s name: ‘Neo-Gandhians’ on a high

It’s satyagraha’s centenary, so Hemant Chauhan will soon be leaving his home at Sabarmati Ashram to march down Ahmedabad’s streets.

With a band of fellow young Gandhians and others, he will be urging people to rise in protest against an “unjust law”, like their guiding light did decades ago.

From time to time, the marchers will be taking a swig or two from the bottles of booze in their hands.

And their T-shirts will be screaming slogans against the alcohol ban in the Mahatma’s home state, parched under prohibition since Independence in homage to the Father of the Nation.

But the war against the ban, too, is being fought in Bapu’s name.

Drawing on Gandhi’s Salt March, which inspired the nation to fight its colonial rulers 77 years ago, the movement has been given the name of “Malt March”.

To veteran Gandhian Chuni Vaidya, it’s all a bit hard to swallow.

But true to the Mahatma’s teachings, the 90-year-old blames nobody: “We Gandhians must face up to the truth that we have lost the battle because we failed in our duty to propagate Bapu’s thoughts.”

Chauhan, his neighbour at Sabarmati Ashram, will have none of it. To him, the battle for the bottle is fully in keeping with the spirit, if not the letter, of Bapu’s philosophy.

The small-time trader flaunts his Gandhian credentials. He was born in the ashram the Mahatma set up. It’s there that his parents lived and worked, his mother taking care of women’s empowerment programmes.

“Like my parents, I’m wedded to Gandhism,” the 44-year-old says. “Except that I consider the liquor ban a regressive fad in today’s age.”

If the Mahatma were alive today, many among the ashram’s younger generation believe, he would not have opposed their movement for what is their “right” — the freedom to drink.

But to avoid blurring the battle lines, they call themselves “Neo-Gandhians” — a tag adopted eagerly by many of their comrades across the state. Gujarat’s increasingly vocal anti-ban army counts within its ranks corporate honchos to teachers, hoteliers to middle-class youths.

Their motley group of fellow travellers includes former Union minister Arun Shourie — a teetotaller — and liquor baron Vijay Mallya who spoke out against prohibition during recent visits to the country’s only “dry” state.

The ban — exceptions are made only for special categories of people such as foreigners and defence personnel — hasn’t stopped Gujarat from having one of the highest liquor consumption rates in the country, powered by an underworld economy.

Alcohol is smuggled in from Rajasthan and Maharashtra and sold by bootleggers. Every year, hundreds of drunken people are thrown behind bars and thousands of bottles crushed by the police.

It’s this “hypocrisy” over the “unworkable” ban that gets Dinesh Hinduja’s goat. The 33-year-old heads the Malt March, whose core group is made up of city professionals and teachers.

Hinduja, too, calls himself a “Neo-Gandhian”, claiming it’s the Mahatma’s teachings that has spurred him into opposing what he sees as a social evil. Prohibition, he believes, fuels crime, funds the underworld and turns the common man into a law-breaker.

“The ban benefits only bootleggers and corrupt politicians and officials,” says the B-school graduate who owns a construction company in Ahmedabad. “I believe in freedom of choice. Didn’t the Mahatma say, ‘You have a duty to disobey unjust laws’'”

The Malt March is collecting data to show that the state can earn Rs 2,000 crore in revenues if it makes drinking legal. “Let the money be used for social welfare,” Hinduja says.

Vaidya thinks this is stupid. “Women feel safe in Gujarat because of prohibition — and that is more important than anything else. Yes, we know liquor is available, even some people in the ashram drink in secret. But have we legalised murder because it happens every day'”

But sometimes, the joke can be on the pro-ban protesters.

Congress leader Shankersinh Vaghela found this out to his cost when he started a 52-hour fast on the Mahatma’s death anniversary, a month after chief minister Narendra Modi’s declaration that the drinking ban would be eased for non-Gujaratis inside special economic zones.

Gujarat now has two SEZs but 33 are in the pipeline, meaning the ban would be off in large parts of the state. As Vaghela began his satyagraha with the support of several women’s groups, Vaidya and other Gandhians joined him.

But the Malt Marchers had the last laugh, asking the former chief minister to swear on the Bhagvad Gita that he had never flouted prohibition by having a sip or two. A red-faced Vaghela owned up to having actually tasted “all the brands”.

“That did it for his credentials,” grinned Ashwin Gandhi, director of the Express Group of Hotels and a ban opposer. “Vaghela is known for high living. He should first practise Gandhian values — live a simple life, stay away from luxury cars and five-star hotels.”

Gandhi, who heads the Gujarat Chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industry’s tourism panel, trashes the logic that Gujarat should have prohibition because it’s the Mahatma’s birthplace.

“Why do we call him Father of the Nation then' Why don’t we shift his samadhi from Delhi to Gujarat'”

Gandhi, who is leading the hotel and tourism industries’ charge against prohibition, believes the ban makes no sense today: Haryana and Andhra Pradesh had tried it only to turn tail. He has long been arguing that the “dry law” costs the state’s travel industry crores of rupees and wants drinking allowed in hotels and restaurants.

It was the pressure of globalisation that did the trick. At the Vibrant Gujarat meet of investors in January 2006, several software firms told the state government that the drinking ban was keeping IT investments away.

“Prohibition forces companies in Gujarat to hold their conferences and seminars outside the state,” the chief minister was told.

When a report by rating agency Crisil sounded the same warning, Modi made up his mind to lift the ban — but in a piecemeal manner to avoid provoking the Gandhians.

A week before the 2007 Vibrant Gujarat meet, he eased prohibition in the SEZs but only for “outsiders” and has since then clammed up on the subject.

Sometime this month or the next, Hinduja and his men will be raising enough din to try and end his silence.

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