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India's 'malt marchers' vow to take Gandhi's path

india Updated: Jan 30, 2007 17:31 IST
Reuters
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Call it the malt march — or alcoholic disobedience.

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's 1930 "salt march" that encouraged millions of Indians to battle British colonial rule, some inhabitants in India's "dry" western state of Gujarat plan a similar protest to call for the legalisation of alcoholic drinks.

"I believe in freedom of choice. Please explain why is it a crime to drink in Gujarat?" asks Dinesh Hinduja, spearheading what protesters have called "Malt march", a pro-liquor movement, in Ahmedabad, Gujarat's main city.

Gujarat, which prides itself as the birthplace of Indian freedom movement leader and teetotaller Gandhi, has banned alcoholic drinks since India's independence in 1947.

Supporters, mainly urban professionals, are using Internet blogs to promote the legal sale of liquor and are collecting data to show how the unworkable ban encourages smuggling and bootleggers.

The anti-prohibition protesters have already created a controversy and made headlines across India with their plan to march outside the state government headquarters and break the law by raising a toast in full public view.

"I could be arrested and even beaten up but I refuse to buy liquor clandestinely. It makes me a criminal in Gujarat," says 33-year-old Hinduja.

No date has been set for the protest but a website "maltmarch.org" has already been set up to appeal for supporters and funds.

The protest will echo an act by Gandhi in 1930 when he marched about 390 kms (240 miles) to defy the law — and British rulers — by making salt in a public act of civil disobedience.

Banned but bootlegged

Gujarat is one of the last places in India that imposes a ban on the manufacture, transportation, import, export, and sale of alcoholic beverages except under special circumstances — like being a foreigner or a member of the military.

Many other local people just drink secretly in their houses.

Alcohol is smuggled into Gujarat from its neighbouring states — Rajasthan to the north and Maharashtra to the south — and is sold by bootleggers at high prices.

Every year, under the prohibition law hundreds of drunk people are thrown behind bars and thousands of alcohol bottles are crushed by the police.

Senior police officials say the government has never been able to stem the demand and supply of alcohol in Gujarat, estimating the illicit trade runs in millions of rupees and involves poor tribal communities to senior politicians.

A slight relaxation of the prohibition laws has, however, provoked protests from Gandhian activists and politicians who began a hunger strike on Tuesday, the 59th anniversary of Gandhi's death, to show that his ideals were not dead.

"We will fast for 52 hours. How can the ruling party relax dry laws in a state where Gandhian values and philosophy matters the most," federal textiles minister Shankarsinh Vaghela said.

In December 2006, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi permitted the sale and consumption of alcohol within the boundaries of special economic zones (SEZ) — tax free zones aimed at attracting mainly investments.

Critics said the state was pampering outsiders.

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