Activists are Rousing the Tamil Nadu Electorate With Songs About Prohibition

Activist singer Kovam, (second from right) practices at his home in Trichy. Credit: Rohini Mohan

Activist singer Kovan, (second from right) practices at his home in Trichy. Credit: Rohini Mohan

Trichy: In a delicious irony, Tamil folk singer S. Kovan, once arrested for sedition on orders of Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa for singing anti-liquor songs, is now a commonly heard voice in nearly every political public meeting in Tamil Nadu. As prohibition becomes the biggest rallying point in the 2016 Tamil Nadu assembly poll campaigns, organisers across party lines are blasting Kovan’s satirical songs against the hegemonic TASMAC (Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation), the state-run liquor empire.

Kovan’s latest number called Amma Bongu has especially gone viral. It is a hilarious take down of AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa’s promise of implementing phased prohibition. Ten days after her announcement, Amma Bongu was out on YouTube and is being shared widely through social media. The whole song was played in Anbumani Ramadoss’s Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) meeting in Pennagaram, and immediately, several people in the audience were humming along and clapping.

As crowds waited for Vijaykanth to arrive at the Desia Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) public meeting in Nilgiris, the Bongu song was played twice back to back. After MK Stalin’s van left Thodiyalur in Coimbatore district, local DMK workers played the song on the speakers. “We have the speaker only for 10 more minutes, so I played a crowd favourite,” said Siva K., who identified himself simply as “the sound guy”.

While rival M. Karunanidhi’s DMK has promised to bring prohibition in just one stroke, Jayalalithaa has said she would do it in phases. She would cut down the working hours of wine shops (now open 12 hours), reduce the number of wine shops (now 6800), close bars attached to them (4300), and set up rehabilitation centres for addicts.

When he heard this announcement, Kovan initially felt Jayalalithaa had finally understood what people like him were espousing. “Then I quickly realised that this is not enlightenment, this is bongu!” says Kovan, sitting in his sister Latha’s house in Trichy. Bongu is Tamil slang for hypocrisy or hollowness, whose origins may lie in the Telugu word for a hollow bamboo. Saravanan, a member of Kovan’s music troupe, explains, “Bongu means fraud, cheating. And that’s what Jayalalithaa’s sudden change of heart about liquor is.”

Amma Bongu starts with an audio clip of Jayalalithaa’s quote, and then Kovan’s voice drawls: “Bongu, Amma bongu, bongattam aadareenga.” Laid over pictures of Charlie Chaplin, Jayalalithaa grinning, and film grabs of Tamil comedians drinking merrily, the song likens the AIADMK chief’s new anti-liquor stand to a cat that claims it does not like fish. It then takes a dark turn, as Kovan sings about the “widespread degradation” alcoholism has wrought in the state. The roughly cut video uses photographs of women sobbing over husbands, police lathi-charging anti-liquor protestors and Kovan being taken to jail.

Kovan heads the cultural wing of Makkal Kalai Ilakkiya Kazhagam (MKIK or People’s Art and Literary Association), a Trichy-based movement that works with the poor and marginalised in Tamil Nadu. The music troupe travels the state, performing folk songs and street plays on issues like untouchability, religious extremism, unemployment and agricultural distress. More recently, it joined hands with the anti-liquor campaign of Makkal Athikaram (People’s Right), a group of social workers who seek to shut down TASMAC shops through public pressure. Until recently Kovan performed in street corners, bus stands and traffic signals. For him, social media has been a revelation, “a spontaneous force of mobilisation”.

On October 30, 2015, Jayalalithaa had had Kovan arrested for sedition and for allegedly signing defamatory songs about the government keeping TASMAC shops open even as massive floods ravaged Chennai and parts of north Tamil Nadu.

Moodu Tasmac moodu (shut down Tasmac) is an appeal to the state to close down TASMAC shops, and Oorukku oru Sarayam (liquor for every village) takes digs at the person who lives in luxury in “Poes” (or Poes Garden, the place of Jayalalithaa’s residence) while lakhs drown in the floods. The latter song also mentions “Midas” referring to Midas Distilleries, one of the biggest liquor producing companies, believed to have links with Sasikala, a long-time friend and advisor to Jayalalithaa.

The Tamil Nadu government is the sole wholesale and retail seller of alcohol, and runs more than 6800 retail shops in the state. Liquor is its biggest source of revenue, contributing to a third of the state earnings, and earned around Rs. 30,000 crore last year. It was the AIADMK regime that first brought alcohol sales under the state in 2003, which the next DMK government continued. Members of both parties own major distilleries in the state, thus forming a tight, self-sustaining nexus of business and politics, which inevitably leads to allegations of corruption. Every time de-nationalisation or a ban on liquor was considered (it was implemented twice and failed both times), leaders argued that such a blanket ban would create a market for unsafe, illicit liquor. Moreover, liquor revenue was crucial in funding Tamil Nadu’s freebies and welfare schemes.

Sedition for anti-liquor activists

In the past year, this comfortable nexus has been challenged somewhat. In Trichy, six anti-liquor activists were booked for sedition allegedly for making incendiary speeches at a major ‘Close-TASMAC’ rally on February 14. Jayalalithaa’s oppression of artists and protestors, especially the sedition charge against Kovan, caused widespread public and media outrage. Mainstream and social media crackled with indignant memes, songs, and articles. In the meanwhile, Makkal Athikaram held state-wide drives to close the hundreds of TASMACs violating rules. Elderly Gandhian prohibitionist Sasi Perumal died during one such protest, and the anti-liquor issue became more urgent. Earlier this year, viral videos of children as young as seven years old drinking in school uniform created a churning among people, especially women.

“Some parties did start showing their support to us for political mileage, and to score points over Jayalalithaa, but the issue did cause a groundswell on its own too,” says C. Raju from Makkal Athikaram. Gradually, it became impossible for politicians to stay silent on the issue to appear morally upright; they also realised it would appeal to women voters. Every party in the fray today has espoused a liquor ban if they win elections in Tamil Nadu. Even though she was the last to do so, Jayalalithaa too finally announced prohibition, albeit in phases.

This is sweet vindication for Kovan, who is now out on bail, but still fighting the sedition case. He’s amused that his songs are being played in rallies. But he doesn’t believe alcoholism can actually be fixed by prohibition, a top-down approach which will be implemented by the “culprits themselves”. “I should feel vindicated, but alcoholism is not an election issue, it is a social problem, in this case, caused by the government,” he says. Instead, he places his hopes on people’s mobilisation against liquor, sparked especially by their impatience for politicians’ apathy to grassroots issues.

Kovan says he will continue to sing tongue in cheek songs of protest. “It’s not only anger, but also humour that can expose fascism,” he says. “Authoritarian figures always project themselves as tall, 56-inch chested, tough, powerful, warrior-like idols. But the true nature of dictators is cowardice and clownishness. By exposing that, I try to rid people of their fear, their submissiveness.” Whether alcohol is banned or not, the rise of the prohibition rhetoric, to Kovan, shows that public submissiveness is on its way out in Tamil Nadu.