Every night, as her alcoholic father begins to abuse and beat her mother, 10-year-old Pooja runs out of her house to call for help from others living in her village.
“She’s a brave little one,” says Lakshavva, Pooja’s neighbour, as the young girl curls up and buries her face in her mother Bishtavva’s lap. “She stands up for her mother and gives it back to her father whenever she can but there’s only that much a little child can do.” Still trying to hide within the folds of her mother’s saree, Pooja—her dark, straight, uncombed hair covering most of her face—lets out a shy smile when she hears the villagers praising her.
Pooja lives in Valmiki Nagar, a colony chalked out for Scheduled Castes in Linganmath, a village located around 34 kilometres from Dharwad in the South Indian state of Karnataka. On the day I met Pooja earlier this month, the women in her village had gathered for a special meeting that afternoon. Their agenda? To write letters to the state heads of India’s two key political parties—BS Yeddyurappa, the head of the Karnataka state unit of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Dinesh Gundu Rao, the President of Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee—informing them that the residents of Valmiki Nagar are rejecting the candidates fielded by them in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, and have instead, decided to choose the ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) option. (Linganmath goes to polls on April 23 along with the rest of North Karnataka).
The reason? No political party has offered to ban alcohol in Karnataka, thereby discarding a long-standing demand of rural women from across the state.
“Our lives are ruined because of this wretched liquor and we cannot take this torture anymore,” Lakshavva tells VICE. “Our drunk husbands waste their earnings on alcohol and beat us when we refuse to give them our hard-earned money to buy more alcohol. Even young boys have started drinking and some have even died due to excessive drinking.”
There was only one man present at the women’s meeting—Basanna Yellappa Naik—who is in his 20s. After witnessing how rampant and destructive alcoholism had become among the men in his village, Naik decided to support the women. “You go to any village and talk to any woman, all you’ll hear is a plea to ban alcohol,” he says. “We’ve made several attempts to make our political representatives understand this but nobody cares. This election, we went through the political manifestos of both the BJP and the Congress and neither of them have promised to ban alcohol in Karnataka.”
The idea behind writing letters to political parties is to give them “one final chance” to promise a ban on alcohol in the state, the villagers tell me
“They’ll have to give it to us in writing that they will actually ban the sale of alcohol,” Lakshavva says. “We feel that the only way our men will stop drinking is if it is not available to them anymore. If any political party is willing to do that, then we will change our mind and vote for them. Else, we’ll go with NOTA.”
As the meeting progressed, the largely illiterate village needed volunteers to write the letters. “Pooja,” everyone said. The little girl is among the few in Valmiki Nagar who goes to school. Her mother nudged her shy child forward and soon, Pooja, sitting on the floor on a straw mat, pored over postcards and wrote letters on behalf of the elders. By evening, the postcards had been dropped off to a nearby postbox.
The Anti-Liquor Movement In Karnataka
The women of Linganmath are not the only ones demanding prohibition in Karnataka. For the last few years, the state has been witnessing a large-scale movement led by rural women demanding a ban on alcohol. Similar demands have been made by women in the neighbouring states of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh as well. In fact, YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) chief YS Jagan Mohan Reddy has promised a ban on alcohol in Andhra Pradesh if he is voted to power in the ongoing election. Currently, the only states in India where there is a ban on alcohol are Bihar, Gujarat, Mizoram and Nagaland.
In Karnataka, the anti-liquor movement took a formal shape in 2016 when more than 30 social welfare and women’s organisations got together to launch the movement, Madya Nishedha Andolana (Movement for Prohibition). Women went to government offices across the state and demanded the removal of framed photographs of Mahatma Gandhi hanging on their walls. Gandhi had been an advocate of prohibition.
In April 2018, ahead of the state assembly elections, women went on a 71-day strike to ask political parties to promise to ban the sale of liquor but no party paid heed. It has been 71 years since India became independent and women still don’t feel free, they argued during that strike.
The movement gathered momentum in January 2019 when thousands of women marched from Chitradurga to Bengaluru (approximately a distance of 200 kilometres), to make themselves heard in the state’s capital and seat of power. But yet again, their protests fell on deaf ears. Three months later, NOTA seems to be their only recourse.
“No political leader even came to meet us,” says 60-year-old Basamma, a resident of Mangenakoppa village and a participant of the march, seething with anger. “They could have come to offer us some water at least. Are they that heartless?”
Mangenakoppa is about two hours from Linganmath and here too, the women of the village had gathered the same afternoon to discuss who they should vote for in the upcoming elections. “The consumption of liquor has only increased,” says Basamma at the start of the meeting. “We must only cast our vote to a political party that promises to ban alcohol. Else, we too must choose NOTA.”
Interestingly, unlike the women of Linganmath, the women of Mangenakoppa weren’t all on the same page. The question on their minds was whether NOTA is effective as a tool of protest.
“We’d also like to choose NOTA but will that help our agitation?” asks Saraswathi Rajiv. “Won’t some candidate win based on the votes that come in? The winner could also be someone who promotes the sale of liquor, right? Us choosing NOTA won’t prevent the outcome of an election.” (In India’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the candidate with the highest votes wins irrespective of the number of NOTA votes.) “I have no confidence that any political party will ever listen to us. If we have to vote—and that’s our right—we’ll have to do so based on some other yardstick.”
Basamma wasn’t happy with Rajiv’s analysis. “Let’s go now to Delhi, directly to the seat of power, to tell them how terrible our lives are,” she ventures. “We have to do something, just anything, to intensify this protest. Alcohol has just destroyed too many lives here. It’s terrible that women aren’t taken seriously as voters, especially when so many of us are making the same damn demand.”
NOTA, a Symbolic Agitation
The number of horror stories emanating from rampant alcoholism in rural Karnataka is disconcertingly high. Roopa* went back to her parents’ place after her drunk husband began to beat her every night. But to her horror, she discovered that the situation was no better there, with her father and her brothers drinking and abusing the women in their house everyday too. She finally ran away and found herself a house in a shed in an agricultural field. She took her two-year-old with her too. One night, her father and her brothers came to the field, picked up agricultural implements that were lying around, and bludgeoned Roopa to death as her little one watched the murder.
Around 200 kilometres from Mangenakoppa, in a village called Kottekallu near Bagalkot, Yenkamma Sankrappa Sirur had her own horror story to narrate.
“When my daughter got her first period, she became so weak that she had to be taken to the hospital. But my drunk husband was just lying there collapsed on the floor while I ran around for money and took my daughter to the hospital,” she recalls. “Today, I’ve left my two children with my parents. They are the ones bringing them up. My parents asked me to take my husband and go away from my children because that’s the only way I can save them and give them a better life.”
The women of Kottekallu tell me that they have had enough and that they too will choose NOTA in the upcoming elections. "They say that alcohol sales are extremely profitable to the government and hence they’ll never ban it,” says Huchhamma Sangappa Bangi, another resident of Kottekallu. “They also say that it is that profit that is channelled into giving us free rice and scholarships for our children to study. We, the women of Kottekallu, tell you today to tell the government that we don’t want any of their schemes and offers. We’ll work hard and earn money to buy rice and send our children to school. Just ban this murderous alcohol.”
In Karnataka, excise is the second largest component of tax revenue of the state. 2018-2019 is expected to generate Rs 19,750 crores, which is an increase of 12 percent from the revised estimates given in 2017-18, according to a budget analysis by independent research institute PRS India. Liquor barons and bar owners have found a place in Karnataka politics for years. In terms of consumption of liquor, the state is among the highest consumers of alcohol. According to the Karnataka Excise Department, around 5.5 crore cartons of Indian Made Liquor was sold in the year 2017-18 alone.
Women across villages in North Karnataka, therefore, say that NOTA is their response to political parties not considering women as a powerful and valid part of the electorate. “Do they even see us as voters?” asks Hucchamma. “What has any party done for us poor women?”
Just as Hucchamma said this, members of a political party came to campaign in Kottekallu and asked these women to join them for a small meeting. “They’ll make all sorts of promises now,” Hucchamma tells me, smiling. “We’ll also nod along. But we’ll tell them what we think of them when we go to vote soon.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.