ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

‘Campaign Against Illicit Distillation by Aboriginal Population’ in Central Province, India (1905-1938) and the Continuing Legal Consequences


Sharma Kriti - OP Jindal University, Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, India


36 – Interrogating Deviance and ‘Crime’ in Colonial and Postcolonial South Asia


By the turn of the 20th Century, through stringent excise administration in Madras and Bombay, liquor had become a major source of revenue for the British empire in India. The colonial government now looked to the Central Province (CP) to augment their revenue by taxing the large ‘drinking class,’ that included the Adivasis. To this effect, the excise department carried out a sustained ‘campaign against illicit distillation by the aboriginal population,’ primarily the Gonds, to prevent them from making their liquor.

Scholars, most notably David Hardiman, trace this changed approach towards the Adivasi liquor brewing practices ‘from custom to crime’ in select areas of the Bombay presidency. Basis legislative, excise, police, and jail records, I explore the impact of the provincial level campaign in CP that had the highest Adivasi population. I graph an increase in the incarceration rate through targeting of six Adivasi populated districts that coincided with a nine-fold increase in excise revenue by 1920. Tracing the legislative interventions, including those by elite legislative representatives who were temperance advocates, that lead to the CP Excise Act of 1915 emerging as the harshest excise law, I further delineate the development of a prosecution system that was and continues to rely on a network of local informers and rewards in Madhya Pradesh (the successor state), that today reports the highest incarceration rate under the excise law and targets the Adivasis.