The death of prohibition activist Sasi Perumal has been quickly followed by the Tamil Nadu government fulfilling the demand he was protesting for — the closure of a liquor shop. But it has also brought the government under fire with some political parties blaming it for Perumal’s death and several calling for total prohibition as a tribute to the activist.
On Thursday, Perumal, 59, had attended the funeral of former President A P J Abdul Kalam and then gone to Marthandam in Kanyakumari district, about 350 km from Rameswaram, to join a local protest against a government-run liquor shop. With other protesters, Perumal climbed a 120-foot mobile phone tower, holding five litres kerosene and a bundle of cloth and threatening self-immolation. By the time an assurance came five hours later that the shop would be closed in a week, Perumal was looking dizzy and vomiting blood; he could not climb down. He was brought down and taken to hospital, where he was declared dead on arrival. The FIR lodged by the police said he hanged himself before the rescue team could reach him.
Perumal had shot into prominence during a 33-day hunger strike starting January 30, 2013, near the Gandhi statue on Chennai’s Marina beach. He was arrested for creating a nuisance and lodged in Puzhal Central Jail on Chennai’s outskirts. He continued fasting in jail until February 22, when he was admitted to Royapettah General Hospital with his health having deteriorated.
Once out of hospital, he continued fasting near the Gandhi statue, from where he was arrested again and released later.
By then he had won himself friends in politics. The Congress had arranged for his bail after the first arrest. And leaders of leading political parties such as the PMK and the BJP met him several times, some trying to convince him in vain to stop fasting.
He followed up that hunger-strike with another at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi in June 2014, demanding nationwide prohibition. This protest lasted for 35 days, until Home Minister Rajnath Singh met him and accepted a petition in person. In December, he led the ‘Deepa Oli Sudar Ottam’ for prohibition in Tamil Nadu. And last week, he protested before Shastri Bhavan in Chennai, the building that houses several central government offices, blaming the Centre for not acting on his petition the previous year.
The protest leading to his death, which had begun as a local movement, had entered its 1,001st day. The liquor retail outlet, run by Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (Tasmac), had been opened in 2012. Locals, joined by Perumal, were protesting against the fact that it was near a church and a school.
The government has since ordered permanent closure of the shop. But by then Perumal’s death had taken a political turn ahead of assembly elections. Every political party had been promising prohibition in any case and S Ramadoss’s PMK has now said enforcing it would be the only tribute. BJP state president Tamilisai Soundararajan has demanded immediate prohibition, and Congress leader E V K S Elangovan held the state government responsible for the death and targeted Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa for denying Perumal an opportunity to meet her.
Two weeks ago, when the DMK announced it would enforce prohibition if elected to power, M Karunanidhi was accused by rivals of playing election politics but Perumal appreciated Karunanidhi’s promise and met him to extend support.
On Sunday, a group of parties including the MDMK, the CPI, the CPM, the MDMK and the VCK and AAP met in Coimbatore and demanded the government accept Perumal’s demand for prohibition. These parties have called for a state-wide bandh on August 4 demanding prohibition. MDMK leader Vaiko, along with his 94-year-old mother Mariammal and hundreds of women, launched an anti-liquor protest at their village Kalingapati in Tirunelveli on Saturday. Party men ransacked liquor shops. He has announced Rs 1 lakh to Perumal’s family.
Perumal’s family has refused to accept his body, demanding the closure of all liquor shops near schools and temples.