One man’s crusade

Published : Aug 19, 2015 12:30 IST

S.K. Sasi Perumal at a meeting in Coimbatore.

S.K. Sasi Perumal at a meeting in Coimbatore.

A MAN wearing a Gandhi cap, holding the national flag, and sitting in protest (with a placard hanging around his neck urging people to desist from consuming liquor) in front of the statues of Mahatma Gandhi and K. Kamaraj, especially on their birth and death anniversaries, was a regular sight in Salem, Tamil Nadu. He drew half sneers from the residents of the town and half smiles from the district administration, which thought he was making a nuisance of himself and was not a serious protester. But unaffected by the indifferent onlookers, the Gandhian activist S.K. Perumal alias “Sasi” Perumal (60) had continued his crusade for total prohibition in the State since 1971 when prohibition was lifted in the State with the same zeal and enthusiasm he had shown while participating in the anti-toddy agitation spearheaded by Kamaraj. (It is of significance that C. Rajagopalachari, as the head the Madras government, introduced prohibition in Salem in 1938, and it was in force until 1971.)

It was what turned out to be Sasi Perumal’s final act of protest that made people sit up. Sasi Perumal, along with a few others, climbed on to a 150-foot-tall mobile phone tower during a protest in support of the local people’s demand for the removal of a liquor-vending outlet of TASMAC from the vicinity of a school in Unnamalaikadai town near Marthandam in Kanyakumari district on July 31. Sasi Perumal, who stayed atop for a few hours, collapsed on the tower and was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Sasi Perumal’s sudden death ignited protests across the State demanding prohibition. Hailing from an agricultural background, Sasi Perumal dropped out of middle school at Edanganasalai Mettukadu village in Salem district. But he started taking an interest in public affairs and social issues relating to the village. Whether it was faulty drinking water taps/valves or bad roads, he would be there to lead or organise protests demanding resolution of the problem. A full-time Congress worker, he launched a series of awareness campaigns against liquor through the Madhuvukku Ethirana Makkal Kootamaippu (People’s Federation Against Liquor).

Sasi Perumal started a primary school, Swathanthira Primary School, on his grandfather’s land but closed it owing to paucity of funds. He practised naturopathy, homeopathy and acupuncture and treated the village residents for common ailments. Recalling his selfless work, his son, Vivek, told Frontline that he did not accept any money from the poor villagers for treatment.

Sasi Perumal was lodged in the Coimbatore Central Prison for two weeks for taking part in an anti-toddy agitation. “In recognition of his active role in the agitation, Kamaraj awarded him a certificate. From then on, fighting for prohibition became my father’s life and soul,” Vivek said.

Sasi Perumal organised a series of awareness programmes at his village and in the neighbouring areas about the ills of liquor and invited various leaders and activists to come and address the audience. For one such programme in 1974, he invited the Tamil film actor Sasikumar, who was a Congress worker and a close friend of the veteran actor Sivaji Ganesan. “But after returning to Chennai, the actor and his wife died in a freak fire accident at their home. Deeply saddened by the tragedy, my father decided to prefix ‘Sasi’ to his name in memory of the actor,” Vivek said. When the State government took over the wholesale distribution of Indian Made Foreign Liquor in 1983 by establishing Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Ltd (TASMAC), Sasi Perumal was crestfallen. He intensified his agitation. “In fact, he was disillusioned and used to lament that instead of saving its citizens the state had become a force of destruction,” said Vivek. Gradually, Sasi Perumal shifted his venue of agitation from villages to the nearby Salem town.

He undertook padayatras, or walks, from Salem to Chennai in 2009, and from Kanyakumari to Chennai in 2014, demanding prohibition. He shot into the limelight when he staged a fast unto death near the Nageshwara Rao Park in Mylapore, Chennai, in March 2013. He withdrew his month-long protest on the request of leaders of various organisations and activists. He met the former Chief Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president, M. Karunanidhi, and submitted a petition on the need for prohibition.

A week before his protest in Mylapore, Sasi Perumal staged a brief protest in front of the Gandhi statue at Marina Beach in Chennai. He was arrested and sent to Puzhal Central Prison where he continued his fast and was later admitted to a hospital. In July 2014, he sat on a fast at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, along with a handful of his supporters, demanding nationwide prohibition. He submitted a petition to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh.

Sasi Perumal never hesitated to join any organisation or group that fought for social causes. What made him different from other protesters was the out-of-the-box strategy he adopted. A long-time associate of Sasi Perumal based in Salem said he remembered how he stood outside TASMAC shops holding the national flag and prostrating at the feet of liquor drinkers begging them not to drink.

Vivek said: “He climbed onto the village water tank a decade ago to protest against the government’s failure to repair the village road and the State Highways Deaprtment’s claim that there was no record with them to show that a road even existed there.” Since then, he had been obsessed with resorting to novel, sometimes bizarre, ways.

Vivek said: “We are poor farmers owning a mere 50 cents of rain-fed land. In his devotion to public life, he paid little attention to the family. This affected our education. My elder brother, Navaneetham, and I dropped out of class 8.” According to Vivek, his mother left never to return because his father did not care for the family. Sasi Perumal married Maghizham later, with whom he had a daughter, Kaviarasi. The Pattali Makkal Katchi has offered to bear the educational expenses of the 12-year-old Kaviarasi.

Poverty has been a constant companion of the family. While Vivek is a contract worker at the Salem Steel Plant, his brother does electrical and plumbing jobs. “My step-mother ekes out a living through the only milch cow we own,” Vivek said. But the family never discouraged Sasi Perumal. “We supported him since he was fighting for society’s good. We used to give whatever money we had for his expenses when he went to different places to stage his protests,” said Vivek. Maghizham said her husband in his last days had told them that he would achieve his ambitious goal soon. “He was happy that many people had started talking about prohibition. His campaign has started yielding results,” she said.

The family is proud of the refreshing change in people’s mindset on prohibition today. That Sasi Perumal’s death has prompted a series of debates and discussions on the issue of prohibition indicates that his sacrifice was not in vain. “We request the Chief Minister to consider our earnest plea for prohibition to save hundreds of poor families that suffer from the evil spell of liquor. Our father’s soul will rest in peace then,” Vivek said.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran

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