How do you feel about prohibition? Would you rather risk dodging vigilantes and drinking spurious alcohol in a dry state or dealing with sometimes-violent addicts in a wet one? As Mizoram prepares to lift prohibition with the passing of a new law in July, our writer takes us through the 17 years of prohibition and what they meant for him.By Vanlalruatkima
Bottles at a Bar_. Photo by Edwin Land via CC BY 2.0Everybody knows that Gujarat is a dry state. But few are aware that other states in India are as well – full or partial prohibition exists in Nagaland, Manipur and Lakshadweep. For 17 years, Mizoram has been under prohibition, but in July this year, the Assembly scrapped the MLTP Act and passed the Mizoram Liquor (Prohibition and Control) Bill 2014, or the MLPC Bill. Under the new rules, sale of alcohol will still be restricted to a degree, but wine shops can open under strict regulations, and people over 21 will be allowed to drink. The MLPC Rules 2014 will soon be sent to the Law Department for final approval. In layman’s terms, here’s what it will mean: bye-bye prohibition, hello inebriation, no more adulteration.
Ironically, that’s exactly what the MLTP Act managed to cause – it increased the amount of adulterated liquor in the black market.
In Gujarat, there are Special Economic Zones (SEZs) where you can purchase and drink liquor. Apart from that, permits are given to foreigners, NRIs and “patients”, and I’m sure many of us have our fair share of Gujarati friends who often boast about knowing where they can easily get alcohol in Gujarat.
In Aizawl (the capital district and the most populous one, constituting around 37 percent of the population of Mizoram, going by Census 2011 data) the only places where you can illegally purchase authentic liquor, usually under the cover of darkness, are from the Army and paramilitary camps (the Assam Rifles, the Border Roads Organization and the Army Medical Corps) as they do not come under state law. Only people with good “contacts” can get them on days it is available; for those less fortunate, practically every bootlegger in Mizoram either sells home-made hooch or adulterated alcohol smuggled from across its borders, whether the domestic borders with Tripura, Assam and Manipur, or its international borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar. The three autonomous districts of Southern Mizoram – Chakma, Lai and Mara area are not affected by the MLTP Act. In towns and villages along the porous “international” border of Myanmar, imported alcohol as well as Myanmar brands can easily be obtained.
But smuggling alcohol into the state isn’t an easy affair, and that’s why such a large percentage of liquor in Mizoram is adulterated. It is difficult to transport alcohol via road from Assam, because the staff at the Vairengte check post are extremely vigilant, and they will look through all your baggage and search your vehicle thoroughly (unless you happen to know the right people in the right places, pointing to the alarming factor prevalent in any place where prohibition exists – the nexus between bootleggers and police, and the differential treatment of the “haves” and “have-nots”).
Even after Vairengte check-gate, there is the Kolasib check-gate, aka "Inchhirna kawn". The literal translation of this nickname is "place where everybody regrets!" You either managed to smuggle alcohol past Vairengte check-gate and got caught at Kolasib check-gate. Or you didn't smuggle in any alcohol for fear of being caught but weren't checked at Kolasib check-gate because nobody was on duty there. Either way, plenty of regret.
Air travel is a different story. In India, we’re allowed to carry up to 5liters of alcohol in our check-in luggage on domestic flights, and no airport authority will stop you from carrying alcohol just because your destination is a dry state – that is the responsibility of your destination’s law enforcement agency, not theirs. And yes, those arriving at Lengpui Airport in Mizoram are usually not checked upon arrival. But then again, 5 liters is not a large quantity, especially when all your friends, relatives and the Facebook friends you don’t even know exist suddenly ask you to bring a bottle home for them the moment they know you’re flying home, so happiness doesn’t last very long during vacations. I once had all five bottles of mine confiscated by the airport authority in Kolkata because in order to lighten my luggage, I had transferred the alcohol from their original heavy glass bottles to plastic ones. I learned the hard way that even though we’re allowed to carry up to five bottles of alcohol, we aren’t allowed to tamper with the seal of the bottles! I’ve never been that grumpy during a flight in my entire life.
Since alcohol in Mizoram is in such short supply, profits on smuggled alcohol can easily be maximized by adding ethyl alcohol or other dangerous additives to increase the quantity of liquor available. And that poses a serious threat to health: earlier this year, The Telegraph reported that according to records with Mizoram’s Excise and Narcotics Department, illicit liquor was responsible for 90 deaths in the past 17 years.
Spurious alcohol can mean either locally brewed alcohol, or smuggled Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) that has been adulterated beyond recognition. To give you a taste of what it’s like to consume adulterated alcohol, here’s my personal experience. I live in Mumbai, and I’m a loyal fan of Old Monk rum. During one of my vacations back home, I was invited to a dinner party, to which one of my friends brought a bottle of Old Monk (a plastic one) bought from a bootlegger. The moment I drank it, I choked and nearly vomited. The taste of chemicals in it was overwhelming, and I could feel my stomach constricting immediately. Sadly, none of my friends seemed affected because they were accustomed to the taste of that stuff.
Historically, alcohol (different varieties of rice beer) has been very much a part of our Mizo culture. Back during the days when we were warring tribes fighting amongst ourselves under different clans, when we were Animists long before the missionaries came, we drank at every village festival, danced around the bonfire under the crystal blue moonlight, drunk and carefree with no regard for the future or the number of Facebook friends we had.
There were different types of alcohol for every occasion. Some types of alcohol like zupui were served only on special public occasions such as weddings, a successful hunt, or a successful raid on another village. Others like zufang were consumed at home (even the kids got to drink it!) and served to visiting guests. And there were special zufang served to important guests such as the chieftain of the village or a pasaltha (a warrior who had proven his courage during a hunt or raid). Other types like rakzu (also called tinzuin some regions) were consumed for leisure within the village.
All that changed when the Welsh missionaries arrived in Mizoram in 1894 during British colonization. Along with Christianity, they gave us a script, taught us how to read and write, educated us and abolished some social evils such as the practice of slavery, animal sacrifice, raiding villages and the tradition of proving one’s bravery by beheading somebody from a rival clan in order to become a pasaltha. It is thanks to their relentless effort that even though we had a late start on the literacy scene, Mizoram is now one of the most literate statesin India, second only to Kerala.
But the missionaries also made us do away with other practices, such as our consumption of alcohol (terming it a sin) and the way we would sing in unison with drums (which was, ironically introduced into our Church rituals years later). Christianity remains a major legacy of the British in Mizoram to this day. When India got Independence, Mizoram was known as the Lushai Hills District. It became a Union Territory in 1972 and finally India’s 23rd state in 1987. Census data indicates that in 2001, around close to 90 percent of the population of Mizoram was Christian. Presbyterian and Baptist are the two largest denominations in the state. Consumption of alcohol continues to be considered a grave sin.
Church pressure on the government to enforce prohibition has been tremendous: it was church influence that resulted in the Congress government passing the MLTP Bill. While all church denominations in Mizoram are for prohibition, the Mizoram Presbyterian Church Synod, which has the largest following, has been the most vocal about it. They have held mass prayers, protested on streets in large numbers, and put up posters all over the city opposed to the lifting of prohibition.“Total prohibition has been beneficial in ridding Mizo society of various social evils. […] We are against any change in the 1995 Act as it would make people more prone to alcoholism. The state is already plagued by widespread drug abuse,” Robert Halliday of the Synod told Tehelka.
The same Congress government, back in power since 2008 and voted in for a second consecutive term in December 2013 in a landslide win, introduced what a newspaper called “a bold move that defied influential churches” when it passed the new liquor law this July. Ironically, Mizoram’s Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla, who is now serving his fifth term as CM and has been elected to the state Assembly nine times since 1978, was in June 2014 caught on camera allegedly drinking beer with his wife. No action was taken against him, but he did earn himself the nickname ‘Alco-Hawla’.
According to the state’s Minister for Excise and Narcotics R Lalzirliana, the primary reason behind the decision to lift prohibition was to stop the harm done by spurious liquor.
The former Mizoram Governor Vakkom Purushothaman once described Mizoram as “the wettest dry state”. In January 2011, a special study group formed with the help of Mizoram University’s Department of Psychology studied the problem of prohibition and alcohol abuse, and a year later submitted a report recommending changes to the MLTP Act. A growing sentiment among the Mizos is that the restrictions on alcohol has led to an increase in drug abuse among the youth. And then there was the worrying rise of vigilantism from groups like the dreaded Supply Reduction Service (SRS), which was finally disbanded in 2008 due to public pressure. The SRS were infamous for violating human rights, beating up and on occasion, causing the deaths of alleged drug peddlers and bootleggers. The SRS was a purely voluntary association like its parent body, the Young Mizo Association (YMA), and was created as a special unit to combat bootleggers and drug peddlers. The YMA organizes community initiatives such as functions, funerals, helping the needy or relief efforts for natural disasters. While the YMA isn’t sponsored by the state, nearly all Mizos are part of it, including our politicians and police force. So, for that matter, am I.
It feels good to know that amending the MLTP Act may prevent the consumption of spurious alcohol. But at the same time, many are skeptical about how this will affect our society. The Church and its loyal devotees are afraid this will lead to a rise in immorality and decline in spirituality, and even from a non-Christian-doctrine perspective, people are worried about the deterioration of law and order. To an extent, it is reassuring to know that under the new law, those creating a nuisance after drinking will be punished severely and could be imprisoned for up to two years. Drunken driving could invite the same punishment.
Growing up, my home in Mizoram was right opposite what used to be one of the most popular taverns in Aizawl before the prohibition days began in 1997. Before the Congress government at the time brought in the Mizoram Liquor Total Prohibition (MLTP) Act in 1995, which was enforced fully only two years later, drunk men would knock on our door every day, asking us for money because they had run out of cash. Some of them would demand that we pay for their drinks. There were drunk men fighting outside our house almost every night, making it unsafe for me and my three older sisters to venture out after dark, and there would occasionally be one or two people passed out inside our gate in the morning. Even when we complained to the police, all they did was post a few cops around our house for a few days; things would be peaceful for a bit before it would all start once again. Sometimes it was even the cops themselves who asked us for a little “show” – a Mizo way of asking another person to treat them to a drink.
Those incidents traumatized me as a child. But when prohibition came, all of that changed for us: the next 17 years brought us peace and quiet. So even though I drink, I support the Church’s stand and remain a skeptic about this new change. Is our law enforcement really capable of maintaining law and order once this act comes into place? Only time will tell.
One of the reasons cited for lifting prohibition (although the Congress government is keen to emphasize that it is not the most important reason, an allegation made by churches) is the potential for revenue alcohol has in terms of sales tax. One of the key examples that anti-prohibition lobbyists cite is Kerala, which has the highest per capita alcohol consumption in India. Kerala brought in over Rs 8,000 crore in the last fiscal year from liquor sales alone; this was probably what hammered in the last nail on the MLTP Act coffin. And in an ironic twist of fate, just as Mizoram is freeing itself from prohibition, Kerala is now slowly heading towards it.
Vanlalruatkima (better known as Kima in the real world and ‘Mizohican’ in the online world) is an avid blogger from Mizoram, who has been blogging about the North East for nearly a decade. He is currently located in Mumbai and heads his own mobile games development company.