Despite strong protests from the Church, which has a say in virtually all matters in the state, the government lifts the 18-year Prohibition.
Dire warnings of incurring the wrath of the Lord and even excommunication from the Church fell flat before the lures of liquor and lucre in Mizoram, where prohibition was lifted a few days ago after 18 long years in defiance of the powerful Church and some civil society organizations.
Pastors, joined by politicians from opposition parties, warned all drinkers that the wrath of Lord Jesus would be upon them and they would roast in hell. They also warned the ruling Congress government in the state, which initiated the process to overturn prohibition (imposed in 1997) after coming to power early last year, that the party would have a pay a heavy price for defying the Church.
But such warnings went unheeded by the thousands who queued up before the only wine shop that could open in state capital Aizawl—six were slated to open, but the Church orchestrated opposition from the localities they were to have opened in—on Monday (March 16) to purchase liquor.
Prohibition was imposed in the tiny hill state, which is surrounded by Myanmar and Bangladesh on three sides, in 1997 at the behest of the Church, which has a say in virtually all matters in Mizoram. Nearly 90% of the state’s populace are Christians, and half of them (a little over five lakh) are Presbyterians. The Presbyterian Church Synod (council) has been at the forefront of statewide protests since last year to the government’s move to lift prohibition.
The Church says that liquor had been the root of many social evils in the state before 1997.
“Mizos have this peculiar weakness for alcohol. The days and nights before 1997 were nightmarish. Drunken brawls on the streets were a common sight. Drunken driving led to countless accidents. Alcohol claimed many lives and broke many families, left many women and children destitute. Imposing prohibition was the only answer. Since 1997, things have calmed down and Mizo society is peaceful and harmonious”
Thus said Reverend Chuauthuama, a senior leader of the Presbyterian Church Synod and one of the most vociferous voices against lifting prohibition.
But the state government and some civil society organisations that have backed the lifting of prohibition have argued that prohibition did not work at all and bootlegging was rampant.
“The state was losing a lot of revenue even as people were drinking liquor smuggled in from (neighbouring) Assam. And this smuggled liquor often used to be adulterated, leading to health problems. Those who weren’t able to afford this smuggled liquor had to depend on spurious country liquor that was responsible for many falling ill and deaths as well. So it was better to lift prohibition and regulate the sale of alcohol,” argued Mizoram excise minister R. Lalzirliana.
He said that the legal sale of liquor would ease Mizoram’s precarious financial condition. Mizoram generates barely 4% of its total annual budget and is totally dependent on the Union government for grants. Duties on liquor would ease the situation to a large extent, said state finance minister Lalsawta.
The state government passed the Mizoram Liquor Prohibition and Control Act, 2014, last July, overturning the Mizoram Liquor (Total Prohibition) Act, 1995. Under the new laws, a person has to purchase an annual liquor permit that costs Rs 500 and a permit holder is entitled to six 750 ml bottles of IMFL (Indian made foreign liquor), and 10 bottles each of wine and beer. Strict penalties have been imposed for drinking in public, drunken driving and drunken behaviour in public.
The excise minister says these new rules would be strictly implemented. More than 55,000 people have applied for permits and 25,000 have been granted these permits. The number is increasing every day and once liquor vends open in other places of the state, the number of permit holders would be at least 3 lakh, say excise department officers. That means roughly a third of the state’s population. It is estimated that at least half the state’s population drinks.
The state government says it is going ahead on this issue very carefully. It has given licenses to open liquor vends only to state public sector units like the Mizoram Food & Allied Industries Corporation (Mifco) and an ex-servicemen’s association. A bar license has been granted to only the Aizawl Club that has top bureaucrats, businessmen and politicians as its members. Bar licenses will be issued gradually and more liquor vends will open in other districts of the state in a phased manner, said the excise minister.
But this cautionary approach has not impressed the Church. “We are totally against consumption of liquor. Lifting of prohibition goes against constitution of the Presbyterian Church of India and drinking is a violation of the rules of conduct laid down by the Presbyterian Church of Mizoram,” said Rev. Chuauthuama.
He also rubbishes the state government’s contention that prohibition had led to increase in drug and substance abuse. “It is the failure of the government to enforce prohibition and crack down on drug smuggling and abuse. The government has the machinery and if it had been serious, it could have enforced total prohibition,” he adds. The Presbyterian and Pentecostal Churches have resolved to punish people who hold liquor permits by denying them important roles in Church activities.
The Church has also instigated elders and influential persons of localities in Aizawl where the liquor vends were to have opened to oppose them. Rev. Zaihmingthanga, a former pastor of the Presbyterian Church, said that the local Church in his locality (Khatla) in Aizawl had spoken to the owner of the building where one liquor vend was to have opened. “We convinced him that it would be a sin to let out his premises for selling liquor and the earnings from that would do him a lot of harm. He understood and withdrew permission to the tenant (a Mizoram state PSU) to open the liquor outlet”. As a result, only one liquor outlet—at Millennium Center, Aizawl’s only shopping mall—could open last week. But excise department officials say negotiations are on with organizations in localities that have opposed the opening of liquor vends and the problems would be solved soon.
According to state government estimates, Mizoram had been losing a huge lot of revenue due to prohibition. The first two days’ sales figures from the liquor vend at Millenium Centre provide an inkling to this. IMFL worth Rs 6.2 lakh was sold on March 16 and 17 from this shop. The state earned an estimated Rs 4.34 lakh by way of excise duties from this. So in a year, the Mizoram government can expect to rake in Rs 6.5 crore at least (discounting the ‘dry’ days) from this outlet alone. Excise officials estimate that sale of liquor could get the state exchequer at least Rs 200 crore a year—a lot of money for a cash-strapped state.
Former chief secretary of Mizoram, Michael Lalmanzuala, says it is high time for the Church to stop interfering in matters of the State. “The Church has no business to interfere in such matters. The Church itself is full of corruption,” he says. Before the first Christian evangelists (from Wales) set foot on the Lushai Hills (as Mizoram was known then) in late 19th century, the Mizo rice beer ‘zu’ was an integral part of all social occasions and celebrations.
“I have studied old traditions and customs and I can say with full authority that the Mizos of those times used to drink responsibly because there were strict norms for social behavior laid down by the elders and chieftains. It was the Christian missionaries who vilified ‘zu’, along with many other Mizo traditions and customs, and then the problem of alcoholism started. Mizos used to revere ‘zu’ and would never misuse or abuse it,” said Lalmanzuala.
The Church’s vociferous stand against the lifting of prohibition has had an unforeseen fallout: many Mizos are now demanding a complete separation of the Church from the State. “The Church interferes too much in running of the state, in governance and even in people’s personal lives. I was excommunicated once for a period from the Presbyterian Church because I had married a girl from another Christian denomination. This makes no sense,” said Mizoram Journalists’ Association president Vanlalrema Vantawl.
An increasing number of people in Mizoram have now started discussing, albeit privately, about the predominant role of the Church in their lives. The clamour for the Church to limit itself to ecclesiastical matters seems to be growing. And that can only spell trouble for the Church and its orthodox pastors.
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