Proposal to lift prohibition in Manipur evokes ire of women activists (2022)

They fear that this will undo years of hard work.

Womenhold a significant place in Manipur’s history. Wielding swords, they would defend their villages in the past, when the men were away fighting battles in distant lands. When valour failed, they employed wit, serving the invaders food and alcohol till they passed out. The marauders woke up to find themselves prisoners.

In modern-day Manipur, the enemy has moved closer home, with inebriated men beating up their wives and getting involved in crime. To put a check on them, women formed the All Manipur Women’s Social Reformation and Development Samaj or Nupi Samaj in the late 1970s. The meira paibis(women torchbearers) would patrol villages at night and round up drunkards and bootleggers. The punishments were innovative: most often, the “guilty” would be made to frogmarch wearing garlands of empty bottles, while shouting out their crimes, “I am a drunkard/I am a bootlegger.”

Thus started Manipur’s long fight against rampant alcoholism, and it has seen several ups and downs over the years. Now, however, Chief Minister N. Biren Singh is considering legalising liquor in the State so that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government can earn more revenue from excise duty, value-added tax, and distribution of liquor licences. Manipur has been a “dry state” since 1991, when the then Chief Minister R.K. Ranbir Singh passed the Manipur Liquor Prohibition Act.

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Insurgent groups in Manipur say that the authorities use drugs and alcohol as a counter-insurgency tool on the assumption that if the youth are hooked on intoxicants they won’t have the mindspace to worry about things like “armed revolution for independence”. Teetotallers themselves, they have campaigned actively to reduce the incidence of alcoholism in Manipur.

No drinking

Sometime in 1990, the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur, or PLA in short, noted, based on a media exposé, that there were 63 licensed liquor shops, three bonded warehouses, and thousands of roadside kiosks selling alcohol for a population of less than 15 lakh. They announced that all these would be closed by January 1, 1991.When milder forms of punishment failed, they started shooting sellers and users in their knees and palms.

Meanwhile, the police were getting uneasy about the women activists. When there were some instances of attacks on the women during their night vigils, the police took advantage of the disturbance and began to accompany the prohibitionists on their nightly raids on the pretext of protecting them. The women took the police’s claims at face value and accepted their protection but soon realised that the bootleggers were being tipped off about the raids and fleeing the scene before they arrived.

Highlights
  • Manipur’s women have been fighting against alcoholism since the 1970s
  • Thanks to their efforts, in 1991, the then Chief Minister R.K. Ranbir Singh passed the Manipur Liquor Prohibition Act, which is still in place
  • Now, however, Chief Minister N. Biren Singh is considering legalising liquor in the State so that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government can earn more revenue from excise duty, value-added tax, and distribution of liquor licences
  • While liquor is officially banned in Manipur, in reality, both Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and imported alcohol is sold indiscriminately.
  • There have been instances when spurious country liquor has caused deaths.
  • The women activists say that they will never accept the new liquor policy since it will wipe out future generations.

A few months before the PLA’s ban was to take effect, the Manipur People’s Party government led by R.K. Ranbir Singh passed the Manipur Liquor Prohibition Act. Ranbir Singh had then told Frontline: “The insurgents are very clever. Since it is well known that my government will impose the ban they announced their anti-liquor policy.”

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The government’s one-upmanship slowed down the insurgents’ campaign. Meanwhile, as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, began to be rigorously imposed across Manipur, the women activists got busy countering the alleged army excesses, including cases of fake encounters. While liquor is officially banned in Manipur even now, in reality, both Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and imported alcohol is sold indiscriminately.

Brisk Business

The ban has been largely profitable for bootleggers since they charge more citing high risk. While a litre of country liquor used to sell for Rs.11 in certain tribal areas before 1991, now it sells for Rs.50. One 750 ml bottle of country liquor from the villages of Sekmai and Andro (the liquor they produce is known by these names) used to cost Rs.10 and Rs.6 respectively before 1991. Now the prices have soared to Rs.100 per litre for Sekmai and Rs.50 per 750 ml for Andro. Noted for their high alcohol content, Sekmai and Andro are in high demand. Bottles are taken in giant burlap bags every day to supply various shops and drinking joints. When a bottle of Andro reaches Imphal, some 23 km away, the price is hiked to Rs.100, that too after diluting the original.Sanahanbi (name changed), a woman who supplies Andro, says, “We don’t make much profit since we have to line the pockets of some powerful people to make them look the other way. It is a question of swimming together or drowning together. Since many families have no regular source of income, they take to bootlegging.”

Proposal to lift prohibition in Manipur evokes ire of women activists (1)

Local liquor being sold in the outskirts of Imphal city| Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

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There have been instances when spurious country liquor has caused deaths. This is one of the reasons Biren Singh cites in favour of lifting prohibition: “Habitual drunkards are dying in Manipur since dangerous ingredients are often mixed with the liquor. If licence is issued there can be quality control. It should be made clear that this liquor is for export to other States only.”

While there has not been any sharp reaction on this from the insurgents, the Coalition Against Drugs and Alcohol (CADA) and the women prohibitionist groups have protested vehemently against the move. CADAleaders said that if the new government policy lifting prohibition comes to pass, it will sound the death knell for large sections of the population, especially among the Meiteis, the majority community.

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The women activists say that they will never accept the new liquor policy since it will wipe out future generations. An elderly member said, “Since 1975, we have been fighting drug and alcohol abuse in the State. It helped put a check on the business. Now the BJP-led government wants to revive it merely for the sake of revenue.”

However, it cannot be denied that the demand for IMFL and country liquor is increasing by the day in Manipur, as more and more students take to drinking and alcohol flows freely at parties and social functions. IMFL bottles are smuggled in easily from Assam and Myanmar. Although police and excise personnel occasionally destroy truckloads carrying IMFL bottles and pouches of country liquor, alcohol is still easily available in Manipur, if at a high price.

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Pros and cons

Senior Congress leaders, mostly women MLAs, are critical of Biren Singh’s proposed policy. They say that the government is cash-strapped and cannot even pay salaries on time. So, it is taking the easiest way out of the crisis. Tax on liquor is expected to rake in more than Rs.500 crore for the State. CADA president Hijam Priyokumar says, “The government could have easily enforced the Manipur Liquor Prohibition Act had it been committed to the cause.”

“It cannot be denied that the demand for IMFL and country liquor is increasing by the day in Manipur, as more and more students take to drinking and alcohol flows freely at parties and social functions.”

A retired IPS officer said on condition of anonymity: “If the liquor business is legalised, lakhs of families will be left without a reliable source of income. Influential bootleggers, who will become licence holders, will eventually monopolise the country liquor business leaving small-time bootleggers in penury.”

But Biren Singh seems determined to go ahead with his plans. At the same time, CADA and the women activists are not showing any sign of backing down. The battle lines are drawn and we have to wait and see who blinks first.

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