Dissecting the Dalai’s visit

On April 5, the fourteenth Dalai Lama will address a large crowd of Buddhists at the Yidiga Choedzin in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang town. While thousands of Buddhist Monpas are eagerly waiting to see their spiritual leader speak, a man considered a living god, not everyone in Arunachal Pradesh is enthusiastic about his visit.

The Dalai Lama first came to the state in 1959 when he escaped from the Potala Palace in Tibet’s capital Lhasa, entering Tawang and passing through several places before eventually setting up camp in Dharmsala where the Tibetan government in-exile operates out of. Since then, he has visited the state seven times. Given the People’s Republic of China’s position on Arunachal Pradesh and it’s equation with the Dalai Lama, it’s hardly surprising that the Chinese government does not take too kindly to his visits to the state.

Ever since his visit was announced, Chinese officials have repeatedly raised objections stating that the state is disputed territory and that the Dalai Lama’s repeated visits further complicate matters. The Chinese officials seem to have found support to their argument from the unlikeliest of sources- a section of people from Arunachal Pradesh.

Since the turn of the last century, the Chinese have maintained that Tibet is part of China and that a large part of present-day Arunachal Pradesh (which it calls South Tibet) was under Lhasa’s control, ergo making over 80,000 square kilometres of the state a part of China. In 1962, border disputes escalated to such heights that the People’s Liberation Army forces marched deep inside Arunachal Pradesh before unilaterally retreating. Since then, border skirmishes and encroachments have been frequently reported and the Chinese continue to maintain that the region is disputed. Although India has also asserted its stand and found support from the people of the state, who happen to be zealously patriotic, some here agree with the Chinese that the Dalai Lama’s visits rough up an already rocky relationship between the two countries.

Dr Nani Bath, a professor at the Rajiv Gandhi University and a prominent political commentator feels that the Dalai Lama’s visits to the state are counter-productive to relations between the two countries and as such his visits should be halted.

“We must be aware of collateral damages arising out of his visits,” he says.

Former secretary of the North East Students Organization, Gumjum Haider, also says that the Dalai Lama is “a reason of irritation between the two nations” and that if “his visit does not yield any development, any benefit to the people” then it should be stopped.

Another voice of opposition to his visits is Arunachal Civil Society chairman Patey Tayum who is even planning to hold an event reasoning why the Dalai Lama should not come here.

Vocal apprehensions to the Dalai Lama’s visits however, have come from non-Buddhists only so far.

Lama Yeshi, a stocky monk at the GRL Monastery in Bomdila (where the Dalai Lama will speak) nonchalantly reacts to questions of such views by saying that “bolne wala bolte rahega (those who have to say will say anything)”. His statement is in line with what one young entrepreneur from Bomdila says is characteristic of Monpas and Buddhists.

“Our people don’t really like making political statements,” he says.

However, there is one Buddhist who breaks the mould.

Lama Lobsang Gyatso, a monk from the area who shot to limelight for his stance against large hydropower projects in the region thinks there are two reasons for inviting the Dalai Lama.

“One, inviting him gives India an opportunity to show its supremacy. Second, to bring peace and tranquillity after last year’s incident,” he says.

On April 28, Gyatso was arrested on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the 336-year old Tawang Monastery, also known as the Galden Namgey Lhatse- celestial paradise in a clear night. A few days later on May 2, Gyatso was to attend court for a bail hearing. His supporters, mostly fellow monks and nuns, had begun gathering outside the police station where he was held. When his bail plea was turned down, the police took him inside the station again, this time from a different entrance. This agitated the protestors, and as per some claims, began pelting stones at the police station. In reaction, the police and men of the Indian Reserve Battalion began firing their guns in an attempt to disperse the crowd which resulted in the death of two young men.

Gyatso says that the Dalai Lama is revered by the people in Tawang and if he appeals for peace, people will listen. As for whether the Dalai Lama should visit or not, he is clear that there is no reason he shouldn’t.

“Our poor and the elderly cannot go out to see him. He should come,” he says.

Religious considerations aside, the Dalai Lama’s visits are more about international diplomacy.

“His visits actually stake claim metaphorically to the land as ours. It’s a refined way of asserting rather than hold placards and shout ourselves hoarse. It’s like saying this is our land, we will do what we want and call who we call,” is one view.

One observer says that “the thing with disputed issues/land/claims/property/ideas is that if one doesn’t reiterate them once in a while, people take that as a sign of the other giving up”.

Even Bath notes that the Dalai Lama “is being used by the government of India against China. As such, its motive is not to let the people see him but to counter dragon’s moves”.

Recently, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union has said that the Chinese have no right in interfering in this matter.

It said that China’s comments on the Dalai Lama’s visit are “nonsensical” and that it should refrain from India’s internal matters. Incidentally, it also said that the stapled visas that are issued to citizens from the state by the Chinese government should be accepted as valid, thereby allowing people to travel to China.

In the past, many sportspersons and bureaucrats were either not given visas by Chinese embassies or issued stapled visas which Indian authorities do not accept.

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The weight of expectations and how Irom Sharmila lost the election 

This past Saturday when news began pouring in that anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila Chanu was staring down a massive defeat in her debut election, shocked reactions from across the country began pouring in. By the time the votes had been counted, the fact that she managed to secure only 90 votes elicited the kind of social media response typical of those unaware of the political scenario of the Northeast. However, hardly anyone in her home state of Manipur was surprised by the outcome.

Last year in August, Sharmila, who had been demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), broke her nearly 16-year long fast to contest the legislative assembly polls after forming the Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). While her decision to quit her fast and enter electoral politics was met with criticism from many quarters, she and her party believed that they could make a mark on the state’s political landscape. Unfortunately, not many voters felt the same way.

While the PRJA had fielded only three candidates, including Sharmila, it did it best to fend off predictions of a massive loss. Its co-convenor, Erendro Leichombam, who contested from the Thangmeiband constituency and managed to secure only 573 votes, had earlier said he was confident that all three of its candidates would “win by a huge margin”. 

While the PRJA and Sharmila’s first tryst with politics was admired by some, most people in Manipur knew that the outcome of the election would play out unfavourably for them.

“That (election result) was not at all shocking for us,” says one rights activist from the capital Imphal, and resonates what many feel led to the debacle of the party that hoped to buck the trend and make AFSPA an election issue when adding that “PRJA is unfortunately very disconnected with the reality of electoral politics”.

The common narrative attempting to explain the massive defeat of the party’s star candidate and a global icon is that elections in Manipur are not fought on the plank of repealing AFSPA or conflict or militarisation. Most people care about employment and “which candidate can help them get jobs and facilities”. 

In a state where the unemployment rate is higher than the national average, this is an important issue in the minds of voters. Nowhere was this more evident than in Thoubal constituency where Sharmila took on the incumbent chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh.

Ibobi Singh is a veteran who had successfully fought from the constituency thrice in the past and ruled the state for 15 years. So sure was he of his victory that never once did he publicly scoff Sharmila’s foray into politics and welcomed her move. His confidence perhaps stemmed from the fact that he has “provided jobs” to almost every family in the constituency during his tenure. 

Some also feel that Singh had successfully managed to steer the conversation towards Manipur’s “territorial integrity” amongst the dominant Meitei population living primarily in the Imphal Valley which frequently faces paralyzing economic blockades whenever there is a show of anger against the government in the surrounding hill districts.   

Perhaps one of the biggest blows that Sharmila was hit with was the anger and disappointment from other anti-AFSPA activists including the mothers who had staged a naked protest in 2004 against the alleged rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by Assam Rifles personnel. Many of her long-time supporters felt and advised her against entering politics. Her decision to take a new route caused her to lose the support of an important and influential demographic group. 

Apart from her decision to enter politics, her relationship with Desmond Coutinho has been a bone of contention amongst some of her supporters and other activists. Coutinho’s had an uneasy relationship with Sharmila’s supporters and others in Manipur, to put it lightly.

Reportedly, in 2011 when Coutinho first visited Manipur after staying in touch with Sharmila through letters, he was initially not allowed visit by other activists. And after two days when he was finally allowed to meet her, his reported insistence on sitting with Sharmila at the meira shang (women’s shelter) where the influential Meira Paibis (Women Torchbearers) had gathered, caused much anger. What didn’t help further is that he has been critical of many of those in Manipur who have supported Sharmila’s fight including activists and local journalists. Recently, Sharmila issued a statement apologizing for Coutinho’s use of foul language against some of those who had stood with her during her fast and continue to do so. 

Her private matters aside, Sharmila has since said she will quit politics for good but will continue to fight AFSPA and extend her support to PRJA. She has also said that she looks forward to get married to Coutinho and has plans to go to an ashram for some time before taking the next step. 

Just a day after the results were declared, and as people outside of Manipur continued to express their shock over Sharmila’s defeat, Manipur itself was more preoccupied with talks of government formation. 

By Monday evening, the Congress’ Ibobi Singh had resigned as chief minister to pave way for the BJP’s Nongthombam Biren Singh. Although the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 28 MLAs in the 60-member house, the BJP with its 21 MLAs managed to reach the majority with the support of the National People’s Party and the Naga People’s Front which has four MLAs each, Congress MLA T Shyamkumar, Trinamool Congress’ T Robindro and independent MLA Ashad Uddin.  

Meanwhile, Irom Chanu Sharmila, called by many names including the Iron Lady of Manipur and Mengoubi (the fair one), may ride off into the sunset as a forgotten figure like she did on her cycle during her campaign days.

The price of idealism

Over the last few days, our social media feed and news outlets have been preoccupied with the controversy arising out of 20-year old Gurmehar Kaur’s picture where she is seen holding up a placard that reads, “I am a student from Delhi University. I am not afraid of ABVP. I am not alone. Every student of India is with me. #StudentsAgainstABVP”.

the-beginnings

The beginnings.

This was in reaction to the recent clashes between members of the RSS affiliated, ABVP, and another set of students in Delhi University’s Ramjas College in North Campus last week. While this post attracted attention towards her, what really shone the spotlight on her was a video that was made last year where she is seen holding placards endorsing peace between India and Pakistan. What drew the ire of many was one particular placard which read: Pakistan did not kill my dad, war killed him.

the-placard-that-brought-a-storm

The placard that brought a storm.

This placard is one among the many she holds up during the 4.23-minute video where we learn about her own prejudices and how her mother helped her overcome them.

Due to the uneasy relations between India and Pakistan, many people took to social media to blast her, accusing her of disrespecting her father, Captain Mandeep Singh, who died in the Kargil War. Some even went on to mock/imitate the video including former Indian cricketing great Virender Sehwag who posted a picture with a placard saying: I didn’t score two triple centuries, my bat did.

Others such as Arunachal West MP and Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju weighed in on the matter asking: Who’s polluting this young girl’s mind?

In all of this there have been many opinions that have been voiced by people across various spectra. Predictably, those in the right have slammed her while some have even said that Rijiju’s statement is sexist; that he made the statement because Kaur is a woman and such questions arise out of ingrained misogyny that propagates the idea that a woman is incapable of independent thought. I would like to address this quickly before moving on to a larger issue.

I personally disagree that the minister made that remark because Kaur is a woman. Considering his recent form over the past year from saying that people in the country have developed a habit of questioning everything (as if that’s somehow wrong) to his recent conversion comments, it was only expected that he would say what he did. In fact, I would have been surprised if he hadn’t made such a statement. I personally believe that he would have made a sweeping statement like that even if it was a man who had said it.

Now, moving on to the subject of how people have reacted to that placard. The entire issue exists because people are shaped by their experiences, what they consume from the media and often by jumping into conclusions without seeing the bigger picture.

Amongst the many who have slammed her, there may be some who are themselves relatives of war veterans and martyrs and therefore feel a sense of betrayal when they see someone, who in any other circumstance would have been considered one of their own, disregarding the memory of the slain.

To those people, I respect and empathise with your loss but must admit that I will never truly understand the loss you have suffered. It is in the same manner that I will not understand how Kaur can take the stand she has. I suppose different people react differently to the same situation. But it isn’t as if she did not harbour hate too.

If one watches the video in its entirety, you will see that she admits that as a child she hated Muslims because she thought all Muslims were Pakistanis- the subject of her hate- and who she blamed for her father’s death. She also once tried to stab a burkha-clad woman when she was six years old “because for some strange reason” she thought the woman was responsible for her growing up without a father. It was at that moment when her mother explained to her that Pakistan did not kill her father, war did.

Any sensible person with an iota of common sense who can think logically should be able to deduce that her message here is to tell people to resist war instead of going to war. For millions of Indians,  Pakistan may be the enemy but why is that? Is it not because we see them as such and they see us as enemies too? Will the world be a worse or a better place if relations between the two countries improved?

I ask these questions not disregarding the realpolitik of our current world but from Kaur’s perspective as someone who has suffered the loss of a parent and realises that soldiers across the globe follow orders given by people living miles away from the real danger of bullets and those who are more concerned with ballots.

Unfortunately, so many of us are unable to see beyond the immediate and the now. We see one image, fixate upon it and form our opinions from it. Voicing a world-view is not wrong; threatening rape is.

To all those criticising her and questioning her patriotism, I ask, what is so wrong with wanting peace? Is it so wrong to want better relations with our neighbours and expect the same from everyone? Wouldn’t the world actually be a better place if we lived in a world without wars? Is it a fallacy to believe in such an ideal world? Perhaps, so. But just because we do not live in an ideal world does not mean we should not strive towards one.

Then again, my idea of an ideal world will differ from yours. At least let’s talk about it.

PS: As for Virender Sehwag and actor Randeep Hooda’s comments- their juvenile behaviour is not even worth talking about.

Tradition, gender equality, politics: A cacophony of voices from Nagaland

Two deaths, arson, bandhs and disruption of communication lines: these are some of the impacts of the current chaos that has gripped Nagaland for over a week now.

Protests in Nagaland were triggered after the state government announced polls for Urban Local Bodies (ULB) in December last year with a provision to reserve 33 percent of seats for women.

Various Nagaland-based groups, including ‘apex’ bodies of the tribes called the Hohos, have opposed the government’s move to reserve seats for women, calling it an infringement upon Naga traditions and customs as protected under Article 371A of the Constitution.

On the other side are the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) and Joint Action Committee for Women’s Reservation (JACWR) which have pursued the need for laws to establish greater women’s participation in electoral politics in the state. For the record, Nagaland has never had a women MLA since it became a full-fledged state in December 1963 and has had one woman Lok Sabha MP, Rano Shaiza, back in the seventies.

The situation took a turn for the worst when on February 1 two men died in police firing in Nagaland’s commercial capital Dimapur following protests over the state government’s decision to go ahead with the polls in 12 of the 32 ULBs despite assurance given to the protesting groups, that had come under the banner of the Joint Coordination Committee, earlier on January 30 that polls would be postponed. The two men later had died after allegedly being shot at a protest the night before when people marched towards Chief Minister TR Zeliang’s private residence in Dimapur.

It should be noted that on the day of the agreement being signed, a PIL was filed in the Gauhati High Court against “extra-constitutional bodies opposed to the election”. The court had ordered the state government to go ahead with the polls.

Matters did not stop there, however, as groups of people set fire to the Kohima Municipal Council building on February 2. For the past week, life has been going at a slow pace following bandhs in large parts of the state demanding the resignation of Zeliang and his cabinet. Government vehicles are not allowed to ply and government offices have remained shut but businesses are slowly beginning to open up as people try to get on with their normal routines. The latest update following a meeting on Tuesday is that Zeliang alone should resign within 72 hours starting February 8. Within this pool of protests and debates, several narratives have been thrown up.

Protesting groups claim that they are not against the participation of women in electoral politics and that they are free to do so. In fact, even though no woman has ever been elected to the sixty-member Legislative Assembly, they have unsuccessfully contested in the past. Even in the now cancelled ULB polls, there were women candidates in the fray.

Those for the reservation have continually argued that in Naga tribal societies where men make all the decisions, it is necessary that women should be provided an equitable footing to take part in the electoral process and not merely be reduced to voters but representatives as well.

Newspapers in Nagaland these days are filled with opinions and editorial pieces that seek to address the issue. While there are the opposing groups who say that the reservation is ultra-constitutional and infringes upon the rights of Naga tribes, on the other hand are those who argue that such opposition is driven by male insecurity and chauvinism.

The fact that people have not once elected a woman to the Assembly, some feel, speaks volumes about Nagaland’s covert gender biases.

While it is often argued that it is to protect the “religious or social practices of the Nagas” and “Naga customary law and procedure” as enshrined in Article 371(A) that are the primary motives for leading the opposition to women’s reservation, an unspoken motive is also the fear that it would lead to opening of floodgates to bring more changes to the Article that ‘protects’ Nagaland.

The fourth provision in Article 371A(1)(a) in the Constitution states that “no Act of Parliament in respect of ownership and transfer of land and its resources, shall apply to the State of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides”. It is this provision that those seeking reservation for women feel that has most men in Nagaland afraid.

Since women in Nagaland cannot inherit ancestral property- abiding by tribal customs- the argument is that men are afraid that any law that is a contradiction to the Article can also trigger calls for further changes in the provision, including inheritance laws. On the other side, some fear that even larger changes could be brought to the part that gives Nagas complete ownership of their land

On the other side, some fear that even larger changes could be brought to the part that gives Nagas complete ownership of their land and resources. This argument must be seen in the backdrop of the fact that parts of Nagaland have large reserves of untapped crude oil which are being currently explored. The provision in the Article ensures that how resources in the state are used lies in the hands of the state and not the Centre. 

A similar provision also exists in Article 371G which states that Mizoram’s laws relating to ownership and transfer of land will be in accordance with tribal customary laws but does not speak of the state’s resources. 

In fact, in Arunachal Pradesh too a similar provision also exists in Article 371G which states that Mizoram’s laws relating to ownership and transfer of land will be in accordance with tribal customary laws but does not speak of the state’s resources.

In fact, in Arunachal Pradesh too, there have been calls of late to bring in a similar provision such as that in Nagaland which ‘protect’ the state’s resources for its tribal population.

On top of these narratives is also one that explores the political angle behind the controversy.

On Tuesday, the chief minister is said to have told reporters that the fact that protests have continued despite the government having declared elections held in some towns as null and void mean that some organisations are being misused for political purposes. He continues to refuse to step down.

In 2014, former chief minister Neiphiu Rio won the lone Lok Sabha seat on the Naga People’s Party ticket. However, after being denied a cabinet berth in the Centre, it was reported that he wanted to return as chief minister that led to fissures in the party that he previously presided over. Then, last year he was suspended from his own party.

The NPF’s youth wing earlier also accused Rio of masterminding the current chaos which he claimed as “totally false” allegations.

Rio openly came out in criticism against the government’s handling of the issue, stating that Naga society is not against reservations for women but that people are unhappy over the manner in which the move seeks to override Article 371A by invoking Article 243T that provides for women’s reservations.

This is of course, not the first time that the there have been oppositions to reservations for women in polls.  Protests against reservation have been in place since 2006 when the Nagaland Municipal (First Amendment) Act was enacted. A decade later, differing views continue to divide a state.

A version of this article first appeared in The Citizen.

Media, moral policing and manipulation: Who lost when Metropolis was shut down?

Since 2013, Metropolis Urban Winter Festival held in Guwahati, Assam had managed to bring together artists, musicians and others from the creative fields to showcase their work, exchange ideas and bring ‘urbanity’ to the city. This year was to be no different until the last day when it was hastily shut down by authorities, reportedly following a tweet by a senior minister.

Held from January 6 to 8, the festival’s main venue was Nehru Park. This year’s edition played host to a 72-member delegation from Bhutan, including those from the Thimpu-based Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA). Private partners aside, the festival also had the support of state authorities including Assam Tourism and the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA). And while things ran fairly smoothly for the first two days, the GMDA shut down proceedings on the last day, allegedly because the venue had become a den for illicit activities.

 

POLITICAL GAMES?

A source in the organising committee of the festival said that the GMDA had given them permission for three days but that the same GMDA shut them down on the last day after a tweet from senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma criticising the “atmosphere” at Nehru Park.

On Sunday, Sarma had tweeted, “Why GMDA allowed Nehru Park for so called winter festival? The park belongs to the children. I will not tolerate atmosphere to be vitiated”.

Some say that Sarma’s reaction is fuelled by a “clash between two ideologies”. The festival reportedly enjoys the “blessing” of former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s son and Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi, who in fact expressed his support for the festival on social media.

On January 8, a Facebook post (reportedly from Gogoi’s profile) read, “From day one I have supported the Metropolis festival in Guwahati as a celebration of youth, art and creativity. I would even take the Ex CM Tarun Gogoi to the festival where he would encourage everyone. The youth of Northeast are full of talent and creativity, and their initiatives should be supported and not obstructed.”

Then on Twitter, Gogoi took a dig at the BJP government in Assam when he tweeted, “Assam govt opens wine shops earlier in the day but shuts down youth arts festival for being a nuisance”. Two days later he again took to Facebook stating that the “GMDA should return the booking money that it collected from the Metropolis festival organisers. It is unfair to first give permission and then cancel for no rationale”.

One person who is part of the organizing team said there “may be some misinformation about the involvement of certain people”, hinting at Gogoi while dismissing his level of involvement.

 

MEDIA AND MORAL POLICING?

The people behind the organizing team claim that things escalated after some local news channels and papers blew things out of proportion.

“There is no evidence that liquor was served in the venue or any gambling took place as reported by some channels,” said one person part of the team.

Another member of the team said that the main venue is located near the Cotton College and the DC’s office and that the organisers never served alcohol to attendees.

They also say that some channels claimed that the venue had become a place of “nudity”.

“The trend in the media here is that anyone wearing clothes that show skin is labelled as promoting ‘nudity’,” said one. “This is Talibanization of Assam,” he added.

Another member of the team said that in Assam there are “no news channels and only views channels”. He added that the situation was escalated because most channels are either owned by politicians or enjoy their backing and therefore “look into things with the perspectives of the politicians”.

A journalist who works for a Guwahati-based channel that covered the event defended his channel’s actions.

“Whatever we reported was based on an internal report that the GDMA had compiled,” he said, adding that the channel did not investigate the claims independently.

He did however, say that the organisers had disrespected the Ashok stambh and Jawaharlal Nehru’s statue in the venue by covering their faces.

News channels also alleged that the bone of contention was that a ‘children’s park’ was being misused as patrons were smoking and drinking at the main venue. Not everyone is convinced by this claim.

 

POINT OF VIEW

Child rights activist from Guwahati, Miguel Das Queah, who held a session on corporal punishment in schools during the festival took to Facebook to express his views.

“I met lots of lots of children, along with their parents, who told me that they were absolutely enjoying the festivity. The festival had hundreds of vibrant young students, scholars, artists, musicians, photographers, designers, dancers, social workers, activists, actors, couples; each one celebrating the beautiful occasion of childhood and youth. There were no brawls, no misdemeanour. How can such a beautiful thing vitiate the atmosphere?” he wrote.

A city-based journalist working for a Delhi-based news outlet said that there was some amount of littering in the place but that the venue is far from what can be deemed as a ‘children’s park’ and serves more as a place for young couples to meet.

“There may have been some issues but it could have been handled differently,” the journalist added.

Amidst the din of what amounts to culturally-appropriate behaviour and possible politically-motivated moves, the primary aim of promoting the arts was relegated to the background.

“Nobody reported that we showcased three classics of Assamese cinema or the amazing performances by children,” one of the organisers said.

 A version of this report first appeared in The Citizen

Hotels and Arunachal politics: An indelible connection

Hotel Donyi Polo Ashok was established in the Arunachal Pradesh capital Itanagar sometime in the 80s. Spread across a large plush area with green lawns, the hotel’s architectural design harks back to the bungalows reminiscent of the days of the Raj. Located on a hill and away from busy streets of the city, the hotel has an easy feel to it.

A few kilometres away, smack in the middle of the city and adjacent to the highway is Hotel Pybss. Built fairly recently, the hotel is a nod to modern architecture, reflected in its blue-tinted windows, discotheque and dim-lit bar.

What, pray tell, do these hotels have anything to do with the current political scenario being played out here? A lot.

Hotel Donyi Polo Ashok: A hotbed of political brainstorming.

Late Thursday night, media houses in the state received a shocking email from the general secretary of the ruling People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA), Kaling Jerang. Attached to the mail were documents ordering the suspension of seven MLAs from the party, including chief minister Pema Khandu! Although rumours were abound that some MLAs were seeking a change of leadership, until last night it looked as though the state would go relatively quietly into the new year. That was not to be.
2016 saw three chief ministers in the state after a year of political instability.
In July, Pema Khandu became chief minister, replacing Nabam Tuki who had himself replaced late Kalikho Pul after a Supreme Court verdict reinstated the Congress government in the state. Pul and his 29 MLAs had earlier left the Congress and joined the PPA during his four-and-half month tenure.
Then in September, Khandu took 43 of the 44 Congress MLAs (all except Congress loyalist Tuki) back to the PPA, which is party to the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA).

Just when Khandu was getting into the groove of things- meeting union ministers, making key decisions- PPA president Kahfa Bengia decided to issue an order suspending Khandu, Jambey Tashi, Pasang D Sona, deputy chief minister Chowna Mein, Chow Tewa Mein, Zingnu Namchoom and mines and minerals minister Kamlung Mossang. The reason for their expulsion, Bengia said, was indulging in ‘anti-party activities’, although it was not specified what those activities were.

The suspension order said that the seven MLAs were being “placed under suspension temporarily from the primary membership of the PPA with immediate effects pending drawl of disciplinary proceeding”.
On Friday morning, citizens woke up to another political drama waiting to be unfolded. And as expected the centre of action were the two hotels mentioned earlier.
Arunachal Pradesh is home to many things. From lush green hills to wild and untamed rivers, there is much that the state has to offer to both visitors and residents. But what always draws the mainstream media’s attention is the constant power tussle that has become a hallmark of the political landscape here. However, because the power play almost always involves MLAs switching loyalties, strategies and decisions are taken not in war rooms of any political party’s offices but in the conference rooms of big hotels in Itanagar.
Today was no different.
Parked outside and inside the premises of Hotel Donyi Polo Ashok were government vehicles as gun-toting uniformed security personnel stood guard at the gates, ensuring that only ‘supporters’ of Khandu’s camp were allowed to enter.
Across town, a similar scene was seen at the parking lot of Hotel Pybss, albeit at a slightly smaller scale where the ‘other PPA MLAs’ were camping.

Hotel Pybss: No one is quite sure how to pronounce its name.

Backed by the PPA president, those camped in Hotel Pybss are projecting Takam Pario as their chief ministerial candidate. Here too, the gates of the hotel were locked and entry was strictly monitored by guards.
While sources from both camps claim to have the numbers, it was only Khandu’s camp that officially came out and boasted of having the requisite numbers required to run the government.
Government spokesperson Bamang Felix told reporters that Khandu has the support of 49 MLAs that include 12 from the BJP and two Independents. Senior BJP MLA Tamiyo Taga also said that the BJP will only back Khandu as the chief minister and that no other candidate is acceptable.
Taga, who is also a minister in the cabinet, said that the BJP state unit will recommend a merger of Khandu and his supporters to the saffron party and that it is already “under process”. Felix, however, said that no such move is in the offing.
As of this evening, both camps were still holed up in their respective hotels. Incidentally, Hotel Pybss is run by Pario’s family while Hotel Donyi Polo Ashok is jointly operated by the state government and India Tourism Development Corporation.
If Khandu really does have the numbers to continue as chief minister, he might as well get used to the ambience at the hotel which may soon be turned into the official residence of the chief minister.

Shillong Sojourn

Unlike so many of my friends and acquaintances, I have no deep-rooted connection with Shillong. I didn’t study here for my school nor did I spend any time in my college years. Yet somehow, the city beckons me and I feel a sense of homeliness whenever I am here.

Legend has it that when the British first arrived here, its hills reminded them of Scotland and so it became to be that it was (and is still) called ‘Scotland of the East’. Regardless of how the moniker came to be, Shillong is a beautiful place.

The present day capital of the state of Meghalaya, Shillong served as the capital of undivided Assam under the Raj and continued to be so until 21 January 1972, when Assam moved its capital to Dispur.

Up until the early 2000s, Shillong was the educational hub of the Northeast of India. While newer schools across the region have eaten into this reputation, with schools and colleges like St Anthony’s, St Edmund’s and Assam Rifles Public School, Shillong continues to be a hot favourite among many parents and guardians.

I, myself have a number of friends who finished their formal education in the hallowed halls of some of the aforementioned institutes. And although I have no personal connection to Shillong, the city with its narrow lanes, black and yellow Maruti 800 taxis and kwai ladies, feels like home.

don-bosco-square-in-laitmukhrah

Don Bosco Square in Laitmukhrah.

Located at an altitude of 1,520 metres, Shillong enjoys a pleasant weather throughout much of the year but gets quite chilly during the winter months. Home to the Khasi people, the lingua franca of the Meghalaya capital is the Khasi language but English and Hindi are understood and spoken as well, aside from Garo, Jaintia and Assamese.

A popular destination amongst tourists from West Bengal, Assam and other north-eastern states, Shillong offers many options to visitors wishing to stick to the typical tourist trail. From Ward Lake to the Shillong Peak and the numerous waterfalls that pepper the city, there certainly isn’t any shortage of ‘tourist spots’ to visit. And while one must take in these places, the soul of Shillong really lies in its streets.

Walking around its narrow streets, it becomes evident that Shillong has major traffic issues. Small roads and too many cars mean that the streets are often packed to the hilt. Driving in Shillong itself is an art; one that the local taxi drivers have mastered well.

The main city is spread around an area of 10 square kilometres so obviously walking all the time is not an easy task. Taxis, either Maruti 800s or Altos, are a useful mode of travel within the city.

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The black and yellow taxis of Shillong.

Driving on half-clutch is pretty much standard fare and do not be surprised or scared if in the middle of your commute the taxi driver turns off the engine. Driving in neutral when going downhill to save fuel is practice as old as the city itself.

All over, whether in busy market places or the narrow back alleys of the city, one can see Khasi women wearing the traditional jainsem or dhara selling kwai– areca nut.

The Khasis, like the Garos and Jaintias of Meghalaya, are a matrilineal society and hence trace their lineage through the mother’s side of the family. Little surprise then that the women play an active role in the daily lives of the people.

Peeling away the skin of the kwai with their small and handy knives, the women (called kong which is Khasi for elder sister) may not appear to have all the worldly desires that engulf our lives but seem happier and content than most of us caught up in the web of ours.

Of course, where there is kwai there’s also chuna or slake lime which marks its presence all over the city’s walls.

a-chuna-smeared-pillar-in-shillong

A chuna smeared pillar.

Kwai is eaten pretty much the same way that paan is in that the nut is chunkier than the supari and does not contain any tobacco or other flavourings. The way to eat kwai is to simply wrap it in a betel leaf that has been smeared with chuna. What one will notice however, is that not all of the chuna is contained on the leaf alone as any excess slake lime is smeared on the closest wall. Therefore, the walls that line the streets often have white markings on them. They are not by design.

Kongs and kwai aside, Shillong is quite a busy city with the main shopping centres located in Police Bazaar, Bara Bazaar and Laitumukhrah. Shops in these markets sell everything from branded apparel to ‘Bangkok goods’ to everything in between. And while new cafes and restaurants offer a wide variety of cuisine, no trip to Shillong can ever be complete without tasting the local Khasi dishes.

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A kong selling kwai is taken by surprise.

Small eateries, colloquially referred to as jadoh stalls, are dotted all over the city. Jadoh is a rice and meat dish that can most closely be compared to the pulao. However, make no mistake, jadoh is very clearly an authentic Khasi dish often paired with dohjem (pork belly cooked with sesame seeds). If you are lucky you can also sample the dohshine, a blood sausage that is guaranteed to make a convert out of any apprehensive traveller.

Of course, while food is an integral part of any city and its culture, Shillong is much more than that. It takes a visit for its magic to charm you. Twenty years since I first started to visit the city, Shillong continues to charm me.

A version of this story first appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Himalayan Pulse.

 

All well in Mawlynnong?

‘Welcome to Mawlynnong (God’s own Garden) Cleanest Village in Asia’ declares a signboard near the gates of the village in Meghalaya.

Dubbed as the ‘cleanest village in Asia’, Mawlynnong is a perfect example of what a self-sustaining community can do for itself. From working together to keep the village clean to helping visitors, this village of 500-odd people should be the model for prime minister Narendra Modi’s plans for a Swachh Bharat. Unfortunately, not all is well in this garden.

the-spotless-streets-of-mawlynnong

The spotless streets of Mawlynnong.

Back in 2003, the village, located around 90 kilometres from the state capital Shillong and near the Bangladesh border, was ‘declared’ as the cleanest village in Asia. And from the first time one enters the village, it is easy to see why.

Spotless cemented pathways lined with dustbins made from bamboo, there isn’t any sight of garbage to be seen anywhere. Walking around the village, one can see that this cleanliness is not a gimmick as the homes of the Khasi people who live here also abide by this practice. In fact, the reason that the village remains so spotless is because the entire community comes together every evening and morning to clean it up after and before opening its gates to tourists.

It is unclear as to what led to this collective habit of keeping the village clean but most people speculate that an outbreak of cholera some hundred years back is what could have led people to imbibe such cleanliness practices.

Just to be clear though, the village wasn’t accorded its moniker by any world body or international organization. It was, in fact, first referred to as the cleanest village in Asia in an article that appeared in a travel magazine. Since then, the floodgates opened and tourists began pouring in to the village. With the flow of visitors there are other issues that have come up.

curious-khasi-children-from-the-village

Curious Khasi children from the village.

Henry Kharymbhah, who was on information duty the day we visited, informed that sometimes visitors litter the place but that they do not impose a penalty on them.

“Instead we pick up their litter in front of them to make them realise their mistake,” he said.

Kharymbhah and the villagers are proud of what they have achieved. He said that there are toilets in each of the 90 homes in the village, all of which were built from their own funds.

henry-kharymbhah-takes-a-break-from-his-work

Henry Kharymbhah takes a break from his work.

“Now we impose a fee of Rs 50 if someone is caught defecating in the open,” he said.

Clearly the village has benefitted from its fame. Apart from the old houses, there are at least 9 home stays that service visitors and many more are under-construction. However, the dorbar shnong (village council) which monitors the village’s day-to-day operations has been facing other issues.

While the village has been able to sustain itself thanks to the flow of tourists and the business they bring, maintaining the village’s USP costs money. Although bamboo garbage bins can be produced in the village itself, the metal frames that hold them need to be made elsewhere and that costs money. Additionally, villagers like B Khongtiang who was busy making a fishnet for himself and who regularly helps out in the village also need to be paid.

Kharymbhah said that the village council has sought help but so far the Meghalaya government has not extended any financial aid.

He said that the village is able to bear the expenses thanks to money coming in from the tourists but they still need help.

“It’s not that we don’t want aid. We just haven’t been given any,” he said.

The Meghalaya government however denies such claims.

An official from the state tourism department, P Tariang, said that there are already four projects in place and two more planned for implementation in Mawlynnong.

“In fact, Mawlynnong is the only place that is getting maximum benefits as of now,” he said.

Durga Puja and Arunachal 

It’s 4.30 PM. The sun is still lingering over the horizon. It’s not quite warm and the sky is overcast causing a certain moistness in the air. At the gates of the Hanuman temple at Ganga Market in Arunachal Pradesh’s capital are scattered shoes, sandals and slippers as devotees and the not-so-devoted make their way inside to get a glimpse of the statues of Durga killing Mahishasura and other deities aside from paying obeisance. 

Devotees at the temple.

Popular discourse on Durga Puja and its associated celebrations are usually centred around Kolkata and Bengali-populated areas such as Delhi’s CR Park. However, unbeknownst to many people in the rest of the country, Durga Puja celebrations are quite the thing in much of Arunachal Pradesh, especially in the state capital which is home to a large Bengali population. Little wonder then that bright-lit pandals are ubiquitous here. 

Inside the Hanuman temple, built in 2001, a temporary altar houses the statue of Durga killing Mahishasura. 

Three men in white dhotis and vests begin to play a familiar tune on their heavy drums while a fourth man keeps the beat with a handheld percussion instrument. The hall almost vibrates with the collective sounds of the instruments and the occasional ting of the bell. 

Three men and their drums.

In one corner, Nirmala Roy from Cooch Behar, West Bengal uses her fingers to pour ghee into diyas to be lit and placed in and around the temple. She says that the temple requires 108 of them. 

Nirmala Roy at work.

Most devotees come and go, offering nominal sums of money as donations while many others offer their prayers from a distance. Looking around the temple (and outside it), it becomes evident that Durga Puja is not just a festival for people of a certain ethnicity or religion as the number of indigenous tribal families appear to number equally to that of the Hindu Bengalis. And regardless of their faith, no one forgets to grab a bowl of the free khichdi on the way out. 

Outside the temple, there appears to be another festival in play. Or rather a mela of sorts. 

Stalls selling sweets and snacks ranging from laddoos and pakoras to heartier dishes like chicken rolls and chicken biryani, everything is fair game. There is even a stall by a popular pizza chain! 
Aayiye, aayiye (come, come),” shout men and women manning the many stalls encouraging people to try their wares. In one of the stalls in the corner, Dilip Kumar twirls jaleebis into a wok full of hot oil for sale. 
He is originally from Muzaffarpur, Bihar and sells chana on most other days. 

Dilip Kumar doing his thing.

At the end of the row is a stall selling toys, manned by a few children. Overseeing the whole affair is Hakim Choudhury. 

Sporting a silvery beard and wearing an Islamic skull cap, Choudhury tells me that business wasn’t great the previous night since it had rained. I learn that he’s from Karimganj, Assam and came to Itanagar 35 years back. 
“There were only seven shops here at that time,” he says, contrasting the present scenario. 
Choudhury says he hasn’t had time to go to the temple yet but will go once the crowd subsides since he has to attend to customers. 

Hakim Choudhury came to Arunachal 35 years ago.

“Does your faith allow you to enter the pandal,” I ask. 

“Why not? What’s the difference between bhagwan and Allah after all,” he asks rhetorically. 
“We just call him by different names.”

Fighting alcohol in Arunachal

Nabam Serbang is on a mission. Earlier this year, the former software engineer travelled across the length and breadth of Arunachal Pradesh’s mountainous terrain to rid the state of alcohol.

Alcohol sale in Arunachal Pradesh is not illegal as it is in Manipur, Nagaland (both in the north-east), Gujarat and more recently, Bihar. In fact, alcohol is easily and freely available in stores that dot the state’s landscape. A running joke being that there are more liquor stores than chemist shops in the state.

But apart from consuming Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), the indigenous tribal populations also brew a variety of rice and maize-based alcohol that are an integral part of many ceremonial practices and festivals. Which is what makes the efforts of Serbang and others a bit of an anomaly.

After working as a software engineer for seven years in Pune, Delhi, Bangalore and California, Serbang returned home in 2014. In his own words, he left his job where he earned over one lakh rupees each month “to contribute to society”.

“I want to improve the quality of education in the state but the environment has to be good,” he says. The 31-year old feels that the “environment” will improve with the introduction of prohibition.

Serbang was in the last stretch of his motorcycle journey and had clocked over 6000-km (over a course of over 50 days) when we met in a small dining room at hotel Dolma Khangsar in Tawang town on May 18. A small white flag with the words ‘Dry State, Quality Education, No Early Marriage’ was neatly laid out on the table as the bespectacled man claimed that alcohol is “destroying our youth”.

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A state free from alcohol, Serbang feels, can end many of the state’s problems.

“Alcohol is more easily available in our state than life-saving medicines,” he explains passionately and adds that liquor stores do not follow the law when they sell alcohol to people under the age of 21.

“There are responsible drinkers but their numbers are less,” he says and that “IMFL and beer are not affecting responsible drinkers because they are aware of their health and economic impacts”, perhaps in an attempt to dispel any notions that he is against alcohol consumption entirely.

Serbang says that his crusade against alcohol stems from his belief that “our society is socially not matured” and that “our present society is not even 100 years old”. However, there may be another reason that drives him to pursue what he is pursuing; something more personal.

Originally from Hojuriangpa village in Sagalee, some 90km from the state capital of Itanagar, Serbang is the eldest son from a brood of 14 surviving siblings. His father, a gaon burah, has three wives (not divorced). Polygamy is still practiced among many tribes of the state and amongst the Nyishi community to which Serbang belongs, it is a common practice. He is the son of his father’s ‘first wife’ and now lives in Naharlagun, 10km from Itanagar, with his father, a few of his siblings and his “second mother” (his father’s second wife).

Serbang’s eldest sister passed away some years back and he looked after her four sons’ education.

“Now her sons are also graduating this year,” he says of his second mother’s children and that he looked after many of his other relatives’ education as well.

His high-paying job may have helped finance his relatives’ education but at one point his own education was under threat.

“My father was an alcoholic and was not able to spend a single penny for my education,” he says. His mother would sell vegetables in Naharlagun to raise money for his education.

“My mother and other family members would constantly quarrel with my father for my educational expenses since he was drinking all the time,” he says. His father has now been sober for more than two years and has become, according to Serbang, “handsome, caring and loved by all”.

He says that alcohol was “conquering” his father and that there are “countless” others like his father who are spending their money on alcohol and “taking money from their wives”.

Having helped his siblings earn their graduation degrees and inspired his father to go sober, Serbang is now focussed on his crusade against alcohol and has opened an NGO, Drug-Free Arunachal. He wants to take his fight to the streets.

“This journey is to engage with other NGOs and get signatures” for his campaign. If he has enough people supporting him, Serbang will seek a referendum on the issue.

Travelling without a tent in his 150-cc Hero Achiever, Serbang says he’s had to rely on the help of people he comes across during his journey. Astonishingly, he travelled without any financial funding.

“I ask for free fuel from the petrol stations explaining them my situation,” he says, adding that he approaches NGOs and public leaders for help if he is ever refused, which has happened on some occasions.

The former software engineer says that he slept where his day ended of his experience of often shacking up at people’s homes.

He is also not too bothered by the loss of tax revenue that the state is bound to experience if prohibition were to be imposed, dismissing it as not being a large enough amount to affect the economy.

But Serbang may have an uphill task ahead of him considering that even in the remotest of villages where pharmacies and gas stations are rare to come by, liquor stores are ubiquitous. And while there isn’t any data available on alcoholism amongst the populace, there is other related information that indicates that there could really be something to be addressed.

According to data from the National Sample Survey, on an average, each Arunachal citizen spent Rs 127.32 each month from July 2011 to June 2012 on alcohol. The national average for the same period was Rs 20.26. In the 2011-12 financial year, the state’s monthly per capita income was Rs 6,007.58 per month, which means that people spent more than two percent of their income on alcohol. This is not taking into account money spent at bars and on locally-made rice beer, the sale of which is unregulated.

For the financial year 2014-15, the state government earned more than Rs 55 crore as tax from alcohol sales. That revenue however, also went into funding the ambitious Chief Minister’s Universal Health Insurance Scheme that provides health coverage of up to Rs two lakh to residents of the state. However, some argue that if people stop consuming alcohol, healthcare expenses will come down anyway.

 

PERSPECTIVES ON PROHIBITION

While Serbang is optimistic about his mission and has been enthused by people’s willingness to help him in his journey, there are mixed reactions to the idea of introducing total prohibition in the state.

Dr Nani Bath, professor at Rajiv Gandhi University at Doimukh, supports the idea and calls Serbang’s effort “a great idea and initiative”.

The prohibition crusader has also found support from the Adi Bane Kebang (ABK), the top community organisation of one of the largest tribes in the state- the Adis.

Every year during the Christmas and New Year season, the ABK asks liquor store owners in Adi-populated areas to shut shop in an attempt to cut down alcohol-induced crimes.

The ABK’s women wing president, Yalem Taga Burang, says that their campaign against alcohol is driven by the need to eradicate the proverbial ‘social evils’.

“The root cause of all crimes is IMFL,” she declares confidently over the phone.

In most tribal societies of the Northeast such as the Adis, women are held in high regard and enjoy a great amount of freedom than in most patriarchal societies. Not surprising therefore, that the women leading the ABK have tasted much ‘success’ in their campaigns against alcohol.

Since 2013, no new licences for bars or liquor stores have been issued in East Siang district, home to a predominantly Adi populace thanks to the ABK’s campaign. As if that were not enough, the women often conduct unannounced ‘raids’ to apprehend people violating their diktats against drinking alcohol in certain places such as on the banks of the Siang river during after hours.

Buoyed by their success, Burang informs that they now want the three districts of Siang, East Siang and Upper Siang where the Adis are in a majority to be declared as “dry districts” on a “trial basis”.

“We have the memorandum ready and are waiting to meet the chief minister to present our proposal,” she says.

However, not everyone is in agreement that a total ban on alcohol is the right way to go.

Joya Tasung Moyong, one of the founders of Women Against Social Evils, says that prohibition can be counterproductive.

“I fear that prohibition will drive youngsters to drugs and so we must try to control consumption and create awareness about the harms of alcohol instead,” she says seated on a comfy cane couch.

Moyong and her colleagues founded WASE after a falling out with the ABK over ‘several issues’ which included, but not confined to, differences over the style of functioning.

“We were quite aggressive in our approach to ensure alcohol is not sold illegally or to minors,” she says, adding that some of the locals have labelled her new group ‘Gulabi Gang’ after the more famous women activists group from Uttar Pradesh.

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Moyong and her colleagues are also against alcohol abuse but she is unsure if prohibition is the answer.

The way that the WASE works is that they conduct awareness campaigns trying to educate people about the harms alcohol can have. When not raising awareness, the women conduct raids.

Moyong says that they have a network of informants in and around 15 villages and localities around Pasighat town in East Siang district who tip them off if unlicensed stores are selling alcohol or if underage children are seen drinking. It’s highly efficient and they even have their own witness protection system in place.

“We never disclose our informers’ identities, even to each other,” she says.

Enthusiastic as she is (Moyong has collected information of people who have died of liver cirrhosis and alcohol-induced accidents from the area in the recent years), she appears to be a realist as well.

While she admits that rehabilitating alcoholics is a difficult task since alcohol is so freely available, she still says that at the end of the day it is awareness and education that will be their biggest tools.

These recent efforts are however, not part of an entirely new movement. Even before Serbang had begun his crusade, villagers in Karko had already prohibited the sale and consumption of alcohol.

A sign in the village reads ‘Possession/Consumption of Indian Made Foreign Liquor Is Strictly Prohibited at Karko Village’.

Dry village Karko

Booze-free Karko village?

Efforts are also being made of late to keep a check on the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants in twin capital towns of Itanagar and Naharlagun.

Recently the town’s administration had issued a circular directing bar owners to shut shop by 10 PM with a view to curb illegal sale of liquor and to clamp down on alcohol-related crimes.

Tagru Ponung, who owns and operates a bar in the town and is president of the super inclusively named Arunachal Hotel, Resort, Restaurant and Bar Association, says that the rules have to be updated along with the changing times and that trouble-makers usually stay out of bars anyway.

“Those who create law-and-order problems don’t come to bars. Instead, they hang out in under-construction buildings, drinking low quality booze,” he says.

Aside from the economic benefit the state earns from alcohol sales taxes, Ponung hits home another issue when he says that he employs 20 people in his bar.

“What about their livelihood,” he asks.

Although the ABK women’s wing president admits that family incomes will be affected if prohibition is brought into effect, she retorts that “there are other methods to earn a living”.

Pasang Sona, an MLA from the state, says that introducing prohibition will not help the state.

Sona, who was one among the many legislators who had vocally opposed a motion to impose prohibition in the state Assembly in 2013, has not heard of Serbang’s journey but cites Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur as examples of its failure.

Even Bath, who supports Serbang says that “no state is practically a dry state”. Case in point are the states of Nagaland and Manipur where although prohibition is in place, alcohol is freely available.

 

NEIGHBOURHOOD VIEWS

Ramanand Wangkheirakpam from Manipur (where prohibition has been in place since 1991), incidentally was at the same hotel in Tawang in May,  and warns against introducing prohibition.

Drawing from his home state’s experience with the law, Wangkheirakpam says that it has led to adulteration of alcohol which lowers its quality. He also talks about the cultural significance of alcohol stating that “every society has always made its own brew which captures the essence of that society”.

For the record though, Serbang isn’t opposed to locally made brew such as the famous apong, which can be made from rice or millet. His fight is only against IMFL and beer.

Last year, the Mizoram government lifted total prohibition on IMFL and beer after two decades. Now, people above the age of 21 are issued ‘liquor cards’ with which they can purchase six bottles of the oxymoronically termed Indian-Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and ten bottles of wine and beer every month. The liquor cards cost Rs 300 each.

One government official from Mizoram, not wishing to be named, says that total prohibition can never be successful.

He says that alcohol was sourced from outside the state when prohibition was in place but that there were many complaints of people falling ill due to adulteration.

While the churches in Mizoram continue to oppose the lifting of the total prohibition, the people are clearly elated with the decision.

Since total prohibition was lifted, 57 licenses have been issued for liquor stores in the state and 46 are currently in operation. In one year alone, by last count, 80,000 people had been issued liquor cards. Mizoram’s population according to the last Census is a little above ten lakh, meaning that nearly 8 percent of the people have liquor cards.

In Nagaland, where the churches play an important role in people’s lives, prohibition is still in place, at least on paper.

While the Nagaland Liquor Total Prohibition (NLTP) Act that has been in place since 1989 prohibits its sale, alcohol is easily available across the state for a slight premium. In the capital, Kohima, one can see rows of shops where the only products on sale appear to be bottled water which are neatly stacked and lined up on shelves. A little probing can get you anything from a bottle of Johnnie Walker to a can of beer.

Since the church is opposed to lifting the NLTP Act, very few voices come out in opposition to prohibition. That however, is changing.

Daniel Swu from Nagaland says that the law is not relevant anymore since alcohol can be purchased “everywhere”. He also says that the ban is impacting the state exchequer since it cannot tax something that technically isn’t being sold.

A scan of the newspapers from Nagaland also reveals a growing discontentment with the Act and the state government too seems to be honed into these voices as it had considered reviewing the law recently.

The church though, is firm in its position of opposition of any proposals to lift the Act.

Dr Zelhou Keyho, secretary of the Nagaland Baptist Church Council, says that the church “looks forward for a healthy discussion” on the issue but that they are opposed to the idea of lifting the ban.

Keyho says that the Act has failed because it is not implemented properly, even though it is “an excellent act”.

Admitting that the church needs to “do more” to encourage people to adhere to the ban, he says that it is the state government that should implement the Act more stringently.

“Church does not have the power to implement the Act,” he says.

Speaking from the NBCC headquarters in Kohima, the reverend says that “responsible behaviour does not need to be defined by law alone” and that people need to act responsibly themselves.

The church in Nagaland also appears to be adamant in its stance as it is not open to the idea of regulating legal sale of locally-brewed beer, known as zutho and thutse.

“The ban has to be total as evil comes out of zutho as well. We cannot say that only liquor from outside is bad,” he argues and clarifies that even traditionally brewed alcohol should be judged on the merits of its benefit to society.

One of the strongest arguments made by those opposed to the ban, such as Daniel Swu, is that the sale of liquor can bring in revenue for the state government. Currently, bootlegged alcohol is smuggled into Nagaland from neighbouring states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. The church however, takes a moral high ground on this argument, with Keyho stating that there are better ways to earn revenue.

Will the church in Nagaland be open to the idea of partial lifting as was done in Mizoram?

Keyho’s is of the opinion that people of Nagaland are “not ready” for a similar move.

“What is good for Mizoram may not be good for Nagaland and vice versa,” he says. On the other side, Swu questions why Nagaland cannot implement a partial act if Mizoram can.

While in Nagaland this debate has been brewing for almost three decades, in Arunachal it is just starting.

Over the years, as people began converting to Christianity, many claim to have quit alcohol since it is frowned upon by the church.

Tai Ete, an evangelist with the Revival Church here, says that that the churches “do not appreciate alcoholism” and that they instruct congregation members against alcohol consumption whether foreign or home-grown.

While the churches have never publicly sought to ban the sale of alcohol in the state, they also do not permit anyone involved in the sale of liquor to hold any positions in the church administration.

 

FAITH AND ALCOHOL

Ete also claims that 90 percent of the members of the Revival denomination in Arunachal Pradesh are teetotallers and that “perhaps 10 percent are drinking secretly”.

Appreciative of Serbang’s effort, Ete calls it “encouraging” and that “we must work together to help society”.

It isn’t just the Church that discourages alcohol consumption though.

Bengia Augung, president of the Donyi Polo Faith & Cultural Society, an organisation protecting and promoting the indigenous Donyi-Polo faith of five major tribes of the state, also advocates prohibition.

“Alcohol is harmful and it should be phased out,” he says but clarifies that he is referring to IMFL. Since locally-brewed apong and its varieties are an integral part of tribal festivals and rituals, Augung says that its use should be permitted on those days alone.

Although Serbang is a Christian himself, he says he is not driven by any religious motives.

Dismissing any attempt to link his fight with his faith, Serbang says he is a “nominal” Christian (meaning that he is not an active church goer) and that he has “no affinity with any religious organization”.

On that cold night in Tawang, just before he gets up from his chair to return to his shelter for the night, I give in to the temptation of asking him if he has ever taken a swig of alcohol even once in his life.

“Never.”

Versions of this story appeared in The Dawnlit Post and The Citizen.