PoV: Hornbill, Nagaland

 

Held for ten days beginning on December 1 that marks Nagaland’s Statehood Day, the annual Hornbill Festival is an extravaganza that showcases the culture of the 16 tribes that call the state home. While the festival has put the state on the global map, attracting tourists from near and far, the realities of the state marred with crumbling infrastructure and rampant corruption has left many local residents giving the festival a miss. (Photo locations: Kisama, Kohima and Dimapur.)

 

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A view of Kohima town.

 

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Monpa Yak Dance performers from Arunachal Pradesh alongside the Zeliang of Nagaland perform in sync at the Hornbill Festival.

 

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Young Naga men watch cultural performances at the amphitheatre in Kisama Heritage Village, the site of the annual extravaganza.

 

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A man from the Konyak tribe stands guard outside the representational Morung- dormitories traditionally meant for bachelors- at Kisama.

 

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Konyak Naga warriors.

 

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A traditional rice milling apparatus of the Kuki tribe made from wood.

 

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Women of the Pochury Naga tribe from Meluri Village weaving clothes at the Craftscape section of the Hornbill Festival. The cotton processing system is called Akükhie Ngunü Küto.

 

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A photo exhibition providing a glimpse of the contents of ‘The Konyaks- Last of the Tattooed Headhunters’, a book by Phejin Konyak and Peter Bos chronicling the last batch of Konyak Headhunters and women from the community who would tattoo their bodies in the days of yore. A practice that was abandoned after the introduction of Christianity.

 

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The Kohima War Cemetery honours the memory of over 2000 men who laid their lives in the Battle of Kohima, fending off Japanese forces during the Second World War. The Battle of Kohima is often termed as Stalingrad of the East and lasted from 4 April to 22 June 1944 and saw heavy casualties from both sides as Naga tribesmen fought alongside British-Indian forces. Had the battle fallen favourably for the Japanese forces, the global map as we know it, may have looked very different. This, along with the Battle of Imphal fought in Manipur, has been recognised as ‘Britain’s Greatest Battle’ by the British National Army Museum.

 

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Some graves at the Cemetery are unmarked and unnamed but not forgotten. Most died when they were barely into their twenties.

 

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A woman selling hens and roosters beside a street in Nagaland’s capital Kohima. As with most tribal and indigenous societies across India’s Northeast, it is the women who keep the local economy running through their hard work.

 

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While the Hornbill Festival dazzles tourists with colourful cultural displays, signs that not all is glorious with the state of affairs of Nagaland are also visible. Student bodies have been at loggerheads with the state government since last year over delays in disbursement of students’ scholarships. The state government has cited lack of funds as causing the delay and has begun rolling out stipends in instalments.

 

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A poster on a monolith in Kohima reads (written in the lingua franca- Nagamese): Directorate of Higher Education, Students are suffering. Where is our stipend? – Eastern Nagaland College Students’ Union.

 

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Road conditions in the state leave much to be desired and the annual layering work done before Hornbill Festival hasn’t impressed citizens. Many young people call it ‘applying lipstick on the road’.

 

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Apart from the condition of the road, traffic is a perennial problem in Kohima and traffic jams can sometimes last for hours and stretch for more than three kilometres.

 

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Rains had left large stretches of the Dimapur-Kohima road muddy leading to many taxi drivers hiking up rates for passengers or simply refusing to go at all. While the road was reportedly ‘repaired’ just days before the festival began, construction work meant that it was bound to be prone to slush.

 

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Along the Dimapur-Kohima highway are several basic restaurants that serve some of the best food one can find. The menus of some places even list ‘rural meat’- code for game meat that can include anything from wild boar to venison.

 

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As in other states of the Northeast, the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants (whether real or perceived) is seen as a major threat to indigenous communities in Nagaland too. Referred to as Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrants (IBIs), calls for deportation of the alleged illegal immigrants have been gaining momentum of late. However, proving the nationality of those perceived to be illegals is easier said than done and is made more complex by the large population of Bengali-speaking Muslims who work in Nagaland’s commercial hub of Dimapur where citizens from outside the state do not require inner line permits.

 

Growing pains: How the growth of a music fest is fuelling economy and angst

Tam and Yamyang Narang come off as a couple that has been in love since the first time they laid their eyes on each other decades ago. There are no overt displays of affection (as is usually the case with tribal marriages) or any grand verbal declarations of love. But as you sit with them in their kitchen sipping on the rice brew, O, from bamboo mugs as the fire from the hearth burns slowly, warming the cool summer night at their home-stay in Hong village at Ziro in India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, one feels the same kind of love emanating from the wooden walls with which it must have been erected.

Bespectacled and sporting a ‘semi-French beard’, Mr Narang says that he doesn’t remember when exactly they had opened their homes to let strangers in and live with them.

“It was in November 2002,” interjects Mrs Narang as she sits on a moora by the fire preparing rice in a large steel pot for fermentation that would be used to make some more beer.

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My hosts, Tam and Yamyang Narang.

Mr Narang says that the couple hadn’t initially intended to turn their home into a home-stay and that their intention was to spread awareness about cleanliness in the area and promote their Apatani culture.

He says that for the first five years they did not even charge their “clients” and served three meals a day. That has now been reduced to two to allow tourists to take in the sights and they now charge Rs 1000 per night per person.

Mrs Narang says that the first batch of foreigners slept by the fire and that their tour guide was the one who bought quilts for them. The Tam Yamyang Home Stay now has quilts, beds and two rooms to house four people with the additional option of sleeping by the fire in the main house.

She tells me that she’s seen a rise in the number of Indian tourists visiting the valley after the Ziro Festival of Music began a few years back.

Indeed, ever since the festival began, Ziro has shot into most travellers’ checklist globally. At least over three thousand people make the annual pilgrimage to watch independent acts perform even if they have never heard of them ever before and most likely won’t after. But that doesn’t stop the festival faithful from flocking (this writer included), come rain or shine. And while the festival organisers appear to be doing well each year, the most obvious beneficiaries have been those in the hospitality sector.

The hearty hearth

The hearty hearth. There’s a cat there.

Every hotel in the valley has almost full occupancy during the festival week and the increased visibility of Ziro has encouraged entrepreneurs to invest in the sector. New hotels are being built all across the valley, each promising patrons the best view Ziro has to offer.

Over the years, home-stays too have increased significantly as more and more tourists seek out the Apatani way of life wishing to live with, and as, the locals.

There are currently 24 home-stays registered in the valley and more are likely to come up. Each of them offers their own unique experiences but the Narangs’ are probably the most authentic.

Hum loka local style home-stay hain,” Mrs Narang had told me unapologetically when I had arrived in a form of pidgin Hindi used as a language of communication in the state.

The humble home

The humble home.

Unlike many of the newer home-stays that resemble fancy lodges, the Narang home-stay is more rustic, authentic even. But that is not to say that the others are any less good. Some visitors will invariably want certain luxuries like running water and comfortable couches to watch TV from and will prefer the newer options. And those options have grown exponentially over the years, much thanks to the Festival. However, as much as a success Ziro Festival of Music has been, it still has its critics in the Valley.

I was to meet one of those critics who runs one of the newer homes-stay but had to skip as I had to rush back. We did cross paths on the road and exchanged pleasantries but I did not get the opportunity to see his place. I was also told that he is one of the most vocal critics of the Festival and the apparent culture it promotes.

The common (mis)conception surrounding the Festival is that patrons indulge in all nature of nefarious activities ranging from debauchery to narcotics in all forms.

Having visited the festival for the past three editions, that isn’t exactly a misconception. However, anyone familiar with the festival circuit knows that such things do happen. (Not that it makes it right in any manner.)

Even Mr Narang (who has never visited the festival because he is “against these rock acts that have no discipline”) holds the view that there is perhaps too much happening at the festival.

“Arunachal and our youth are in transition and we do have a problem of alcohol and bhaang (opium, but I suspect he meant marijuana),” he says, looking genuinely concerned.

In recent years the organisers have tried to address these issues by putting up signs and making announcements asking patrons to refrain from indulging in drugs. (In all honesty, though, anyone who has ever attended a festival knows that such signs are really a mere formality.) But to maintain a constant vigil in a large open field is no mean task. If drug consumption during the festival is an issue, it will need the co-operation from local residents.

Until then, of course, many more doors of the people are likely to open up once the Festival fever kicks in.

The Ziro Festival of Music will be held this year from September 28 to October 1. Check the official website for information relating to the Fest. ZFM Facebook page.

Remember that even Indian citizens from other states require special permits to enter Arunachal Pradesh. Permits can be applied for online here.

Disclosure: A version of this article was first published in the 2017 Souvenir published on the occasion of Golden Jubilee Dree Festival. The trip was paid for by the Dree Festival Committee.

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.